Montana Viewpoint


A $73 million windfall from the Feds should be used to help the poor, elderly, and disabled

July 7, 2003

As a provision of the recently passed federal tax cut legislation, $20 billion will be distributed to economically strapped state governments, still reeling from the effects of the recession. Montana is getting $73 million. Of that, the Feds require that $23 million goes to fund Medicaid, the state’s medical program for the needy and disadvantaged. The rest can be spent as we see fit.

Needless to say, we can use it, the question is how. Many legislators and the Montana Association of Churches would like to see the remaining $50 million used to restore program cuts to services for the elderly, poor, and disabled. The Governor wants to put it in reserves.

This conflict on how to treat the windfall has set the stage for calling the Legislature into Special Session to allow them, rather than the Governor, to decide how that money will be spent. Senator John Bolinger, R-Billings, is making the formal request. This requires agreement by 76 out of 150 legislators. The Governor also has the power to issue a call, but this seems unlikely to happen.

The Governor wants to put the $50 million into a reserve account in case her budget predictions are off, and we don’t have enough money to run the state. Specifically, she is concerned that income tax revenues might not come in as predicted.

This directly contradicts her position of the recently concluded legislative session. Then, in order to gain support for a $50 million income tax cut, the Administration argued that the national economy would surge ahead, and that Montana’s income tax collections would grow by unprecedented volume. It seems they are not so confident of this now. This would have been good to know before we made the tax cuts.

A legislative call for a special session is seldom successful, especially when the legislature is controlled by the Governor’s political party. For instance, even if all 68 Democrats in the Legislature support the call, it would still take an additional eight Republicans to carry the issue, and although a Republican is issuing the call, that seems unlikely to happen.

The fact remains though, that programs such as Meals on Wheels for the homebound elderly, childcare subsidies so that mothers can work rather than be on welfare, and prescription drug programs for the mentally ill were all cut because of lack of money. These same cuts were used by the administration as leverage to get Democrats to support raiding the Coal Trust: bust the Trust or see the poor and disabled suffer was the argument.

Well, we now have the $50 million in federal money, and could restore programs for the truly needy if we wanted to. After all, the Governor gave those of us who are better off a $50 million annual income tax cut, what’s wrong with treating the poor just as kindly? The Montana Association of Churches, in a letter to legislators, writes, “…a fundamental measure of society is how the poor and economically vulnerable are faring. Please join in a bipartisan call for a special session to direct this money to restore services to those in need.”

It’s a compelling argument, but the Governor could completely remove this argument for a Special Session, and look good doing it, by restoring those cuts. We would all profit from such a decision, both morally and economically.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620