HELENA – A leading Republican lawmaker Friday said the Bullock administration must share the blame for looming budget cuts to human services in Montana – and that the governor could help defray the cuts if he chooses.
Sen. Llew Jones of Conrad, an architect of the November budget deal that closed a $227 million shortfall in the state budget, told MTN News that Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has some options available if he wants to reduce cuts to health-care programs that serve the disabled and the poor.
The state’s revenue picture appears to have improved in the past two months and the governor could obtain an additional $32 million by extending a private-prison contract, Jones said in an interview.
Instead, Bullock seems intent on carrying out the full cuts and blaming Republicans for not raising taxes to ease the pain, Jones said.
Jones’ comments came the day after an emotional hearing in Helena, when scores of health-care providers and advocates for the poor testified against the cuts.
Sheila Hogan, Bullock’s director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, led off the hearing by saying the $12.5 million in human-service cuts are occurring because the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to approve any new revenue during the special session last November.
The cuts are in a variety of programs, including foster care, dentures for the poor, and case-management for kids with medical and other problems.
The administration Friday also said the Legislature, in November, voted to make these cuts permanent, giving the governor no option but to carry them out.
Jones disagreed, saying the governor is ignoring options that could mean fewer and shallower cuts.
The governor has not taken steps to extend a contract for the operator of a private prison in Shelby – a move that would persuade the prison operator to transfer $32 million to the state, he said.
Jones added that state revenue has bounced back in the past two months significantly, indicating that the longer-term cuts don’t need to be as deep.
“Some of this (revenue increase) is a bump,” he said. “But I can’t see a scenario where all of it is a bump.”
Jones said the Legislature gave Bullock the power to back off on overall budget cuts, if revenue comes in stronger than anticipated this year.
He also noted that Bullock originally proposed the human-service cuts now being imposed. Jones suggested that other cuts could have been considered, elsewhere in the huge Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Bullock’s office said Friday that the administration is still “assessing” the prison contract, to get the best deal for Montana taxpayers.
It also said the governor would have preferred not to make any cuts, and favored raising some additional tax revenue, but that a majority of Republicans would not consider it. Republicans hold a 32-18 majority in the Senate and a 59-41 majority in the House.
Jones said the votes for a tax increase weren’t there at the special session last November, and that Bullock should have recognized that fact and considered other options.