Montana Democratic Leader Talks State Budget Cuts
Now that Montana is a few months removed from a special legislative session called by Governor Bullock to balance the state budget, Montana Public Radio is checking in with Democratic and Republican legislative leaders to get their thoughts on what’s happened since they left Helena.
Party leaders on both sides of the aisle have blamed each other for some of the results of cuts in state spending made amid the more than $200 million budget shortfall. The greatest public outcry is coming over the more than $49 million cut from the state's health department.
Last week we aired a conversation about the budget with Representative Nancy Ballance, a Hamilton Republican and legislative finance leader. Today, we’re hearing from Representative Jenny Eck, a Helena Democrat.
Corin Cates-Carney: Jenny Eck, thanks for coming by Montana Public Radio.
Jenny Eck: Thank you, thanks for having me.
CCC: There’s been some debate back and forth recently between Democrat and Republican leaders about who’s at fault for some of the impacts of the budget cuts, mainly in the health department we’re hearing those concerns, and that was funding to services for people with mental and physical disabilities. Is this just political finger-pointing or is there some substance here?
JE: Budgets are about choices, you know if you want to look at someone's priorities, look at their checkbook. If you want to look at a state's priorities, look at the state's budget. One of my frustrations is I think that there's a lot of pressure on the Republican side not to ever vote for revenue and so, they've been touting that, 'well, we passed a budget without voting for revenue,' but that's actually not accurate. As a result of these cuts, property taxes are going up around the state of Montana.
A more balanced approach would be to be looking at, we have a fantastic tourist industry in this state. We have the opportunity to be taxing out-of-staters, which would have largely been borne by tourists in the state and would have helped offset some of these cuts, and it was rejected, out of hand, by the Republicans. It's misleading to say that they haven't supported revenue, they have, they just haven't had to take the votes for it, they've just put it on the local property taxpayers. Which to me, are the people who just keep getting hit over and over and over again, our working families across the state.
CCC: Recently I spoke to Republican Representative Nancy Ballance who had a hand in some of the budget crafting in the special session and the regular session and discussed briefly, some of the philosophical divide between the parties and how their look on the situation determines what resulted because, I mean, you said you had the more responsible approach for balancing the budget, they said they did that too and so, one of the questions I asked her and I want to ask you is, to what extent should the government pay for and guarantee services to its citizens?
JE: And I think that is an interesting question. It's one that we're always grappling with, but when you look at the impacts of these cuts around the state, I think it helps provide an answer. For example, we know that a child with autism, if we can intervene early with autism therapy with that child, the whole trajectory of their life changes. It goes from being completely dependent on caretakers, potentially being put in a group home, to potentially being able to eventually live independently and work independently. Would we rather have folks who are completely dependent on the system their entire lives when we could actually intervene early and make sure that they're productive members and happy members of society? The answer seems pretty obvious to me. Government can't fix everything, it shouldn't fix everything, it shouldn't try to fix everything, but there are areas that really make sense for us as communities to come together and make sure that we are operating as healthy functioning communities and there's a role for government in that.
CCC: What would you say to some of the Republican arguments that when services can be provided in the private sector, that is usually a better way to do it?
JE: My question is, who's going to pay for that still? I mean ... we can say that in the abstract, but still, where is that money coming from? We have seen, certainly with folks who are very high needs, there are no private entities who will accept those clients. Their needs are too high and too intensive for private groups to accommodate their needs, and so there's a balanced approach and I think for folks who are experts in the field of developmental disabilities and mental health and community services, they'll tell you, you know, we need both, it's not an either or, it's both.
CCC: How would you describe your party's relationship with their counterpart in the Legislature, the Republican majority?
JE: There's a lot of frustration right now, you know, I think we'd hoped going into this last special session we put forward a balanced proposal that would've have offset and mitigated the worst of these cuts. I will continue to look forward and will continue to look for opportunities to work together, to get good things done for this state. I think it's what the people want of us, it's what they expect of us. But I'm also hopeful that we'll pick up some more seats in this election cycle so that we have more power at the negotiating table because that will make a big difference for the people of this state.
CCC: The latest revenue estimates from legislative analysts say revenue is coming in higher than was projected when the special session was called. What does that maybe mean now for some of the cuts that were made?
JE: Well unfortunately, the way that the cuts were passed during the session, Republicans just decided to put the cuts into statute and make them permanent. Democrats had been advocating, let's make them temporary, and if revenue comes in better than expected, then we can go back and alleviate some of those cuts and offset some of those cuts, and they decided to go a different route, they decided to make the cuts permanent, which means that even if revenue comes in better than had been anticipated, we can't go back and reverse course, and that is truly unfortunate. A good portion of those cuts were made to Health and Human Services. The impact is significant to children, to people with disabilities, to the elderly around the state.
CCC: So is there no way to change these cuts ahead of the next regular session?
JE: Not short of a special session, no. Now that it's in statute, the only way to change it would be for the legislature to reconvene and to change it. And I, at this point, don't anticipate that happening.
CCC: Earlier you said these weren't the governor's cuts ahead of the special session. He did propose them and then Republicans did codify them and put them in statute and law, but the initial proposal of where their being cut did come from the governor.
JE: Yeah, the governor was looking at Health and Human Services, Department of Corrections and Education, which are what make up the general fund, and so really, under the law, those are the only places where he could look to cut. He was asked by the Republicans to announce where he would cut, he came up with a list of those cuts and those cuts were adopted and codified by the Republican majority. At the end of the day, the law was passed by the legislature, that's who makes the law, that's who passes a budget, and I think we just have to be honest about that.
CCC: So how do you think Governor Bullock's administration is handling what was handed to him by the legislature?
JE: I mean he's fulfilling his obligation under the law and I don't think it's been an easy process. It's been extremely painful for state workers here and their families and people who rely on state services as you know. Folks who rely on disability services and children with disabilities, the elderly. I mean it's hitting communities across the state hard and it's certainly something that none of us wanted to see.
CCC: As were seeing the administration roll out some of the cuts, do you see the process of that being transparent enough?
JE: You know, I've had lots of conversations with legislators who have felt somewhat frustrated and I think there's efforts on both sides to try and have more information available. I certainly think that that's something that is important for the public to understand, you know, how the process works, and I think there's efforts to improve on that going forward. My goal going forward is to make sure that we are putting working families, regular Montanans first and foremost in decisions that we make. There's ways that we can do things that ask all folks to pay their fair share. We have proposals looking forward that would shift that burden off of working folks where they belong - on the people who should be paying for those costs, which includes massive out-of-state corporations, it includes ultra-wealthy, it includes tourists who come through and use all of our amenities. There's ways that we can be smarter about our budget that will serve the people of this state and will protect working families from seeing increases in their property taxes, and that should be our focus going forward. So certainly that's my focus as we think about how we go into next session.
CCC: Jenny Eck is the House Minority leader from Helena.