A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

2 October 2017 — 1739 mdt

MT’s budget crunch proves “Responsible Republican” is a null class

On 27 April, one day before the 2017 session of the Montana Legislature adjourned sine die, legislators approved SB-261, the automatic cuts bill by Sen. Llew Jones’ (R-Conrad), by wide margins: 73–27 in the MT House, 35–13 in the MT Senate (download spreadsheet of how each party’s members voted). The vote looks bipartisan, and by some definitions was, but in the MT Senate, Democrats had the option to kill the bill, which had only 25 Republican supporters. Twelve Democrats came to Jones’ rescue.

The result? No special session of the legislature is required to balance the budget. SB-261 gives Gov. Bullock the power to make the cuts all by himself, and that’s what Jones, in a letter printed in many newspapers such as the Flathead Beacon, wants him to do:

Montana law provides the governor with a reduction mechanism, where, if state revenues (taxpayer dollars) come in low, he can mandate government spending cuts. The executive has begun this process. I recognize this is challenging as state dollars are primarily spent on education, incarceration, and medication. Moreover, when facing cuts, these agencies are adept at pointing elsewhere and arguing that their section is already too lean. Nonetheless, it is the governor’s job to lead here.

…People in Montana save when times are good and tighten the purse strings when times are hard. Last session, I passed legislation to ensure that government had to play by these same rules, which helps with this volatility. But, as this mechanism is new, its worth can only be evaluated in a future crisis.

…Today the governor has a choice. Times are tough. Will he tighten the purse strings or will he ask for more taxes?

From my perspective, the governor needs to do the job the law authorized and cut government expenditures to a level that reflects what Montanans can currently afford. He needs to work to propose cuts that impact services on the ground the least. He needs to select cuts that have the lowest impact possible on current government employees. In these tough times, he needs to be fiscally prudent and make the difficult decisions expected of a leader. While Montana has little choice other than step up and pay its share of the fire bill, I would hope that the smoke-filled air will prompt the passage of policy reforms supporting the wise harvest of timber, rather than the current political reality where lack of responsible harvest becomes the basis for unstoppable firestorms.

Currently, I pray for rain and hope for a bump in the price of commodities. I will not support permanent tax increases during these down times.

Why does Jones want to lay it all on the governor? Because the conventional wisdom in both political parties and among students of politics is that Bullock, in his second and last term as governor, will seek the Democratic nomination to replace Republican Sen. Steve Daines in 2020. HB-261 gives Bullock full ownership of the awful cuts in social services that Montana will suffer unless the legislature approves tax increases to make up the shortfall. For Jones, it’s a win-win situation. If Bullock wields the machete by himself, he get full blame for all the blood that flows. If he calls a special session, he either gets blame for raising taxes on an annoyed electorate, or is revealed to be too weak and politically inept to be a strong replacement for Daines.

Why the Democratic legislators who voted for SB-261 thought it wise to put their governor, and their party, in that position escapes my understanding (but not my wrath).

Gov. Bullock signed the bill on 22 May, thus absolving the legislature of the responsibility for choosing the cuts that everyone knew were coming.

Here are a few cuts proposed by Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services:

  • Reduces medical insurance assistance to those living with HIV by 21.5%. Page 40.

  • Reduces funding to provide vaccines for uninsured/undersinsured adults that do not qualify for federal programs by 11%. Page 41.

  • Eliminates the Part C Infant and Toddler program serving developmentally disabled and at-risk children aged 0-36 months. Page 69.

  • Eliminate Program — Big Sky Rx: Eliminate the Staff and Operations for the Medicare Part D premium coverage program. Page 72.

  • Eliminate Program — Big Sky Rx. Eliminate Medicare Part D Benefits. Members (population/acuity): 10,430. Providers: No impact. Page 74. FM note. This will badly hurt low-income seniors

  • Eliminate Program - Medicaid Passport to Health. Members (population/acuity): Approximately 81,000 Medicaid members will no longer be limited to see their passport provider.Providers: Providers will experience a reduction in reimbursement rates. 427 providers are enrolled in passport. Page 73.

  • Implement prior authorization requirements for certain physician administered drugs. The requests for prior authorization will be reviewed by the existing outpatient drug prior authorization vendor. We can utilize the Medicaid Pharmacist, DUR Board, and Drug Prior Authorization vendor to establish appropriate criteria. Page 79.

Why are the Republicans guilty of creating this fiasco called reasonable or responsible? Why do some Democrats and journalists continue to consider the so-called Responsible/Reasonable Republicans as a de facto third party that has formed a progressive coalition with Democratic legislators in Montana? The Reasonables/Responsibles vote with the rest of the Republicans on procedural matters, thus ensuring that the legislature is led by Republicans. And on issues such as expanding Medicare, they do not ally themselves with the Democratic position. Instead, price of their votes is Democrats’ embracing abominations such as the punitive (and destined to be short-lived) Buttrey-Bullock expansion of Medicaid that threw its recipients to the private health insurance wolves. Such are the rewards of working across the aisle.

This will not end well. Democrats do not have the votes to pass tax increases in a special session. In the 2019 session they will not have the votes to reauthorize expanded Medicaid, or to raise upper bracket income tax rates to where they were before Judy Martz and her lapdog legislators lowered those rates. Indeed, the Affordable Care Act is likely to be repealed or gutted before the Democrats can recapture a house of Congress.

A special session provides an opportunity for the Montana Legislature to raise the revenue to keep vital programs from being butchered by the governor. Perhaps by some miracle that revenue will be raised. But the only long term solution is to (a) send to the legislature a Democratic majority with the wit, fortitude, and feistiness, to pass socially responsible legislation, and (b) elect a Democratic governor who will fight for and sign those bills.

In the meantime, raise hell with your legislators and Gov. Bullock. They need to hear from you.