Representives of organizations traveling the state to talk about what is happening with the state and federal budgets addressed a packed house in Havre Thursday, saying if the people want to make a difference, they have to work together.
“As Bob (Kaul, Havre City Council member) said, we can’t do this just alone as individuals. We have to do it collectively, ” said Melissa Case, organizing director of MEA-MFT.
Case and Tara Veazey, executive director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, and Molly Moody of the Montana Organizing Project, held the meeting at the Crowley Conference Center in Montana State University-Northern’s Student Union Building with more than 40 people.
“This is one in a series of 10 community meetings across the state, ” Veazey said. “Right now I think Havre is winning for biggest turnout. ”
At the start of the meeting, the organizers had the local residents write items that they value that the government helps provide and then tell what they were before posting them on a map of Montana at the front of the room.
The items ranged from providing K-12 and college public education to outdoor recreation and hunting and fishing and from health care to roads and highways.
“All of these are made possible because of our government, ” Case said. “The things that we value and care about, the things that make Montana a special place, the things that are going to allow our grandkids and their grandkids to live here to have careers to flourish, to hike, to hunt … those things are going to happen because we prioritize them and because we make them happen. ”
Case showed a video illustrating four rallies the groups organized in Helena during the legislative session, which she credited with helping persuade the Legislature returning two-thirds of what had been cut from Gov. Brian Scwheitzer’s budget proposal.
“Fewer people suffered because you acted, ” she said.
Case said the purpose of the “Take Back the Budget” meetings are to provide information to people who want to preserve services provided by the government and ways to present that information effectively.
“The choices that people are making right now today in Washington, D.C., affect us here in Montana and they affect us here in Havre, and they are going to have an impact on our quality of life, ” she said. “The choices that were made in the last legislative session had a significant impact on our lives. Right here in Havre, Montana, we all know somebody who probably lost a job or had their hours reduced or had services critical for the survival of their family cut or reduced.
“We are going to suffer if we don’t somehow take action, ” she added.
The group talked about anti-government sentiment, and some misperceptions on what people think the government spends money.
“I’ll tell you what I think is startling about this pie-graph, ” Veazey said. “If you add up defense, Social Security and Medicare you’re already at 53 percent of federal spending. ”
Paying interest on the federal debt is 6 percent, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program take up 8 percent, and all other non-defense and entitlement programs take up the remaining third, she said, including transportation; education; research; public health; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Familes, formerly called food stamps and welfare.
“So I think it’s really important that we understand this …, ” Veazey said. “Because if we don’t understand what our federal tax dollars are being used to invest in, we’re going to misidentify solutions.
“One of the things I think is a common misconception is that, all of these entitlement programs, I think a lot of people think that takes up the majority of the federal budget, ” she said. “But if you cut what was commonly called welfare, it wouldn’t make a dent in the federal budget. ”
She said, on the state level, 45 percent goes to education, although the percentage of the state budget spent on higher education is dwindling as a part of the pie.
Of the rest, 23 percent went to human services, 9 percent to corrections and 23 percent went to everything else, including the state court system, the Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Justice, “basically any other agency you can think of, ” Veazey said.
Almost half of the state budget — 47 percent — is passed through by the federal government, she added, such as transportation, Medicaid, food stamps and other programs.
She said in order to see what is at stake in future budgets, “we don’t have to look any further than the 2011 legislative session to be reminded of what’s at stake when we talk about the state budget or the federal dollars that flow through the state budget. ”
One of the first actions that happened in the Legislature was making a half-a-billion dollars in cuts, with the Republican majority saying that Montana didn’t have enough money. Even so, the starting point was $300 million below their own conservative estimates, she added.
The budget sent to the governor ended $200 million below his proposal, with a little more than half of that the rejection of federal funds including $50 million for programs like the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program and food stamps that require no state money.
Much of that money originally cut ended back up in the final budget passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, for which Veazey gave much credit to the people at the rallies, although she said it still included many cuts.
“I don’t mean to gloss over the harm that really was done, ” she said, “because of people like you things were a lot better than they could have been. ”
She said another issue is what the causes are of the federal deficit. The largest part is due to tax cuts passed early last decade under President George Bush, followed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the bailout of the federal mortgage companies, Freddy Mac and Fannie Mae, increased spending and the deficit, and will until about 2014, she said, and then the long-term effect disapates.
Now, with the economic downturn, people are paying less in taxes and need more services, also increasing the deficit, but that should disapate when the economy recovers, she said.
“There are a lot of people who want us to believe that the problem with our economy and our country is that we’re taxing people to death and we’re taxing businesses to death, ” Veazey said. “The historical data just doesn’t bear that out. ”
Taxes as a share of the economy now are the lowest they have been in 60 years, with the highest reduction in the highest wage earners, she said, as well as very low rates for corporate taxes.
She also discussed the debates going on in Washington about the federal budget, and programs being targetted for cuts.
Case said a key to people preserving the programs they value is talking about the issues and voting for people who support the same values.
“I want to take action. I want to know that, in Havre, Montana, we’re going to have the highest number of voters possible turning out in this next election, ” Case said. “And we’re going to vote for people who share our values …
“I don’t care what letter is behind your name, if this is what you value, ” she added.