The State of Montana is facing $40 million in cuts to the corrections budget. This includes $16 million from “secure” facilities (Montana State Prison and Montana Women’s Prison) and $14 million from community supervision (probation and parole). If you are concerned that $40 million dollars in corrections cuts sounds draconian, you are correct! These cuts represent grave risks for our communities and public safety. They are further compounded by a growing methamphetamine crisis in the state, and already overburdened county jails.
These cuts are unavoidable, unless Montana lawmakers can reconvene in Helena to work out solutions. How did we get here?
Montana’s constitution requires a balanced budget. The state cannot spend money it does not have. Since the Legislature meets only 90 days, every two years, lawmakers make an educated guess at what revenues will be coming into state coffers, and then build the upcoming two-year budget on that number. If the Legislature gets the revenue wrong, laws are in place that require the governor to make cuts in the spending side of the budget so that the state checkbook does not dip into red ink. It is now clear that the Montana Legislature left town with a budget deeply out of balance. The unprecedented costs of 2017 wild land fires only exacerbated an already fiscally untenable budget.
In addition, equally massive cuts are pending in education (borne mostly by higher ed) and human services, which, in addition to health care, includes elderly in nursing homes, group homes for persons with developmental disabilities, at-risk babies, children in the foster care system and other vital services. The cuts in education and human services are also genuinely devastating. They will hit families with students in college with thousands of dollars in tuition hikes. Families with developmental disabled children or adult members or seniors requiring special assistance will be faced with impossible, potentially life-threatening situations.
Montana lawmakers worked with Department of Corrections officials, the Judicial Branch and law enforcement community over the last two years to redirect resources to bend the curve on very expensive growing incarceration, while at the same time reducing felonies and misdemeanors by investing up front in evidenced-based practices in community supervision, mental health and addiction treatment services.
Ironically, the proposed budget cuts decimate those critical cost-saving upfront investments, which can only result in higher crime rates, growing jail and prison populations, and ballooning costs in coming years. This will also guarantee that we’ll be building and staffing another prison.
There is a path out of this dangerous budget crisis if lawmakers return to Helena ready to work together in a bipartisan, mature, statesmanlike way to mitigate the damage, at least in part, by seeking to raise revenues as painlessly as possible. Fortunately, we saw proposals early in the session in the balanced budget from the governor that would help accomplish this.
For example, a little over a decade ago Montana gave a tax cut to individuals who earn over $500,000 a year. Restoring that rate would help us reduce or eliminate many of the proposed cuts. In addition, the Montana Senate passed a cigarette tax increase dedicated to critical health and human service needs. When the bill arrived in the House, Republican leaders scuttled it feeling that there was plenty of revenue to cover ongoing services. They were wrong. Just these two items — a small bump in the top bracket income tax and the cigarette tax — would alleviate much of the anticipated shortfall.
It will take bipartisan effort from lawmakers, in partnership with the governor, and in close communication with our constituents, our local governments, our community care givers, and our educators to prevent the disastrous outcomes of the mandated budget cuts.