Montanans need only to look at the front page of any statewide paper or turn on the local evening news to know that our state is experiencing a budget deficit made much worse by a severe and long fire season.
But members of the Legislature have been warning Governor Bullock since long before the 2017 Legislative Session that our state’s finances were headed toward the edge of a cliff. In a recent opinion published by our Governor, he asks Montanans not to point blame when it comes to tough budget decisions. This was followed days later by a memo from Budget Director Dan Villa to agency directors stating the blame for budget cuts is “first and foremost” the fault of the legislature. Following a strong economic period, the Governor’s budget guy behind the scenes has proven that he is beyond his capability in times of revenue shortfall.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the handling of the Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS) budget. In his memo, the Governor’s budget director makes an inexcusable attempt to avoid responsibility for the damage done over the years by this administration to private-sector Medicaid providers serving Montana’s most vulnerable populations –the developmentally disabled, mentally ill, and our aging populations. All populations that the Governor claims to prioritize.
We all should assume that the men and women hired to work at DPHHS are experts in their field and have intimate knowledge of issues facing these populations. But for an unknown reason, officials within DPHHS have been stopped from talking to the press and key legislators without permission from the budget director (who we know does not have expertise in the health and human services field). Montanans and legislators should be outraged by this blatant lack of transparency and the fact that Governor Bullock allows it to continue while claiming to have the best interest of those served by DPHHS in mind.
Since the Legislature left town a few months ago, we have watched the clear priorities that we set forth for DPHHS thwarted and turned against the legislature. The fact is that the cuts to DPHHS do not represent the intent of the legislature – they represent priorities from the Governor’s office and his budget director.
This issue will be on display Monday, September 11th in Helena, as the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee of the Legislature challenges the DPHHS on their decisions to cut Medicaid rates to providers serving our most vulnerable populations in Montana, as a means to balance the budget.
If history repeats itself, DPHHS officials will sidestep questions and avoid the press, instead directing us to the budget office. We hope instead for an open and honest dialogue with DPHHS officials. Stop using the legislature as a scapegoat and work with us on real solutions to provide real care to those most in need.
It goes without saying, budgeting is easier at a time when revenues are on the rise, as they have been since this administration has taken office. But to use the current budget crisis, and MCA 17-7-140, as an excuse for cutting funding to our most vulnerable populations and our private sector providers that provide the care, would be inexcusable. Now is the time Governor Bullock. Our hopes and prayers are with you to make the tough decisions. Above all, Montana needs to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.
Rep. Ron Ehli is House Majority Leader and Former Chairman of CFHHS Interim Committee. Sen. Fred Thomas is Senate Majority Leader.