Overcome or Stay Lost in the Fog 

Photo by Don Pogreba

Can legislators come together to overcome cuts that will imperil Montanans today and far into future generations?

The forecast is foggy.  Legislative leaders Austin Knudsen (R, Culbertson), Greg Hertz (R, Big Fork), Ron Ehli (R, Hamilton), and Fred Thomas (R, Stevensville) call the governor’s efforts to educate Montanans about the cuts facing our state by January 2018 “repugnant.”  They contend the governor should just cut $227 million from Helena, but can’t provide one idea where in Helena.

Repugnant to ask Montanans to become more involved in their government.  Repugnant to worry about what will happen to disabled children who need special attention as toddlers so they can succeed in life.  Repugnant to advocate for disabled and aging citizens who will lose their in-home assistance and end up in much more costly institutional care.  Repugnant to worry about critical care hospitals that will be endangered by state cuts.  Repugnant to be concerned that already overburdened college students will be stung with potential 19% tuition increases to attend college in Montana.  Repugnant for citizens to participate in their democracy.  Really?

Fiscal responsibility is not created by overestimating revenues.  Montana House of Representatives Tax Committee (12 Republicans to 8 Democrats) adopted a revenue estimate that was $100 million higher than the governor’s projection.  The Republican dominated legislature funded programs based on that overly optimistic projection.  In the last days of the legislature, they pushed through Senate Bill 261 which mandated cuts to school, health care and fire funds if revenue came in low.

Montana law states that the governor cannot cut more than 10% from state agencies when the legislature is not in session.  Senate Bill 261 mandated staff and program cuts that when added to the 10% cuts the Republicans want the governor to make without legislative review, total nearly 15%.

The legislature needs to come into a special session to address more than $70 million expended on our devastating fire season and to address the overly optimistic revenue projections adopted by the Republican majority.

Representative Nancy Ballance (R, Hamilton) chaired the Interim Finance Committee last month and the House Appropriation Committee during the 2017 session.  The Interim Finance Committee listened over two days to some of the more than 150 Montanans who came to testify how the cuts would impact their families, communities and businesses.  Representative Ballance along with fellow interim committee member Senator Eric Moore (R, Miles City) have publicly stated short-term tax increases are needed to address potential cuts.

Montanans, let’s thank Republicans who care more about the fate of Montanans than about making the governor look bad no matter how Montanans are impacted.  Democrats are ready to come to the table and listen to the concerns and needs of Montanans.  Let’s insist Republicans like Senator Fred Thomas, who brought Montana term limits (but is the longest serving legislator currently in office) and energy deregulation (which caused the collapse of major Montana employers and deprived many Montanans of their life savings), do their duty and work in a special session to address Montana government’s financial problems and save programs and jobs so critical to Montana.  Insist they abandon their contention that it is repugnant for Montanans to participate in their government.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Sue Malek

Sue Malek is a second term senator in the Montana legislature. She retired after 24 years managing an academic advising office at UM. She served as president of the UM staff union for two years and chair of the Missoula City Government Study Commission for another two years. Public service is a way of life, she says.


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    • Would you flesh that comment out a bit, please, James? It was a mix of party votes with many other Democrats voting for it.

      • In my 2 October post at Flathead Memo, I wrote “The vote looks bipartisan, and by some definitions was, but in the MT Senate, Democrats had the option to kill the bill, which had only 25 Republican supporters. Twelve Democrats came to Jones’ rescue.” http://www.flatheadmemo.com/archives_2017/october_2017/2017-10-02_gov_cuts.html

        At that post, there’s a link to my spreadsheet that breaks down the vote by yeas and nays, legislative chamber and political party.

        If Malek and the rest of the Democrats in the MT Senate had stuck together, they could have killed SB-261. Instead, they kept it alive. Why? They’ve got some explaining to do.

        Bullock could have asked the senate’s Democrats to kill SB-261. He didn’t. He could have vetoed SB-261. He didn’t (the veto would have been upheld). He could have vetoed the budget bill, knowing it was based on risible revenue projections. His veto would have been upheld. Instead, he signed the bill.

        Now Montana is in a terrible predicament, and in that predicament partly because Democratic legislators voted Aye when they should have voted Nay, and because the governor smiled sweetly and signed the bill and the budget when he should have borrowed Schweitzer’s branding iron and issued smoking hot vetoes.

        • Not being a fly on the wall, James, during the Montana Senate’s caucus meetings, I can’t be sure what transpired. Perhaps it was just bad coordination and vote management, but some of the smartest people and those I respect the most in that chamber — Dick Barrett, JP Pomnichowski, Mike Phillips, for example — voted for it. There must have been some sort of game plan.

          Oh, and Greg, thanks for another of your keen observations on the inner workings of the Democratic Party hierarchy of which you are so familiar.

        • James,

          Your criticism of Democratic votes is fair. Many of us are vowing we will never trust recommendations on budget votes again without detailed review.

          Remember that more than 1000 bills are heard during the 90 days we are in session every other year and because of term limits, many of our members have participated only once or twice in a legislative session. We are advised to listen to advice from fellow Democrats who serve on the committees that heard the bills.

          The last days of each session are high drama, everyone is exhausted, and this is when the budget is brought to the floor. Meanwhile Democrats are talking about programs for Montanans and Republicans are throwing out bills to cut the food stamp programs and ban all abortions.

          Finance Committee members are negotiating with intransigent opponents and are striking the best deal they believe they can get. I trusted their judgement. I should have dug in my heels. I would have rather spent the summer arguing about the budget than leave us in this devastating situation.

          My advise now is to focus on the present situation and don’t worry about woulda, shoulda, coulda. You know who your friends and opponents are.
          Help us influence the legislators whose votes we need to minimize the damage which will be severe even if Democrats are successful passing the compromises recommended by the governor.

          Little more background, if you care to read it:

          Republicans were planning for the Trump Effect (tax reform luring capital gains/stock market investors to delay declaring income until their hoped-for tax breaks pass). I think some of them honestly believed and still believe tax receipts will recover, although research by the governor’s budget office indicates that probably won’t happen.

          Why Montana’s tax receipts don’t track with improvements in Montana’s economy is a question that we will study in the months ahead. As Nancy Balance and Eric Moore have said, permanent tax reform may be needed in Montana. The problem will be ultra-conservative Republicans like those I named previously, want no taxes and minimal government.

          We might call them “Americans for Potholes” or “Americans for Poverty.”
          The Koch Brothers’ organization Americans for Prosperity has already started sending out fliers for these legislators. They call them “Montanans for Freedom.”

  • I do believe all of us democrats in House Tax voted NO on the GOP pie-in-the-sky-high revenue estimate. In addition, many of us voted NO on SB 261. Thank you. Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-HD 84, Helena/East Helena.

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