When Lucca Notch was one year old, his parents started noticing speech and behavioral issues. During a temper tantrum, he was banging his head against the floor. His mom, Becky, knew she needed help.
Notch took Lucca to the Child Development Center in Kalispell, where he qualified for family support services and had a series of appointments set up. He was eventually diagnosed with nonverbal autism. Now, after several years of family support and speech therapy services, Notch is in first grade at Hedges Elementary and in his regular class 60 percent of the time.
“I’m having conversations with my child,” she said. “He’s doing math work. He’s reading books with me at home.”
The program the Notch family used, called Early Childhood Intervention, would would be eliminated entirely under a series of budget cuts the state is considering due to lower-than-expected revenues.
The Legislative Finance Committee heard hours of testimony on Wednesday from families like the Notches regarding cuts at the Department of Public Health and Human Services. The cuts are part of a 10 percent reduction proposed across nearly all of state government.
The health department would cut $105 million in general fund money to meet a 10 percent cut. That would result in losing federal matching funds of $136.2 million. Cuts to benefits and claims make up more than 80 percent of the cuts, while cuts to operating expenses within the agency make up about 7.7 percent; and cuts to personal services, or employee hours, is about 6.9 percent.
Nearly 100 people came from across the state on Wednesday to plead with legislators to return to Helena for a special session to raise taxes instead of making $229 million in cuts across nearly all state agencies to balance the budget.
Gov. Steve Bullock has the authority to cut up to 10 percent in each state agency to balance the state budget, but cannot act until two legislative committees weigh in. The Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee opted not to make recommendations to the governor last month, and the Finance Committee was still hearing testimony late Wednesday afternoon.
Because such a high percentage of the cuts come from services, and especially Medicaid services, many who testified Wednesday talked about how reducing services like case management would force them out of their homes and into institutions. A large segment of testimony focused on the proposed elimination of the federal Part C program that provides early intervention services to infants and toddlers.
Targeted case management programs pair service providers with people who have developmental disabilities, addictions and mental disorders with one-on-one care providers who do everything from helping them get dressed in the morning to making sure they take medications as prescribed and get to doctor appointments.
Justine Kougl brought her daughter, Quinn, from the Crow Reservation to ask the Legislature to raise taxes before cutting services for children with disabilities. Quinn was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, which keeps her from being able to breathe on her own. Quinn will have her fourth surgery this month to make sure she can continue breathing with a tracheostomy tube. The Kougl family was told Indian Health Services doesn’t have the budget to provide specialized services and has since relied on DPHHS. If the proposed cuts go through, Kougl said her family could be forced to move out of the state.
“We’re looking at other opportunities,” she said. “We’re lucky we live about 50 miles from Wyoming.”
Joel Peden, with the Montana Independent Living Project, said the services that keep people in their own home with assistance from caregivers aren’t optional.
“Since when is getting out of bed optional?” he said.
Peden reminded the committee that anyone could be involved in an accident requiring them to have a caregiver for the things they take for granted, like brushing their teeth.
“Everybody is a nanosecond away from needing the help you guys are looking at cutting,” he said. “If you can’t find it in your hearts to do that, then resign and move on. Let somebody else come in here and figure it out.”
Many who testified Wednesday pointed at lawmakers and asked them to consider increasing taxes to offset some of the potential cuts. It’s unclear if the Republican-dominated Legislature, who shot down nearly all the tax increases Bullock proposed at the start of the last legislative session last winter, has any appetite to increase taxes.
Bullock may call a special session whenever he wants, but the longer the wait before some action is taken, the deeper the cuts would have to be as agencies keep spending above what revenues support. If a special session is not called, Bullock could start making cuts as soon as the Legislative Fiscal Committee weighs in.
The governor has said a special session will be necessary to figure out how to pay for the most expensive fire season in the state’s history, but has stopped short of saying he will call lawmakers back to Helena to consider raising taxes. Over the past few weeks, several Democratic legislators have taken to editorial pages to call for a special session to increase taxes, but a prominent Republican state senator and architect of the budget wrote his own letter saying the cuts were necessary and taxes shouldn't be raised.
That senator, Llew Jones of Conrad, is on the Legislative Fiscal Committee that met Wednesday, but he did not attend.
The committee also heard testimony from people concerned over cuts to water resource management programs, as well as Veterans Affairs outreach services.