Parents, advocates of disabled implore Bullock to avoid cuts

Posted at 5:35 PM, Feb 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-26 19:35:32-05

Parents of and advocates for the disabled on Monday implored Gov. Steve Bullock to find a way to back off on planned budget cuts to human services in Montana, saying the damaging cuts aren’t necessary.

At a Helena news conference, they pointed to a recent report that indicates state tax revenues are bouncing back, meaning more money may be available than expected a few months ago.

“Because the revenues are so much better than they were before … we’d like to hear what the governor has to say about restoring cuts and what his plans are to restore these essential services,” said Beth Brenneman, staff attorney for Disability Rights Montana.

But the governor’s budget director told MTN News Monday that his office doesn’t believe the recent bump in tax revenue is sustainable.

“My staff and I have spent a long time on the (recent revenue report), and there is nothing in there that would lead us to believe that we’re going to hit the actual revenue estimate which was proven wrong last year,” said Dan Villa.

Villa also noted that under a law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last November, the governor can’t use higher revenue to undo the cuts until this summer, at the earliest.

Family members of disabled aren’t convinced, however, that the governor can’t find a way to alleviate at least some of the cuts.

“Please, Gov. Bullock, help me, help us do our very best for all Montanans with disabilities, their families, and all those who take care of them,” said Vicki LaFond-Smith of East Helena, who has two sons with cerebral palsy. “We are a team; we are the village.”

The Bullock administration is cutting $49 million in state funds from the state Department of Public Health and Human Service budget – a spending level put into law by the Republican majority of the Legislature at a special session last November.

The administration, however, is choosing the specific cuts to meet the funding level.

Those cuts include reductions in case managers for the disabled and the mentally ill, cuts in payments to providers serving the poor and disabled, and eliminating coverage for dentures and other expensive dental services for the poor.

Brenneman and some parents also said state health officials have been denying or cutting back on services already available for disabled clients, apparently in a bid to save additional money.

“We’ve seen some cuts that haven’t gotten any press,” she said. “Those cuts have to do with changes in internal policy that have to do with cutting services to individuals who already have them.”

Advocates for the disabled pointed to a Feb. 7 revenue report by the Legislature’s fiscal analysts, that indicate state tax revenue could be as much as $130 million more than estimated before the special session.

But Villa said that estimate includes $60 million of transfers already approved by the Legislature – and that analysts in his office don’t think the factors used to calculate the estimate translate into ongoing revenue for the rest of the fiscal year or two-year budget period.

If the Bullock administration relies on the estimate to avoid budget cuts now, and it turns out to be inaccurate, the administration would have to go back into the budget and make more cuts, he said.