Sacred cows making the best tasting hamburger, or so the saying goes.
That phrase is often invoked when discussing religion or politics. Again, it's proving to be true as Montana faces a looming budget crisis in which hundreds of millions must be slashed from the budget, risking jobs, services to the disabled and even public safety.
Because of falling revenues and less-than-expected projections, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock asked state agencies to detail an additional 10 percent cut in addition to the 5 percent that was recently enacted. The Montana Constitution allows Bullock to make decisions about which services and parts of government to trim. He could, of course, always call the Legislature back to Helena for a special session.
A 10 percent cut on top of the 5 percent means that approximately one out of every seven dollars in the state's budget must be trimmed. For a state with so many fixed costs, that's an aggressive plan.
Before the proposed agency cuts were submitted and made public, one Republican lawmaker quipped that state agency leaders would probably propose cuts to either popular or necessary programs as a bureaucratic ploy to spare departments from cuts.
Yet, with a huge budget hole, it's probably not all gamesmanship when it comes to cutting popular or necessary services.
Let's take a look at several of the items on the chopping block:
- Reducing services to children in foster care.
- Cut Medicaid rates for the elderly and disabled.
- Cutting funding to programs that help with infants with disabilities.
- Cutbacks to Montana State Prison guards, including opening the state up to risk expensive lawsuits.
- Cuts to funding at the State Hospital, which almost lost its federal funding because of unsafe conditions.
- Closing the satellite crime lab in Billings.
- Cutting staff that would collect funding for the state's Department of Revenue.
We don't like any of these. And, these are only part of the cuts being considered. It would certainly seem that many of these items are meant to tug at the citizens' heartstrings; after all, who wants to kick seniors to curb? And who believes children in foster care will fare any better because of less money?
Even though some of these items would seem to be calculated to cause outrage, the budget challenge is indeed very real. Eighty-five percent of the budget is devoted to the Department of Health and Human Services. That coupled with a state that underbudgeted for wildfires, has meant plenty of tough financial decisions are coming up.
However, targeting the elderly, those who are disabled, and kids in foster care are clearly picking on those who cannot fight back. They are ones who are least likely to stand up against an attempt to ransack the program in the name of a balanced budget. It's not only unnecessary, it's wrong.
Closing the crime lab in Billings, after it took years to get established, means that criminal cases will not get processed as quickly, and prosecutors may see cases evaporate because of delays.
We're concerned that cuts to the Department of Corrections may mean that prisoners leave before their sentence is completed. Moreover, with fewer resources to help prisoners rehabilitate, it will likely mean felons will re-offend by victimizing other law-abiding citizens.
Budget cuts also mean safety concerns as too few guards will be left at the crowded facilities. DOC leaders believe overcrowding and dangerous conditions at the prisons could lead to lawsuits.
While Bullock may ultimately decide to make these painful budget decisions on his own -- and that's his right -- we believe a significant amount of blame should also fall on the shoulders of the Republican leadership in the Legislature, which decided to use hopeful revenue numbers not tethered to reality. There was a certainly optimistic sense that President Donald J. Trump would bringing the economy, including extraction industries like oil and coal, roaring back to life and the state coffers would be filled. That hasn't exactly happened.
Now, we're left with a budget mess.
We cannot think of any other way to solve this budget problem than by more cuts. However, we don't believe the responsible thing is to simply cut and cut some more. As another old phrase says, "You can't cut your way to prosperity."
Keep in mind that Montana has already slashed five percent of its budget.
We believe lawmakers must also be willing to give on the issue of taxation, whether that's in the form of a sales tax, property tax or income tax, some of the gap must be made up by revenue. That would take bringing the Legislature back into session, a risky proposition because it could result in nothing more than partisan blame and grandstanding.
While it would be irresponsible to raise taxes enough to cover the entire shortfall, it's equally dubious to expect Bullock will only cut, cut, cut. Both tools must be used in addressing this very serious financial situation.