Montana needs to tackle taxes to lessen impact of budget cuts

MissoulianBillings Gazette, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Missoula Current – July 30, 2017

This past week, the governor’s office announced the state would be making additional budget cuts. Three days later, the Department of Public Health and Human Services held three administrative hearings, where over a 100 individuals and providers explained what this will mean for health services for our most vulnerable Montanans.

These cuts will hit communities hard – cuts to mental health services, to home- and community-based services for seniors and people with disabilities, and to wages for direct care workers, who care for our friends and family in some of the most difficult circumstances. Services will be eliminated. Families will suffer.

How we got here

Before the legislative session adjourned, the Montana Budget and Policy Center reiterated that the budget wasn’t ready for prime time. Not only did the Legislature accept cuts proposed in the governor’s budget, but they also made even deeper cuts. Rather than taking a balanced approach to our budget, legislators blocked each and every tax fairness measure to restore much needed revenue. Instead, the Legislature passed and the governor signed, a budget that contained deep cuts, while leaving an insufficient ending fund balance for dealing with an economic downturn or lower-than-expected revenues.

In addition, a handful of legislators and the executive agreed to a backroom deal that put in place additional painful cuts that would be “triggered” if revenue came in just $6 million (or 0.27 percent) below previous projections (with additional cuts if revenue dropped even further). The Governor’s office announced last week that all four levels of cuts would be triggered.

It is no surprise that this is where we stand today.

Legislators and state policymakers will say, “we had no choice.” This is false. There was a choice. Legislators could and should have taken seriously the many proposals to ensure tax fairness and adequate revenue.

From restoring a top tax bracket that would impact only the wealthiest 1 percent of households, to a long overdue increase to the tobacco tax to fund direct-care worker wages, to closing tax loopholes that give an advantage to large corporations shifting profits offshore, there were many opportunities to avoid this crisis.

Shifting costs

Once again, communities will be forced to pick up the tab. Nonprofits will feel increased pressure as they attempt to fill the need for services. With cuts to education and the failure to pass an infrastructure bill, legislators are again shifting their responsibility to local governments and, often, local property taxpayers to fill the holes in these budgets.

We can and must do better. This is a long-term issue that needs a long-term solution.

We can no longer afford to have our representatives protect the bottom line of large corporations at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens and local property taxpayers. We deserve a state that takes seriously tax fairness and adequate revenue to invest in our communities. Our Legislature must be forward thinking and make strong investments in our citizens, our children, and our communities.

These cuts we face will have a devastating impact for years. But it is not too late to do something about it. The time for just saying no is over. We are ready to have a thoughtful debate about what it is going to take to ensure we can be the state that we all love and can afford to live in. Then we need to come together to find common sense ways to create a fair tax system for all of us.

Families in Montana deserve to have this conversation.