Budget cut battle
April 13 - The legislative majority continues to play shell games with the budget. Here's where things stand today:
The state's budget, HB 2, failed to be passed on the House floor last week by a vote of 0-100 with some opposing the bill because it didn't fund the essential services, education, and health care that our communities need. However, some members of the House opposed the bill because they thought that more should be cut!
HB 2 then went to what is called a "free conference committee" which is made up of three representatives and three senators, consisting of four Republicans and two Democrats. This committee is charged with coming up with a compromise state budget bill.
The conference committee completed its work with Republicans holding their ground and refusing to reverse cuts.
Where HB 2 stands right now:
• State pay plan, HB 13 - still not funded, still stranded in committee where the legislative majority continues to ignore it.
• Public safety (Dept. of Corrections) -- $18 million cut. Public safety threatened.
• Education - $30 million has been cut from higher education, and funding for K-12 is still uncertain.
• Healthy MT Kids - $26 million has been cut, including presumptive eligibility for families not-yet enrolled, but likely eligible
• Safety Net Programs - $44 million in federal money for foodstamps and low-income energy assistance (LIEAP) has been turned away. (Many of the same legislators who said "no" to this federal money have said "yes" to their own federal farm subsidies for decades. Read more about this hypocrisy.)
Turning back the federal money, as a Great Fall Tribune editorial noted, is cruel and futile. Read the whole editorial below:
Refusing federal funds punishes Montanans to no purpose
Great Falls Tribune Editorial – April 6, 2011
Last week we wrote about the moving target of medicinal marijuana proposals in the Montana Legislature. This week we offer some observations regarding another moving target: the state budget.
A conference committee — representatives from both houses of the Legislature — was meeting Tuesday and probably will meet most of the rest of this week to try to work out differences between the version of House Bill 2 passed by the House and the version passed by the Senate.
HB2 is the main, general appropriation measure that funds state government for the next couple of years. Before it headed to conference Tuesday, it already had been subjected to more than 300 legislative actions, most of them amendments offered by Democrats and voted down by Republicans.
The measure also was the subject of Gov. Brian Schweitzer's statements on Monday to the effect that he'll be firing up his "veto" branding irons if significant changes aren't made in the GOP's budget approach.
Without getting too specific about many spending components in the bill that aren't shaping up to be sufficient, we will get specific about something contained in the Republicans' approach that makes no sense whatsoever: refusing federal money intended for state and local programs, including many designed to give support to Montanans in need.
We weren't the first and we won't be the last to point out the cruelty and futility of this move, no matter what purpose the backers attach to it.
It's cruel because it is putting the squeeze on people who can least afford it — often people such as kids or the elderly who cannot represent their own interests in the Legislature.
It's futile — and frankly hypocritical — because the avowed purpose of refusing the funding is to cut spending and crack down on entitlement programs.
As has been pointed out many times in debates, in this space and Monday by the governor, turning down the money saves nothing, because by the time the money gets here for programs like these, it already has been appropriated at the federal level.
What is turned away here will simply go to such programs in other states. In effect, then, we're punishing Montanans so that, say, California can do more for its residents.
We would invite Republicans who've advocated these cuts to explain to us — and to Montana in general — what possible good they do.
See related story - http://helenair.com/news/article_4e7b4870-5f50-11e0-b9fd-001cc4c03286.html
Mar. 27 - The two news stories below outline the budget situation as it stands Mar. 27 in the 2011 legislature. Rs and Ds are simply NOT on the same page.
Unless they make some sort of deal soon, a gubernatorial veto and a special session are sure to follow. MEA-MFT members have direct personal and professional interests in every budget issue.
State budget differences looming
Human services, education spending main pressure points
By MIKE DENNISON
Gazette State Bureau - March 27, 2011
HELENA — Don’t expect many changes Monday when the Senate debates the $3.6 billion budget crafted by the Legislature’s Republican majorities — but if lawmakers expect to get out of Helena by session’s end, they have some big differences to reconcile with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
In their quest to ratchet down government spending, Republicans have sliced millions in state and federal dollars for human service programs, including funds for food stamps, home-heating assistance, family planning, anti-tobacco programs and personal care assistants for the disabled.
They’ve also hacked money from the state University System’s budget, creating a
multimillion-dollar gulf between their goals and the desires of Schweitzer and his fellow Democrats.
“Draconian cuts to the health and human services budget,” said Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, when asked what Democrats object to in the Republican budget proposal. “And unacceptable cuts to education.”
Yet Republicans, who control a 68-32 majority in the House and a 28-22 edge in the Senate, aren’t in the mood to bargain up the spending.
“As we sit here today, I’m going to say, ‘Not much,’” said Rep. Walt McNutt, R-Sidney, when asked if House Republicans have some give on spending in the current budget proposal.
So, what exactly are they fighting over?
Perhaps the biggest differences are over human service spending, and, in particular, federal funding that Republicans want to turn away.
Rejecting these funds doesn’t affect state taxes or the state treasury, or, in some cases, the federal treasury. Federal funds or funding authority that Republicans want to reject include $35 million to update electronic health records at clinics, hospitals and other health providers across the state, $35 million in food stamps, nearly $5 million for family planning clinics, $10 million in home-heating assistance, and $20-plus million for Healthy Montana Kids, the state program that provides health insurance for kids in low- and moderate-income families.
McNutt said that refusing some of these funds doesn’t actually cut services, but merely turns back money that won’t be needed or could be cut by Congress in the future. The Healthy Montana Kids money also won’t be needed unless enrollment in the program increases dramatically — and so far, it hasn’t been.
But Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the cuts make no sense and could end up shorting Montana’s poorest people on needed assistance.
“How do you not take the federal funds?” she said. “If I thought it would go to reduce the federal deficit, maybe that would be OK, but we know that’s not true. And who pays? The poorest people in Montana. ... No other department but ours is being asked to return federal funds.”
Human service and education spending aren’t the only flash points, however.
The state Corrections Department is down $18 million from its requested budget. Republicans have proposed an increase of less than 1 percent in state funds for corrections while the population of offenders under its control is projected to increase about 4 percent.
Corrections Director Mike Ferriter said that if his budget doesn’t change, it’s likely the agency will be asking the 2013 Legislature to approve cost overruns.
“We’re not looking for massive expansion of our system; we’re managing our growth,” he said. “I tell (legislators), just read the newspapers all across the state, and read about difficult crimes — they’re coming our direction.”
Republicans also have rejected any pay increase for state employees, who’ve been under a virtual pay freeze since 2008. Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the state’s largest public sector union, said he believes Schweitzer simply won’t let lawmakers leave town until they give state workers some type of raise over the next two years.
Republican leaders have been talking about sending Schweitzer the budget quickly and then recessing the session, expecting him to veto the budget and then waiting things out while they seek common ground on the issue. Then, they’d return to finish the session’s work.
House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said he doesn’t see the logic in such a move, because the two sides will have to come together somehow, recess or not.
“Ultimately, you have to negotiate,” he said. “You’re not going to come back and have it all figured out for you. Let’s see if we can achieve the principles that we all want to bring to the table and pass a budget we can live with for the next two years.”
Details on pressure points in the state budget
Gazette State Bureau | March 27, 2011
HELENA — As the 2011 Legislature enters its final month, majority Republicans and
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer are worlds apart on many key items in the state budget for the next two years.
Below is a look at the major pressure points and highlights in the budget, as approved by the Senate Finance and Claims Committee last week. All figures are for the two-year period starting June 1.
University System: Lawmakers have approved state-level funding for the system, at $399 million, that is 7.5 percent, or $32 million, lower than its budget for the current two-year period. Schweitzer is insisting that colleges get the same level in 2012-13 that they get now, to avoid hefty tuition increases for students.
Public schools: State funding for K-12 schools currently stands at a 3 percent, $45 million increase over two years in the main budget bill, but may be reduced by $12 million to match up with a school-funding measure still in the Senate. [March 30 update: If the legislature adjourns today, K-12 schools will be down $100 million. That includes direct cuts plus money that is in limbo due to legislative inaction.]
State workers pay: Republicans have killed the bill that would give state workers a 1 percent raise in January 2012 and a 3 percent raise in January 2013, at a cost of $21 million. If no pay bill is approved, state workers' pay and health benefits would be frozen.
Corrections: The Legislature has reduced the Corrections Department's requested budget by $18 million, giving the agency an increase over current spending of less than 1 percent. The agency projects growth of inmates and offenders on parole or probation of nearly 4 percent in the next two years. The cuts include beds for prerelease centers, medical spending on inmates, equipment, and 24 positions throughout the agency.
Nursing homes and other human-service providers: The budget does not include $11 million in state and federal funding that was in the current budget, to increase payments to aides and other "direct-care workers" in nursing homes across the state. Also not in the budget is another $5 million that went to home health workers that help the poor under the Medicaid program.
Also missing is $17 million in state and federal funds to restore the 2010 rates paid to private providers of Medicaid-funded and other services, including nursing homes, homes for the developmentally disabled, home health care companies, foster care and child care.
Healthy Montana Kids: The Legislature has cut proposed funding by $26 million for this program that provides health insurance for children in families earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($55,900 for a family of four). Most of that money is federal funding.
The money might be needed only if enrollment in the program increases dramatically. However, lawmakers also have cut something called "presumptive eligibility," a voter-approved part of the program that signs up kids more quickly. Its elimination is expected to reduce future increases to the rolls by as many as 3,000 kids.
Personal-care assistance: The Legislature has cut $1.5 million in state and federal funds from a program that pays for personal-care assistants to nearly 1,000 disabled and elderly people on Medicaid. The assistants help people stay in their homes by preparing meals, helping them in and out of bed, helping them take showers or baths, and other daily tasks.
Family planning funds: Republicans have cut $5.7 million in state and federal funds that go to 14 clinics around the state that serve mostly low-income women. The GOP also denied a Schweitzer administration request for another $1.2 million in state and federal spending on a family-planning program through Medicaid, the state-federal program that pays medical bills for the poor.
Food stamps: Republicans have cut $35 million in spending authority from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federally funded program formerly known as food stamps, leaving $215 million in the program for Montana. If enough Montanans qualify for the program in the next two years to push its need beyond $215 million, the state will have to find a way to authorize more spending.
Electronic health records: Republicans have refused $35 million in federal funds to help clinics, hospitals and others update and coordinate their electronic health records systems.
Home-heating funds: The Legislature cut $10 million in federal low-income heating assistance funds, reducing the federal program to $50 million over the next two years. The cut has no effect on the state treasury, and any money Montana refuses would be redistributed to other states. Last year, the program helped 28,000 Montana households pay their winter heating bills. Congress is considering whether to cut some of this spending.
Tobacco-cessation funding: Republicans have cut by $11.6 million the funding for local programs that help people quit smoking and discourage young people from starting to use tobacco. The money is from a voter-approved tax dedicated to health program, including tobacco-cessation. They shifted the funds to help pay for Healthy Montana Kids and reduce the overall state budget.
Aging Services: $3 million for Aging Services, which helps fund programs for senior citizens statewide, was restored to the budget by the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.
Big Sky RX: The spending for this state program, which helps low-income elderly citizens pay for prescription drugs, was restored entirely by the Senate committee.
Montana Veterans' Home in Columbia Falls: Nearly all funding for the veterans' home has been restored, and a proposed $3 million cut that would have moved the home toward privatization has been rejected. [ Thanks to MEA-MFT and our members!]