Montana 2011 Legislature

Jan 11, 2011 7:43 PM by Marnee Banks (Helena)

Montana Republicans use majority to "hack" the budget

Republicans are beginning to hack away at the state budget and they are facing a vocal opposition.

On Tuesday, six separate appropriation subcommittees talked about how much money legislators need to cut in order to balance the checkbook.

Republicans took action to set the starting budget at $3.45 billion in spending; that's 8% below Governor Schweitzer's proposed $3.76 billion budget.

People flooded the Health & Human Services subcommittee to tell lawmakers that the proposed cuts are too deep and hurt Montana's most vulnverable people.

With a 5 to 3 majority, Republicans decided to cut $38 million from the Department of Health.

Director of DPHHS Anna Whiting Sorrell says the budget process that occurred Tuesday is absolutely unnecessary.

"The money is in the budget, the Governor has submitted, as he required by the Constitution to do, a balanced budget. He has taken into account the values of Montana and the people of Montana, to make sure during these tough economic times, and as we come out of these hard times that people continue to get the services they need," Whiting Sorrell said.

Many Democrats are upset over the cuts.

MT State Senator Mary Caferro (D-Helena) says she appreciates DPHHS putting a list together of suggested budget cuts, but she says the across the board reductions are not the answer.

"I was elected to the Legislature to come here and have thoughtful discussion about how we move foward to balance the budget while protecting the people of Montana. This to mean is not a thoughtful process when we are handed a list of options and quickly have gone through them in a couple of hours and now we vote on it and it will deeply impact people's lives," Caferrro said.

Representative Tony Belcourt (D-Box Elder) says it is not the time to be taking huge cuts. He says the cuts in DPHHS equate to way more than 5%.

"We had testimony on Saturday for about 3 1/2 hours about all the jobs we need to create in the state and the first thing we are going to do is cut 37.79 jobs out of the workforce. I just don't think that is the right thing to do. So I will be opposing this," Belcourt told the Health & Human Services subcommittee.

Representative Trudi Schmidt (D-Great Falls) says it is really hard to understand where the GOP is coming from.

"I don't get it. You all live in a community, you are not in a vacuum. This is not necessary. It is unbelievable to me that you want to start at this point when we have money in the bank," Schmidt told Republican lawmakers.

Republicans say the cuts are a baseline and spending needs to be reined in. Representative John Esp (R-Big Timber) says there has been a thoughtful process leading up to these cuts.

"It just didn't happen to be us doing the thinking," Esp told his fellow committee members.

GOP leaders say they might look at adding another $130 million in spending throughout this session.

Using the Governor's budget as a baseline, 5% across the board cuts would take $78 million from the education budget, $16 million from corrections, and $107 million from Health & Human Services.

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