By State Sen. Emily Stonington
Gov. Judy Martz has called a special session of the Legislature because $45 million to $55 million more shortfall than expected just weeks ago forces deeper budget cuts than the governor has made so far. Revenues have fallen by more than $160 million since the Legislature adjourned just over a year ago
What does this mean to you and me? Make no mistake; these cuts will impact every one of us, urban and rural. After the first round of budget cuts, every legislator has started hearing from citizens. Consider a few stories I have heard from constituents recently:
A foster family agreed to adopt a child who was living in their home, but would need help with medical care for the child since their family budget was very tight. Before the cuts, health insurance was promised. As a result of the cuts, health insurance was denied. The family could no longer proceed with adoption. This child will probably bounce from one foster home to another, resulting in emotional instability and a higher likelihood of social costs.
Department of Environmental Quality has been working on an impact assessment concerning development of coalbed methane. Before cuts, there were discussions of doing further study in the Bozeman Pass area because it had not been assessed in the statewide EIS. As a result of cuts, DEQ may not have sufficient funds to further study or properly enforce responsible development of coalbed methane near Bozeman. For homeowners concerned about their property values and property rights, this will have an impact.
A young woman working her way through college has had to take out loans to pay tuition and expenses. Due to cuts in state support, cuts in program offerings at MSU, and higher tuition, she now cannot finish her program in a timely way and will incur far greater debt in getting educated. Will she stay in Montana or will she be forced to look elsewhere for work just to pay back those student loans? For those of us who want our children to be able to earn a living in Montana, this has an impact.
Knapweed, leafy spurge, hounds tongue and other weeds are taking over vast acreages of public land in Montana. There has been effort in the past few years to increase budgets for spraying weeds. Budget cuts will mean fewer weeds are controlled, and this has an impact on all Montanans.
So what should we legislators do in a special session facing a $45 million to $55 million shortfall? My suggestion is to strike a balanced approach. Yes, we will need to cut programs. That means we will be forced to promise less from government. Should that be all we do? No. Montana's government has made promises that we should keep promises to help our students stay in state, promises to control the spread of weeds, promises to be the arbiter in how coalbed methane is developed, promises to protect children and families.
The Republicans have the majority in both House and Senate. They will determine what passes. Working together, I believe we can strike a balance. Without the governor's willingness to explore or consider the need for additional revenue, budget cuts will be deeper and services less. Democrats will not propose tax increases that hurt Montana's families and retirees. Montanans struggling to make ends meet are not able to pick up more of government services' burden. But neither should we weaken our promises to provide services for Montanans. Democrats have solutions to redistribute funding within government and lessen the harm to people in need of service.
We can soften the impact of cutting services, redistributing or increasing targeted taxes with balance in our solutions. It's the right thing to do.
State Sen. Emily Stonington (D-Bozeman, SD 15) is a member of the Senate Taxation, Local Government and Public Health, Welfare and Safety committees.