HELENA – A House-Senate budget panel Wednesday hammered out the first draft of the state human-service budget, including higher payments to those who provide services to the elderly, mentally ill and disabled.
“I think it’s a great first step,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, a member of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. “We redirected money to the community for … senior citizens, people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, children who have physical disabilities or are suffering from mental illness.
“We’re trying to bolster or restore the community services.”
The nine-member panel approved a $4.3 billion, two-year budget for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which consumes about 40 percent of the overall state budget.
Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City and chair of the panel, said it’s about $6 million less than requested by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in general-fund spending.
The next stop for the draft budget is the House Appropriations Committee, which will vote on the session’s major spending bill next month.
Moore said he doesn’t see this part of the budget increasing by much as it works its way through the process – and that it could face “downward pressure” as well, depending on priorities of the overall Legislature.
“We’re certainly in better shape than we were overall in 2017, but we’re not overly flush, either,” he told MTN News. “We’re still going to have to work hard to keep the ending-fund (balance) where it needs to be, and get everything paid for.”
Still, Moore said he was pleased that the subcommittee voted to increase rates paid to private providers who take care of low-income elderly, the mentally ill and the disabled.
“I don’t think the provider rates are high enough when you’re talking about starting someone at $12 an hour to work with an autistic teen-ager who’s my size, when they could make the same money at McDonald’s,” he said. “I just think that these people care for the least among us. We have to get those rates up so these providers can function and at least break even.”
The provider-rate increase is about $8 million more than requested by the governor.
The panel also voted to add 18 positions to the Child and Family Services Division to investigate child-abuse and neglect cases. The Bullock administration had asked for the increase.
Most of the votes were bipartisan, with Democrats and Republicans on the committee voting together.
One of the few splits came when the subcommittee voted 5-4 to increase provider rates even more for assisted-living centers, which take care of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.
Caferro made the request, saying that assisted living can be the most cost-effective way to provide care to these patients. All four Democrats on the panel and Republican Sen. Bob Keenan of Bigfork voted for the increase.
The panel also approved a big increase in state funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, to offset a loss of federal funding. However, how that increase fits into the budget remains to be seen.
Caferro said the Legislature knew about the pending shortfall years ago, but didn’t do anything to prepare.
She also said while this first step has restored funding for some programs cut in the previous year, the overall money for many vital human-service programs isn’t enough – and that the Legislature should consider increasing taxes to cover them.
“We need more money in this state to cover the same level of services,” Caferro said. “I think that people who are advocates for human services … could do a good service for the people we represent by going to the Tax Committee and helping (its) members understand what those taxes pay for.”