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Dissecting the Causes of Montana's Budget Crisis?

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The Montana Legislature rejected bills this session that would have raised revenue for the state. (Tracy/Flickr)
The Montana Legislature rejected bills this session that would have raised revenue for the state. (Tracy/Flickr)
August 29, 2017

Helena, Mont. – What got Montana into its current fiscal crisis? Some Montanans are pointing to legislation from 2003 that cut tax rates, mostly for the state's wealthiest.

According to the Montana Budget and Policy Center, the legislation has cost the state about one billion dollars since it went into effect in 2005. With Montana now slashing its budget, state employees' jobs are first on the chopping block.

Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the state's largest public employees' union, says that will lead to diminished public services.

"We hire people to provide us healthcare and corrections and education, and when we cut the capacity for us to employ people to do that, well then we will get fewer programs, fewer services, and folks need to recognize that they are paying for less," he explained.

This session, lawmakers rejected bills that would have raised revenue, such as a tobacco-tax increase or closing the so-called "water's edge" corporate tax loophole.

Republican lawmakers say the state government has grown too big and needs to be reduced.

But MEA-MFT refutes this claim. For example, between the fiscal year of 2008 and 2017, the state only added about 20 employees. Meanwhile, there are about 75,000 more Montanans since then.

Feaver says people aren't always aware how essential public employees are to daily life. He uses correctional officers as an example.

"Most folks do not see probation and parole officers at work," he says. "Yet when a parolee does something that violates their probation, that may come to the public's attention in the newspaper, but if it didn't hurt them personally, well maybe they didn't notice that that parole officer simply had too much of a caseload in order to handle every issue that may come up with that parolee."

The state's shortfall is leading to $70 million in cuts. The Department of Corrections will cut nearly $3 million over the next two years. Public schools will reduce funding by $19 million, the Department of Public Health and Human Services by about $14 million, and $30 million will be taken from the state fire fund. More agencies are affected as well.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT