Billings Gazette, Jan. 2, on needy Montanans caught in budget gap:
Back in June, Montanans heard about the first budget cuts triggered by lower-than-projected state revenues. The onerous reductions were mandated in Senate Bill 261, a 42-page compilation of budget adjustments for multiple departments.
The state budget overestimated revenue, so the deepest spending cuts in SB261 are required. They fall hardest on health and human services, targeting case management, which is a relatively inexpensive service that helps seriously mentally ill and other disabled Montana children and adults navigate between doctor and therapy visits. Basically, good case management makes all treatment work more effectively. SB261 slashed $1 million from case management, and now will require a further rate cut.
In Billings, the South Central Montana Mental Health Center reduced staff and consolidated remaining workers by moving out of one building. In Missoula, the Western Montana Mental Health Center recently laid off dozens of workers, as reported Thursday by Lee Montana Newspapers.
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Under SB261, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services proposed in June to cut Medicaid rates for home care, hospitals, nursing homes, medical clinics and mental health centers by 3.47 percent. People who rely on Medicaid and the Montana providers who care for them were right to push back. Many health care providers already lose money on Medicaid patients.
The Legislature's Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee responded by lodging an objection to the Medicaid rate cuts, an action that could have delayed the cuts till after the 2019 Legislature.
The committee objection ignored the hard truth that state law requires a balanced budget. In other words, the Executive Branch doesn't have a choice; it must reduce spending to reflect the reduced revenue.
Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, voted against the committee's delay. "My concerns have been that holding up the implementation of cuts will only lead to deeper cuts later on," Kelker told The Gazette.
Basically, the choice is between cutting general fund spending by several million over 18 months or cutting the same amount in less time. The loss to Montana's economy will be closer to $24 million because each state dollar "saved" means the loss of about $2 in federal matching funds.
Last week, a majority of interim committee members voted to allow the 2.99 percent rate reduction (slightly less than the original proposal) to start on Jan. 1 as DPHHS proposed.
These rate cuts painfully demonstrate that our state budget isn't supporting the essential services a majority of lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock agreed to provide just seven months ago.
The legislation approved in the November special session did nothing to stave off the Medicaid rate cuts. The Legislature and governor had to make an additional $76 million in spending reductions in November, along with making some transfers to balance the budget.
The revenue shortfall is a Montana problem that should unite our leaders to find equitable, prudent, compassionate remedies. Bullock and Montana lawmakers have much work to do.
If the legislative majority's highest priority is to avoid increases in taxes, lawmakers should be honest and clear about what jobs and services they will eliminate to balance the budget.
It's the job of our elected leaders to take the time to identify efficiencies. Across-the-board cuts are inefficient, falling hardest on local providers who primarily serve Medicaid patients.
The new federal tax cut law may reduce Montana tax revenue further. Another record fire season could burn another hole in the state budget. The shortfall in funding essential state services isn't going to resolve itself.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Jan. 2, on area hotels donating rooms for survivors of domestic violence:
Area hotels are enthusiastically applauded for donating rooms for survivors of domestic violence. This generosity will help fill a glaring gap in the local domestic violence response network at a time when demands on those services are rapidly increasing.
The Gallatin Project, a local domestic violence victims' advocacy coalition, had previously paid for the rooms with federal grant money. But the grant was not renewed this year, leaving advocates scrambling for alternatives.
A local shelter, Haven, provides safe housing for domestic violence victims. But when that facility is full, or not a good option for certain victims, hotel rooms are secured. Without the grant money, there would be no alternative. But when local law enforcement contacted hotels about the problem, some 20 of them stepped forward with pledges to donate one or more rooms per month.
Their willingness to help is critical - not only for victims, but for all of us. Domestic violence numbers among the most dangerous situations law enforcement officers face. It can be a lethal mix of substance abuse, firearms and emotion.
A Chronicle report last year found that 1,255 domestic violence victims sought help from Haven in 2015 - a 65 percent increase over the previous six years. From July to September of this year, 40 domestic violence survivors and their family members have needed hotel stays. That's up from 10 in the same time period three years ago and none in 2010.
The trend is clear and disturbing. Haven and the Gallatin Project have been doing vital work in combating this trend and protecting its victims from further harm. As a community, we must all do our part to lift the stigma associated with this social ill. Only by talking openly about it and educating ourselves and others on recognizing risky situations and stepping in when needed will we stem this tide of violence.
Sincere gratitude is extended to all the participating hotels for stepping in after the federal funds dried up. The gesture represents the kind of community spirit needed to turn the tide on this growing threat.
Independent Record, Dec. 31, on the consolidation of the sheriff's and coroner's duties:
If there is any benefit to the sheriff and coroner consolidation approved by the Lewis and Clark County Commission, we haven't been able to identify it.
As a result of a 2-1 county commission vote on Dec. 19, the sheriff will absorb the coroner's duties on Jan. 1, 2019. Commissioners Susan Good-Geise and Andy Hunthausen both voted for the consolidation, and Commissioner Jim McCormick was firmly against it.
McCormick argued there is simply no reason to fix what isn't broken. We couldn't agree more, and it seems counterintuitive for Lewis and Clark County to willingly combine the two positions as counties in other states are actively trying to split them up.
Though many counties have combined the two positions in an effort to reduce expenses, Lewis and Clark County could actually end up paying a lot more as a result of the consolidation.
Our county commissioners have expressed interest in raising the sheriff's compensation to take on the extra duties, which seems only fair, but they may not be able to do so without giving deputies a raise as well.
Since the compensation for sworn deputies is set as a percentage of the sheriff's pay, raising the sheriff's salary by only a few thousand dollars could cost the county hundreds of thousands more. County officials say the only way to eliminate the cost of the consolidation is to add nothing to the sheriff's current salary, which is not something the commissioners have agreed to do.
Even if the consolidation doesn't end up costing more, it certainly doesn't look like it will save the county anything. And we're not convinced it's going to accomplish anything either.
The sheriff and the coroner serve two very different, specialized functions. And the current separation of powers provides important checks and balances that will be lost when the two positions are combined.
The sheriff and coroner will no longer be able to evaluate each other's work after the two positions become one, because they will be filled by the same person. The consolidation will also force the county to bring in a coroner from another county to look into any deaths that occur at the detention center or involve deputies, as the sheriff's office cannot investigate itself without a major conflict of interest.
We don't buy the argument that the consolidation will improve oversight of the coroner's office. Neither the coroner nor the sheriff report to the county commission, so we don't see how combining the two independently elected positions would affect the county's oversight in any way.
We are also unconvinced that the consolidation will result in any additional transparency for the public. We've witnessed intense public scrutiny of both the coroner's office and the sheriff's office in recent years, and that won't change regardless of how they are configured.
During Bryan Backeberg's 15 months as coroner, his office has effectively disposed of a backlog of human tissue samples dating back several decades, implemented an interactive computerized database for all cases, and started the process of returning money, guns and other valuable items of evidence that had been locked up for years.
So we clearly aren't suffering from an ineffective coroner. Nor were we lacking a qualified coroner candidate in the November 2018 election, as Backeberg previously said he was planning to run.
After discussing these issues with county officials, we still can't help but wonder: What were they thinking?
This appears to be a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. And we believe county officials need to find a way to reverse the commission's decision, even if that requires a vote of the people.