In the recent special session, Gov. Steve Bullock and Democratic legislators fought successfully to protect $124 million in essential health and community services that mean life or death for many Montana families.

The stakes were high: If Bullock hadn’t called us back to Helena, we would have seen a steep hike in college tuition, devastating cuts to rural hospitals and the loss of essential services for elderly and disabled Montanans. The pain from these cuts would have been felt all across the state.

While I am relieved that we managed to avert catastrophe, the people of Montana need to understand the truth about what just happened and what we’re going to face in the future if we continue down this road.

For starters, the Republican majority demanded up front that Bullock cut at least $76 million in essential services before they would even come to the negotiating table to work with Democrats on a solution. These are the same Republicans who overestimated revenue by $97 million dollars during the 2017 Legislative session, contributing to this budget shortfall in the first place.

Out of these cuts, about $50 million are to the Department of Health and Human Services. Every dollar we cut in state money triggers a loss of matching federal funds, causing our state to lose more than $110 million in essential human services.

In a bizarre twist, Republicans chose to make these cuts permanent. They didn’t have to, but they chose to do it anyway. So even if our budget improves before the 2019 Legislative session, these eliminated health services cannot immediately be restored by the governor.

But these cuts were just the beginning.

What became clear was that for the Republicans, the special session meant open season. We saw a series of bills which used the state’s $227 million budget shortfall as a political opportunity to push unrelated and extreme policies.

One of the more egregious examples of this was the cynical effort to use Montana’s budget shortfall as a way to force the governor to prematurely renew a contract with a private, for-profit prison in Shelby. This prison is run by CoreCivic, a multi-billion dollar Tennessee company which gets $15 million a year from their contract with Montana.

This contract is up for review in 2019, when the Legislature is back in session. But in the face of mounting complaints about human rights abuses and safety concerns, CoreCivic worked with Republican legislators from the Shelby area to beat the clock and force us into a new contract right away. You see, CoreCivic has an escrow account with $30 million of Montana taxpayer money in it. If we choose not to renew the contract in 2019, we can access that account to buy back the prison with a goal toward better management and reducing recidivism.

So Republican legislators intentionally left a $30 million gap in the budget and created a legal loophole which allows the Core Civic contract to be renewed immediately. This puts the governor — and the State of Montana — in a terrible negotiating position, because if Bullock doesn’t agree, he will have to consider cutting another $30 million dollars in essential services to the elderly, disabled and most vulnerable in Montana.

Yes, you read that right. That’s $30 million of your taxpayer dollars being held hostage to give an out-of-state company a lucrative contract with the state.

It doesn’t have to be this way. During the last session, Democrats, along with Bullock, proposed fair and reasonable ways to balance our budget by asking millionaires to pay their fair share, stopping out-of-state corporations from hiding their money offshore, and making people who earn more than a million dollars from investments pay the same tax rate as everyone else. If that budget had passed, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

This budget shortfall didn’t happen in a vacuum. Republicans have chosen to protect giveaways to out-of-state corporations and multimillionaires on the backs of Montana’s working families. These kinds of policies force Montanans to pay more in property and local taxes, as well as higher out-of-pocket costs for in-state tuition, medical care, and services for our aging population.

It’s time to change course.

As Montanans, we can’t afford to absorb any more of these hits to our communities, to our families, or to our livelihoods.

I can promise you that Democrats will continue to fight for solutions that put hardworking Montana families first. We are eager to work with anyone who is willing to do the same. Together, we can change course.

Eck is the House Minority Leader of the Montana Legislature. She represents House District 79 in Helena.

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