Last week, on April 28, the 62nd Montana Legislative Session came to a close. The session was a contentious one, featuring some of the worst budget cut proposals in state history. Faced with devastating cuts to health and human services, education, and public employee jobs and salaries, members of the Montana Organizing Project responded by rallying, telling their stories, making phone calls and writing letters to their legislators throughout the session. MOP and its partners tirelessly made the case that Montanans deserve better. And, when the session was over, $150 million in crucial funding — three-quarters of the budgets cuts — was restored.
MOP prepped leaders and speakers for budget rallies and actions, and produced a book, Protecting Montana’s Future, filled with the stories of ordinary Montanans — small business owners, Native Americans, students, public servants, and senior citizens – making clear the need for a healthy public infrastructure.
Together with groups such as the Partnership for Montana’s Future, Montana Education Association, and Montana Federation of Teachers, MOP helped win back $123 million in funding for the Department of Health and Human Services. Funding for the Healthy Montana Kids, Big Sky RX, and personal services for seniors and people with disabilities was fully restored. Enough money was also restored to ensure federal funding for low-income energy assistance, which many Montanans depend on to get through long, cold winters. The legislature also restored $15.5 million to higher education.
While there is much to cheer about, the budget still contains some terrible cuts to education and public services. K-12 education funding took a hit, and the result will likely be teacher and staff lay-offs, larger classrooms, compromised quality of education, and larger local property taxes. And while higher education won back some of its support, there may still be tuition increases to make up for the cut in state funding, putting higher education further out of reach for Montana families. The legislature also cut a $21 million pay plan for public employees who work to keep communities safe, healthy, and educated all across the state.
It’s also important to remember that all these budget cuts are as unnecessary as they are harmful. The Legislature could have passed a number of sensible bills that would have increased state revenues by closing tax loopholes and making sure that all taxpayers are paying what they owe under current tax laws. Instead, they rejected every such proposal presented, including a bill to make sure out-of-state taxpayers pay the taxes they owe when they sell vacation homes in Montana, as well as a bill that would limit the use of foreign tax shelters by multi-national corporations. They also chose to give $16 million away in the form of a business equipment tax cut, with the largest benefits going to corporations like Exxon Mobile and Conoco Phillips.
MOP members and allies worked to save funding for programs essential to keeping families and communities across Montana strong. And while this should be celebrated, they also know there is much more work to be done to raise revenue and make sure everyone in Montana is paying their fair share.