Next Legislature must stand up for Montana citizens

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Montanans are now seeing the real-life consequences of budget decisions made by the Republican legislators who make up the majority of our state Legislature.

Over the next year, 28 property assessment offices will be closing their doors in addition to the 19 public assistance offices that have already turned off their lights — impacting thousands of Montanans in rural areas of our state. As many as 14,000 health-care providers will have to reduce care for the mentally ill and disabled, some even shuttering their own doors. Services that Montanans rely upon have been reduced from almost every department of state government.

These cuts hurt our neighbors whose lives have been improved by these vital services. They hurt fellow Montanans who are in search of a job after years of service to our state. These are cuts that I never wanted to make — and they were avoidable.

At the start of the 2017 legislative session, I proposed a balanced budget that maintained the very services we see being cut today and ensured sufficient fund balance to manage our way through emergencies. But the legislative majority rejected my budget.

Throughout the session, I repeatedly warned Republican leaders that building a budget on false revenue projections would result in even deeper cuts to services. And it did.

In negotiations with legislative leaders leading up to and throughout the special session, I again proposed reasonable ways to balance our budget. But Republican leadership opposed any revenue increase, and in turn, I was forced to make these cuts. I was restricted by law to where I could make cuts, which is why they fall so hard on the backs of our most vulnerable Montanans. And rather than allowing these cuts to be reversed if additional revenue came into our state treasury, the Legislature chose to make the cuts permanent.

These cuts have real-life consequences, they are not just numbers on a balance sheet. Fortunately, there is a solution.

We need a budget that works for everyone and we need to have real discussions, neighbor to neighbor, about the on-the-ground impacts of these cuts and how we can rebuild a budget that protects Montana families and restores these services. We need to have real discussions about updating our tax system and addressing revenue shortfalls responsibly.

I encourage every Montanan to contact their local state representatives to voice their concerns about the Legislature’s budgeting priorities. And if your local state representative doesn’t listen to your concerns or isn’t willing to answer these hard questions with us about our state’s future, I encourage you to vote for legislators who understand the needs of your community.

State government has the responsibility to protect its people, especially the most vulnerable among us. We need to elect folks to office who believe Montanans should have access to the services they need, that we should have programs that ensure opportunity, and who have the courage to stand up for the interests of Montana families.

Montanans care about having a good job and providing for their families. We care about quality schools to give our kids the best education to succeed. We care about keeping our communities safe. And we care about looking out for our neighbors who need a helping hand. We can have a budget that both invests in these values we share and protects essential services. But it requires a Legislature that believes in protecting the interests of all hardworking Montanans, rather than just the wealthy few or pledges made to out-of-state corporations and interest groups. If we don’t have thoughtful legislators willing to find solutions, even more essential services that benefit communities all across the state will be at risk.

Bullock, a Helena Democrat, is in his second term as Montana’s governor.

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