Budget Troubles Loom Large Second Half of Legislative Session

This week the Legislative Fiscal Division released a 694-page HB 2 Narrative summarizing final Joint Appropriation Subcommittee action, comparing the current legislative budget to the executive proposed budget and to the last biennial budget. The Narrative includes a 12-page summary as well as more in-depth analyses of each agency. The summary section is a helpful overview of changes the legislature has made so far compared to the executive budget. However, this year the overview could easily lead a reader to believe that legislative subcommittee action left the state budget and the programs, services, and infrastructure it funds in much better shape than it actually is.

Here are the main highlights from the LFD Narrative:

  • The legislature cut general fund appropriations by $43.8 million from the executive’s budget and $19 million from the 2017 biennium budget.
  • The legislature’s appropriations of state special revenue cut $46.7 million from the executive’s budget and $44.8 million from the 2017 biennium budget.

While the legislature appears to have provided a far greater amount of federal funds in HB 2, this requires some additional clarification:

  • The Governor proposed to appropriate $359 million in federal funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through a statutory appropriation, rather than HB 2. After discounting this fund shift, the increased federal dollars from the executive budget is only about $207 million.
  • Of this $207 million in federal funds, $193 million is federal funds for highway dollars tied to matching state dollars. In order to restore federal highway dollars, the legislature has made state funding cuts to the Montana Department of Transportation. (See below for more info.)
  • Finally, over $50 million in federal Medicaid funds were added to the DPHHS budget for Health Resources Division in late subcommittee action as a result of updated caseload estimates, a routine process that occurs throughout the budget creation process. This adjustment does not restore the almost $90 million in cuts made to DPHHS alone.

Some additional commentary on subcommittee action

An important comparison to consider is how the legislature has funded programs compared to the present law budget, or the level of funding necessary to maintain current government services. As LFD notes, “present law gives the legislature a baseline budget presentation and illustrates a beginning point of the legislative budget decisions that require legislation.”

In early action by the legislature, subcommittees cut hundreds of millions of dollars in total funds to agencies. While subcommittees have added back some funds, nearly all of these additions reflect present law adjustments needed to continue existing services. So it is helpful to look at the present law budget as a baseline and then factor in the cuts or additions made beyond these adjustments. An initial take shows that the legislature has cut more than $100 million from the core programs and services that help make our communities and families safe, healthy, and economically secure.

Below are some initial thoughts on how things are faring for programs essential to our communities. These aren’t just numbers and dollar signs. They represent devastating cuts to services for seniors and people with disabilities and probable double-digit tuition increases for students and their families.

The slight budgetary increase to DPHHS reflected in the LFD Narrative is a result of standard inflationary adjustments and additional federal funds for caseload adjustments. Essential programs for seniors and individuals with disabilities continue to face deep and devastating cuts. While the present law adjustments for DPHHS reflect an increase of total funds of about $97 million, the Department is also taking a cut of $89 million in total funds in “new proposals.” These cuts represent $2.2 million cut to Disability and Employment Training Division that provides services to people with disabilities, including counseling, career training, transportation, adaptive equipment, and independent living services.

Senior and Long-Term Care, which administers Medicaid services for seniors and persons with disabilities, including Meals on Wheels, transportation services, in-home assisted living services, and nursing homes, continues to see the deepest cuts in DPHHS. In addition to negative present law adjustments, the legislature has cut $53 million in total funds for programs, potentially impacting provider rates, worker wages, and services for seniors living in their own homes and those in nursing homes. Montana’s population continues to age, and projections show that by 2025, nearly one-fourth of the state’s population will be over the age of 65. We should be very concerned about how these cuts will harm seniors and their families today, but also concerned about how these cuts set the stage for declining services in communities over time.

The legislature has funded Montana’s colleges and universities at $33 million below the past biennium, risking double-digit tuition increases for students and families in the next biennium. As discussed in our past report, early actions by the legislature reduced higher education investment by approximately $23 million. On top of this, the legislature did not provide the standard present law adjustment to the university system, representing an additional $7.8 million in cuts to a fully funded budget.

The Legislature’s effort to restore federal highway funds relies heavily upon deep cuts to the Department of Transportation, which could impact the health and safety of all drivers and future federal funds. Some legislators and the broad Montana Infrastructure Coalition have called for an increase to the state gas tax in order to avoid losing $193 million in federal matching funds used for construction and maintenance of roads, highways, and bridges. Instead, the budget subcommittee that oversees the Department of Transportation (MDT), dramatically cut state funding for MDT and used those savings to shore up the state highway account used to match federal funds. This plan would eliminate 75 vacant positions and cut overtime pay. MDT has raised concerns that this level of cuts could impact safety, which could result in failing to meet federal standards and a corresponding further loss of federal funds.

 

The Legislature will come back from its break next week and will have 45 more days to ensure we continue to invest in the services our families rely upon. Seniors, people with disabilities, students, and families who want a better life for their children shouldn’t be asked to shoulder the entire burden of our state revenue downturn. Montana can get to a balance budget while funding essential services, by ensuring we have adequate revenue and that everyone is paying their fair share.

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