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First Day Of State Budget Hearing Brings Protests

Some of the protesters at the state capitol Wednesday
Corin Cates Carney
Some of the protesters at the state capitol Wednesday

State lawmakers started taking up the challenge of Montana's $282 million budget shortfall in the first of two days of hearings in Helena today.

Governor Steve Bullock sent the Legislative Finance Committee a long list of proposed cuts to state agencies. His budget director, Dan Villa, says state law gives the governor authority cut up to 10 percent from most state agencies towards achieving the legally-mandated balanced budget.

"That is all that is allowed of the executive," Villa said. "But they are horrendous options. They are awful."

Villa then alluded to the Democratic governor's informal request that Republican lawmakers join him in calling for a special legislative session.

"There is a better way out, and it will be up to this committee as well as the governor's office to figure that out," he said.

Governor Bullock has advocated for raising taxes to help balance the budget. Republican lawmakers generally oppose that and have called for reducing the size of government.

There were hours of public testimony about the $228 million in proposed state budget cuts Governor Steve Bullock is proposing.

The budget that state lawmakers passed and that Governor Bullock signed this spring was based on revenue projections that proved far more optimistic than what's actually come in to state coffers. And the state has spent $68 million fighting fires this year.

"There is no way to cut 10 percent of General Fund expenditures without there being pain and legal issues. Department of Corrections and Department of Public Health in particular," Villa said.

A long line of people with disabilities and their care providers crowded the state capitol this afternoon, each waiting their turn to protest budget cuts proposed to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Prior to testifying, many joined a rally inside the capitol building, chanting, “Courage, not cuts!" 

The health department would see the largest slice of Bullock’s proposal to balance the more than $200 million hole in the state budget.

The cuts would eliminate early intervention programs for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities, reduce dental care for people on Medicaid, remove personal assistant services for people with disabilities and, along with other reductions to health services, cut state spending on healthcare by over $100 million.

Bonnie Kelly from Missoula was among those testifying.

“Gouging in personal assistant services would affect every aspect of my life," Kelly said. "I would not be able to get in and out bed. I would not be able to take a shower. I would not be able to go to the toilet. I would not be able to go to my job. This is how these cuts would affect my daily life. It’s time for the governor and the legislature, all of you guys, to come together for a special session and come up with a balanced budget that works for all Montanans. A budget that is not solely based on cuts.”

Members of the conservative majority in both chambers have said the government needs to live within its means in times of budget woes.

Lawmakers were expected give their recommendations to the governor’s office for how to respond to the state budget shortfall before the end of the day Thursday.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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