The Montana Legislature’s American Indian Caucus weighed in on the dire state budget situation Friday, describing how their communities could be hurt by looming cuts.
A combination of high firefighting costs and low natural resource tax revenue has placed Montana in a grim fiscal situation. In August, state budget director Dan Villa recommended that agencies cut nearly $230 million over the next two years to balance the budget. To this end, Gov. Steve Bullock requested that most state agencies cut their general fund budgets by up to 10 percent, and is now reviewing the proposed cuts.
With many Native American communities facing major social and economic challenges, state senators and representatives on the 10-member American Indian Caucus said they were especially worried about the cuts’ impact.
“Our Indian communities, our Indian populations, are going to feel the blow of those cuts,” Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said Friday in a conference call with media.
He and the call’s other participants – Sen. Lea Whitford, D-Cut Bank, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder and Rep. George Kipp III, D-Heart Butte discussed the important role that state medical, educational and employment services play for Native Americans.
“The proposed cuts threaten the lives of the people who need it the most, and our perspective is that this isn’t about politics or the next catchy catchphrase that people can put into an op-ed, it’s literally a matter of life and death, and members of the Indian Caucus are not going to sit on the sidelines and watch,” Morigeau promised.
With the current budget shortfall, the Legislature’s Republican leadership sees tough choices as inevitable. Writing in the Daily Inter Lake’s Aug. 13 opinion section, House Speaker Austin Knudsen stated, “the leadership’s intent is clear: When revenue is low we will prioritize essential services, cut back on budget increases and cut government bureaucracy.”
While Windy Boy acknowledged lawmakers’ “constitutional obligation is to have a balanced budget,” he put the focus on increased revenue rather than cutting services.
“There are places where we can find revenue, increase revenue, without hurting low-income Montanans,” he said.
Bullock has raised the possibility of easing the cuts in a special session if he can get legislative support.
Whitford touted that solution, saying that “we have to get everybody to a special session to talk about what are the alternatives in revenue streams,” and that, in her view, “there’s some pretty innovative legislators out there that have some ideas” on how to resolve the situation.
Lawmakers gave few specifics on what additional revenue sources they might find, or who the “innovative legislators” were. In a follow-up phone interview with the Daily Inter Lake, Whitford said that “there’s different people on both sides of the aisle kicking around ideas,” but declined to elaborate.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.