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 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.
The governor’s office adamantly disagreed Friday, saying Bullock didn’t want to make any of the cuts, but that Republicans, who control majorities at the Legislature, refused during a November special session to consider any tax increases to offset cuts.
Ronja Abel, spokeswoman for the governor, also said more time is needed to assess the private-prison contract with CoreCivic, which operates the prison near Shelby housing 600 state inmates.
“Republican legislators voted to request an extension to the contract without considering the long-term costs, the continued need for the facility, the value of the facility or the quality of the services,” she said.
Republicans also voted to make the cuts permanent, she added, making it difficult to restore them if revenue improves.
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 of Republicans’ refusal to consider any new revenue during the special session.
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.
Jones said he thinks Bullock is ignoring options that could mean fewer and shallower cuts, such as extending the prison contract beyond 2019. Extending the contract would persuade CoreCivic 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. However, that law – passed by the special session – says spending increases can’t be made until later this year, depending on revenue levels this summer.
Jones also said Bullock originally proposed the human-service cuts now being imposed, and suggested that other cuts could have been considered, elsewhere in the huge Department of Public Health and Human Services.
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.