Ochenski: Countdown to catastrophe 

State steams toward a budgetary iceberg

As the days dwindle to the November election, most of the mainstream media coverage is concentrating on candidates and ballot issues. But come Nov. 6, there are going to be a whole lot of people who made a whole lot of promises they may not be able to keep. Why? Because by Nov. 15, the governor must, by law, deliver her proposed budget to the Legislature. And when that happens, the proverbial you-know-what is going to hit the proverbial fan—big time.

If the whispers in the hall of the Capitol are credible—and there’s no reason to doubt them given the condition of the state’s budget—there will not only be no money for new programs, there will be no money for existing programs. Given Gov. Judy Martz’s “no new taxes” pledge, she will only be able to escape the corner into which she has painted herself and her administration by slashing funding for existing programs by the $300 million or more it will take to dig the budget out of its present, and perhaps worsening, hole.

There are plenty of reasons why Montana got into this fix, and anyone who tells you it’s only because of Sept. 11 or the economic downturn is jiving. Marc Racicot, Martz’s predecessor in the Governor’s Office, blew off his campaign promises to hold down government costs almost immediately after his election and spent profligately during his eight-year tenure. Hundreds of millions went toward capital construction in the form of bigger prisons, new buildings and modifications necessary to house the “reorganized” executive-branch agencies.

Even worse, the state issued long-term bonds for many of these projects, which simply pushed the significant debts into the future. The cost of those bonds, plus the increased costs of heating, lighting and generally maintaining the new structures, hangs like a dead and stinking fiscal albatross around the neck of those who follow in Racicot’s footsteps.

Then there’s the questionable “efficiency” of the promised reorganization itself. By the time this column hits print, the Legislative Auditor’s office will be releasing a “Performance Audit of the Child Protective Services of the Department of Public Health and Human Services” (DPPHS, or “doofus” as it is commonly called). Performance audits take a hard look at how well, or how poorly, the agencies are complying with the laws under which they operate. From early indications, the findings of the report could carry huge implications for the beleaguered agency, which has already overspent its current budget by millions of dollars and is targeted for further cuts in the coming session.

Until we see the final version of the governor’s budget, speculation runs rampant, but already there is serious discussion about closing the Montana Chemical Dependency Center in Butte, the state’s only in-patient treatment facility. Likewise, the CHIPS program, which has largely been considered a tremendous success in bringing health care to low-income children across the state, is on the block. As Mary Caferro of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL) said during a recent protest of the proposed cuts: “There are over 9,300 children covered by CHIP. My question is what will happen to those children if CHIP is eliminated?”

Sad to say, Caferro’s question was largely answered by one of her fellow protestors, Beth Sirr, a nurse practitioner at the Leo Pocha Clinic in Helena, who put it graphically: “When I first read the outline of the proposed budget cuts, the image from the movie Titanic—of people crying out in the dark water while others sat safely in lifeboats—filled my mind. In Montana today, we do have those in health care ‘lifeboats’ and those in that dark water. The budget cuts, if left to stand, will put more Montanans in the water. Poor children, the elderly, the mentally ill, and many too sick to work.”

Those with fiscal expertise shake their heads and wonder aloud, not just at the magnitude of the proposed cuts but also at the seeming lack of logic in their prioritization. The CHIPS program, for instance, brings in a federal match of more than 80 percent for every state dollar spent. In other words, we put up $20 and the federal government sends us $80 towards the effort. “It’s not just the right thing to do,” said Caferro of keeping the CHIPS program operating, “it also makes economic sense.”

If the cuts are enacted, the 28,000 individuals now served by the family planning program will be out of luck. So will those who wind up on the losing end of the 7,500 incidents of domestic and sexual violence reported annually who seek shelter and crisis intervention. The Medicaid Breast and Cervical Cancer Program may also cease to exist, ending life-saving treatments for those who would otherwise be unable to afford them.

Beth Sirr’s “dark waters” will soon be filled with tens of thousands of Montanans, crying out helplessly in the cold night.

Which brings us back to those that purport to “lead” our state these days. The latest polls show Gov. Martz’s approval ratings at scarcely 20 percent. That means only one in five Montanans still think the governor is doing an acceptable job, which begs the question: “How can you claim to lead if no one is willing to follow?”

Make no mistake about it, the coming legislative session will be a four-month descent into hell. At this crucial time, when we most need strong and capable leaders at the helm of our ship of state, we are most bereft of same. The elections are coming up fast, but there’s still time to nail the candidates down on exactly how they plan to keep the good ship Montana off the rocks. Vague generalizations and rhetoric won’t cut it this time around. The countdown to catastrophe has begun, and if some candidates can’t tell you exactly what they plan to do to avert the impending disaster, you ought to tell them to look elsewhere for their votes. 

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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