Don't wait for Legislature to restore programs for Montana's disabled, advocates urge

Great Falls Tribune  - February 26, 2018

A disability rights group and several parents and advocates of developmentally disabled children called Monday on Gov. Steve Bullock to restore program cuts in August, when financial figures are released, to vital services for people with disabilities rather than wait for the 2019 legislative session.

“We need a commitment from the executive that this will be done and as many of these cuts will be reversed as possible when they receive that revenue figure in August 2018,” the group said.

They said Senate Bill 9, passed in the November special session, allows funding mechanisms if certain circumstances are met, such as revenues reaching certain projections and money received through contract negotiations between the state and a private prison contractor.

They also note the Feb. 7 revenue report by the Legislative Fiscal Division was better than that by the governor's office.

Bullock’s budget director said the request could not be granted as the governor did not have the ability to adjust appropriations and added the group based its request on figures provided by the Legislative Fiscal Division, which he said did not paint the entire picture.

“The people reading that document are making incorrect assumptions,” Budget Director Dan Villas said, adding the Feb. 7 update reflected recent changes to federal tax filings and had $67 million in legislatively authorized transfers.

“The cash just isn’t there, that’s the fundamental problem,” he said.

The state made cuts to the budget to overcome a $227 million budget shortfall.  A special session was called in November in which lawmakers passed Senate Bill 9, which allows the governor to return $30 million to the Department of Public Health and Human Services if revenues meet certain projections.

It also allows the governor to negotiate to renew the contract with the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby, which expires in 2019, and make $32 million available to go to “Montana's most vulnerable,” Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, noted Monday.

DPHHS had a $49 million cut to its general fund from the November legislative special session to address revenue shortfalls and to pay for a costly fire season.

The Montana Budget and Policy Center said earlier this month that DPHHS will have nearly $95 million in general fund cuts over the biennium,

People at the news conference said programs offered by DPHHS have been devastated by the cuts.

“It will take years and years to recover from this particular decision,” said Beth Brenneman, staff attorney with Disability Rights Montana.

She said Senate Bill 9 gives the governor the ability to restore funds before the legislative session starts in January.

The Feb. 7 monthly update by the Legislative Fiscal Division for the Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee listed general fund revenues through the end of January at $195.4 million, or 15.3 percent greater than 2017. It is also above the House Joint 2 resolution growth of 13.7 percent.

Justine Kougl of Bighorn County said the budget reductions have been a devastating blow.

“It is serious. It is affecting our Montana families whether the state wants to admit it or not,” she said.

Her daughter Quinn has Treacher Collins Syndrome which affects the development of bones and other tissues of the face. She breathes through a tube, is deaf and has had five major surgeries.

Kougl said what people don’t realize is that by providing services and helping people is the way to trim fat.

Vicki La Fond-Smith spoke of her sons Christopher and Matthew, who are developmentally disabled.

“I ask the governor, all of the legislators and all Montana decision makers who can make a difference here today not to lose sight of our history, our commitment to taking care of all people with disabilities and how far we have come to the high-quality services that we are proud of in Montana and that we can save and still provide,” she said.

Montana Budget & Policy Center

Shaping policy for a stronger Montana.

MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.