HELENA, Mont. — Dread has built for months as state offices, government workers and community agencies reliant on state money await revenue numbers that could trigger severe budget cuts.
Bad news has yet to arrive but Lisa Kopp, who operates a small activity center in Butte for developmentally disabled people, believes it’s coming when the state’s budget picture comes into focus as soon as Tuesday.
Significant shortfalls would mean mandatory spending cuts across a wide swath of government agencies, including the Department of Public Health and Human Services, as part of legislation crafted earlier this year to balance the state budget.
“My head hurts thinking about numbers and budgets, and my heart aches when you have to think about the people who could be hurt,” said Kopp, director of the Mountain View Social Development Center, which relies mostly on government funding to serve its 30 clients. “We don’t have much of a cushion, so of course I’m worried.”
Contingencies already have been set at the Montana Historical Society. Eight people will be let go and program hours will be scaled back to help offset the anticipated loss of $600,000 this fiscal year, director Bruce Whittenberg said.
“We have to be ready to pull the trigger,” he said. “The legislation has been passed, the governor has signed it. And now it’s our job to implement it.”
Across the street at Montana’s state Capitol — where the historical society plans to cease its guided tours — state budget officials tried to tamp down panic, even as they tell government agencies to prepare for the worst.
Gov. Steve Bullock’s spokeswoman, Ronja Abel, blamed legislative Republicans, saying they “refused to face the reality of the need to increase revenues.”
The governor proposed a series of revenue measures, but nearly all were shot down by Republicans who urged him to solve the state’s budget woes by reducing spending.
The budget includes four tiers of potential cuts, with the worst-case scenario triggered by a $36 million shortfall that would eliminate funding for state employee raises, cut provider rates for direct care workers for the elderly and disabled and slash some aid to public schools.
In all, more than $97 million would have to be hacked from state spending over two years.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services, the state’s largest agency, would lose at least $14 million under the bleakest revenue scenario, which would require the agency to take over claims management of its Medicaid expansion program and pare back mental health services, among other cost-cutting measures.
The agency is holding a hearing Thursday on changes to fees and is expected to get an earful from concerned citizens.
At the state library, 12 of 44 staffers could lose their jobs and some public spaces might close.
The state’s superintendent of public instruction, Elsie Arntzen, has warned schools to expect diminished funding, including $217,000 in cuts to special education.
Under the worst-case scenario, schools could lose $6.6 million in funding during the current two-year budget cycle, including the Office of Public Instruction’s $3.1 million budget for achievement data analysis.
“These are cuts that are going right into the bone,” said Arntzen, a former legislator.