The current Republican majority in the state Legislature has been proud in following its idea of no new or increased taxes. And they have expressed initial satisfaction in “cutting fat” from various department budgets while “retaining indispensable state services.”
The Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) is one agency especially targeted for the Republican budget treatment, as it is the largest agency in the state government. By defunding over 100 DPHHS positions, which have remained vacant for more than a year, the Republican majority has said that they are just being fiscally prudent.
However, this is not the whole story.
It is true the majority has not cut DPHHS services outright. But they continue to underfund them so that they are beginning to fail. For example, in mental health and addiction services, even before the cuts of 2016, clients sometimes had to wait for months to get needed services, the caregivers commonly are paid at a wage rate less than many convenience store clerks, and the provider agencies are sometimes providing services to clients without compensation.
All these problems are primarily due to a lack of funding over many years by the Legislature. And this is threatening the very survival of many provider agencies.
Despite continued pleas for more funding from all sectors of public health and social services, the Legislative majority continues to act as if these problems will just go away. In fact, as the opioid and suicide epidemics grow, as the number of people with disabilities grow, and as the number of economically vulnerable Montanans continues to grow, the need for these services is also growing.
Fortunately, there is an avenue of action to alleviate this crisis: repeal all or part of the massive tax breaks given the wealthy by the 2003 Legislature.
During that session the Republican majority saw fit to “flattening” the individual income tax, which hugely benefitted the wealthy and decreased tax revenue to Montana by about $100 million a year. They also saw fit to raise the capital gains tax credit, thereby giving the wealthy another $50 million a year tax break. $150 million a year could resolve the social services budget crisis.
House Bill 697, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hamilton of Bozeman, is one such effort to fix this crisis. It raises taxes on the wealthy by adding in new individual income tax brackets and eliminates the capital gains tax credit. At the same time, HB 697 affords tax cuts for 70 percent of Montanans and makes the income tax system fairer and simpler.
Please contact your legislator to support HB 697.
Montana Public Health and Social Services Coalition