O’Loughlin: Montana can’t afford cuts to health and human services

January 10, 2021 11:04 am

Budget illustration (By the Blue Diamond Gallery, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0).

Imagine someone gave you $1 million and told you to spend $1,000 every day and come back when you ran out of money. You would return in less than three years. If someone then gave you a billion dollars and you spent $1,000 each day, it would take you 2,740 years before it was gone.

That’s how much money the 2021 Montana Legislature is already proposing to cut from the state budget to pay for tax breaks for the wealthiest Montanans. The impact of this nearly $1 billion cut cannot be understated. Families, seniors, and people with disabilities who shouldered the brunt of similar budget cuts in 2017 will be hurt again, while the wealthy and special interests avoid paying their fair share.

We need look no further than three years ago to understand the impacts of what cuts do to communities. Every corner of Montana faced the consequences: Hundreds of jobs lost, service providers closed their doors, parents of children with developmental disabilities unable to find services, aging parents and those with disabilities on waitlists to get services so they could stay in their homes, and increased pressure on local communities, schools, and law enforcement when basic safety net programs and behavioral health services disappear. This makes it all the more outrageous that Republican leadership kicked off the session to cut many of those same services – again.

2020 upended Montanans’ lives: Citizens lost their jobs, their savings, and their health care. We lost loved ones and feared for the safety of those around us. Many continue to face tough choices: Going to work or even finding a job, putting food on the table, fearing losing their home, and keeping our families safe.

Yet, those in control seem more focused on tax cuts that will largely benefit large businesses and the wealthiest. For example, a proposed income tax cut will result in 79 percent of the benefit going to the wealthiest 20 percent of taxpayers. Those with annual incomes in excess of $500,000 would see an average tax break of $1,314, while those making less than $40,000 would get just $1, on average. This tax break would cost the state more than $33 million in the next biennium.

We must come together and find common ground. Policymakers can craft a responsible budget that supports communities and invests in new opportunities that truly move Montana forward. Our state needs new revenue, not budget cuts and tax breaks for the wealthy. We must reinforce the systems that are meant to serve families and communities. This is how we make sure we all have what we need, not just during times of crisis, but every day.

The choice facing Legislators is clear: They can choose the well-being of families and communities, or they can choose to put the weight of this economic recession on those hurting the most, prolonging our state’s recovery. As the Legislature embarks on yet another challenging budget cycle, Montanans cannot afford a repeat of what occurred three years ago. If we want Montana to rebuild and become an even better place for families in all 56 counties, then the state must do the right thing by investing in our communities and supporting the very programs that help families get back on their feet.

O’Loughlin is the co-director of the nonpartisan Montana Budget & Policy Center is a nonprofit organization providing research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues.

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Heather O'Loughlin
Heather O'Loughlin

Heather O'Loughlin is the Co-Director of the Montana Budget & Policy Center, leading research and policy analysis, helping to produce credible research on the impact of tax and budget policies on the lives of Montana families.