New group leaves divisiveness out of political discussion

Valley Journal – November 1, 2017

Mission Valley Rises: Democracy Engaged! is a new non-partisan community-led group bringing people together to talk about local and national issues, and Montana’s budget was the focus of their discussion on Tuesday, Oct. 24.

The group developed after the 2016 presidential election left them feeling discouraged about elections, social issues, and the community’s ability to come together.

“We wanted people to be able to come together in a positive way and talk about the issues,” said Elaine Meeks, one of the founders. She said the divisiveness that developed during the election was disheartening. She felt that people should be able to talk about both sides of serious issues like politics without losing friendships.

“Only by understanding can we reduce fear. Fear creates a lack of understanding, and from fear comes hate,” Meeks said. “We want to promote positive relationships among the community.”

The group met at the library in Polson on Tuesday and invited government officials, community leaders, and the public to talk about Montana’s budget shortfall.

Heather O’Loughlin, co-director of Montana Budget and Policy Center, was invited to explain issues pertaining to the budget. She started out with the basics by saying that the organization is a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan agency based in Helena that has been tracking the budget with the goal of providing information to the public.

Montana’s Legislature is required to pass a budget every other year. The process starts when the governor proposes a budget a couple months before the legislative session starts.

O’Loughlin said the governor is anticipating lower revenue for the state and higher expenditures primarily due to wildfires. The state needs to find $227 million to reach a balance of $143 million for the coming fiscal year in order to balance the budget.

She further explained that “according to the law” the governor has to balance the budget and in order to do so can reduce the amount of funding that different agencies receive – no more than a ten percent cut to any agency (K-12 schools excluded). This year’s shortfall is large enough that a 10-percent cut across all state agencies may in fact be needed.

In anticipation of that action, the governor has asked agencies what cuts they would make if they lost ten percent of their funding.

“You can find all of these proposed reduction plans on a website, which is balancedbudget.mt.gov,” O’Loughlin said.

She shared an example of how one state agency could be impacted by cuts: Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services could see a cut of $105 million.

“That $105 million dollar cut would result in a loss of $135 million in federal funds, so for DPHHS, it’s more like $240 million dollars of a proposed cut,” she said.

She said legislators could create different solutions to the budget problem. “The governor can’t create revenue by himself. He needs the legislature to come together to do that with him,” she said.

She also said the legislature can make transfers and statutory changes that could make different cuts that the governor can’t do alone. “The legislature has more options, more tools, in the tool box than the governor has by himself,” she said.

She also said the state could borrow money and get a short-term loan but not if there is a projected negative balance for the state’s budget. The governor’s budget proposal included ways to increase revenue to the budget through things like taxing incomes over half a million and increasing the tobacco tax but they failed to pass in the legislature.

Greg Hertz, Republican representative for the Polson area, was at the meeting and he explained that he voted no on the increased tobacco tax because he didn’t think that taxing one commodity was the answer. He said the increased tax would send people to other states to buy tobacco.

During the meeting, leaders among community agencies spoke about how the proposed cuts could impact people. St. Luke Community Healthcare CEO Steve Todd took the microphone to say that St. Luke has had and continues to have the largest percentage of Medicaid recipients in the state, and he said the cuts to the budget will have impact at the facility.

“We are subject to a lot of the fiscal issues at the state level,” he said.

“The fact is if we cut certain funding, then we lose additional funding from the government, the magnification of those impacts is pretty significant.”

He said it’s hard to say what the government will ultimately do, but he worries about how cuts could impact people with disabilities. “The question becomes: What’s going to happen to those disabled individuals when they need care?”

Todd was asked if the cuts could have an impact on his ability to hire staff at St. Luke. “Everything is connected when you have to make cuts,” he said. He added that 50 percent of his expenses are in salaries and wages.

Marion Cooper, director of St. Joseph Assisted Living in Polson, said the proposed budget cuts could have a significant impact on his agency. He said that people that are not able to afford assisted living facilities could end up in the emergency room to get care, which could cost more.

Lucinda Bigcrane is the executive director with the Western Montana Mental Health Center in Ronan, and she said the proposed budget cuts are affecting her program.

“We’ve already felt it with targeted case management; it’s already hit us,” she said. “We’ve already done reductions in force with our employees.”

Bigcrane also said the Polson office for the Western Montana Mental Health Center in Polson was closed in anticipation of the cuts, along with other programs including the day program children’s program.

“We’ve been referring children to other agencies,” she said.

She anticipates that more cuts will come starting in January. She says that the cuts will affect the Lake House, a mental health center in Polson. She said case managers with the mental health center will also have to reduce the number of times they can visit with patients including people who are suicidal.

“That means that we are not going to be able to monitor our clients to make sure that they are taking their meds, and if we have suicidal clients, we wont be able to see them as often,” she said.

Bigcrane added that she worries about the long-term impact the cuts to the mental health programs will have on people. “We are going to have more people that are suicidal. Are they going to be in the hospital or are they going to be in the jails? And that is what we are looking at because we won’t have access to our clients.”

Lake County Commissioner Dave Stipe said the jails are already full with a capacity around 45 people. “There is literally a lottery every night on who gets put in jail. It’s not a good situation,” he said.

He also said more transparency is needed in state government so people know where all the money is going.

Dara Rodda, executive director with the Lake County Council on Aging, said the purpose of her organization is to keep elderly people living independently in their homes for as long as possible.

Rodda said she is worried about the defunding of a program called Big Sky Rx, which helps people afford prescription drugs, and she worries about Medicaid waiver cuts.

“I do think we as a community can come together with some strategic planning and think of some ways we can help our neighbors because it just takes a little bit to keep them in their homes, so it’s not super bleak,” she said.

Whitney Cantlon is the chief executive officer for Mission Mountain Enterprises in Ronan, which is the main disability service provider in the county with group homes and thrift stores. She said MME is almost completely funded by the state, which has her worried.

During the last legislative session, pay raises were approved for the staff at the enterprise, but due to budget issues, the raises were not implemented.

“We are having funding issues that well-seasoned staff have never seen,” she said.

Cantlon said that new hires often leave for better paying jobs in the fast food sector and that the pay raises were desperately needed. She expressed concern that additional cuts will hurt MME’s already under-funded services.

“The budget can’t ride on the backs Montana’s most vulnerable population,” she said.

Cantlon isn’t sure how an additional 10 percent in cuts will affect MME’s programs, but said cuts would bring significant reductions to supportive services the clients rely on including mental health.

Thompson Smith spoke for the Flathead Basin Commission to say that the commission works to protect Flathead Lake. The Montana Legislature created the FBC in 1983 to monitor and protect water quality and natural resources. Smith said that the DNRC’s proposed budget cut will “eliminate” the commission. He added that the commission was willing to take their 10 percent cut, but he didn’t think it was fair that FBC funding be eliminated entirely.

Representative Hertz stood up again and said that Montana’s budget problems have been building and needed more planning. He also said Montana has had budget problems in the past. He doesn’t believe tax increases will fix the problem.

Dan Salomon is a Republican Senator for the Ronan area. He was at the meeting to say that revenues in the state are not keeping up with the state’s needs, and agriculture isn’t doing well. He said the proposed budget cuts are the “worst-case scenarios,” and he was waiting for the governor to make a final decision on the issue.

John Fleming spoke for a few moments. He is a democrat in the Montana Legislature for the St. Ignatius area. He talked about Montana’s budget and said “you can’t cut yourself to prosperity.” He said that once those cuts are made it could be difficult to get funding back for programs in the future.

After the meeting, Katrina Ruhmland said the Mission Valley Rises group was started with a potluck dinner to talk about local issues, and they felt Montana’s budget was something that needed to be talked about locally.

“I’ve never been involved in anything political before, but I think it’s important that we get involved.”

Gail Trenfield helped develop the group with the goal of practicing civil dialogue. “There are good points on both sides of an issue that we can put together in a pragmatic way, rather than being politically divided, because when we are divided, more people can take advantage of us,” she said.

Mary Stranahan invites people to join the group for respectful, civil dialogue on the budget and other issues. “I think people are tired of the divisiveness in this community that doesn’t create any solutions. Tonight, we came up with a solution: call your government and tell them what matters to you.”

To join the group or attend a discussion, contact the group by email at 57pogeno@gmail.com or find them on Facebook. They can also be found at missionvalleyrises.com.