Lawmakers Weigh Cost of Services for State’s Poor, Aged and Disabled

Posted on March 21, 2011

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Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, is spearheading the Republican drive to cut millions of dollars from Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed budget. He says Montana does not have the revenue to support such spending. (Photo by Cody Bloomsburg)

Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, warns that Republicans cuts would make life harder for the state’s neediest residents. (Photo by Cody Bloomsburg)

Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, warns that Republicans cuts would make life harder for the state’s neediest residents. (Photo by Cody Bloomsburg)

By CODY BLOOMSBURG

HELENA – From her wheelchair on Friday, Shyla Patera told the panel of lawmakers something they don’t often hear.

“I want to live and work and pay my taxes,” Patera told members of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.

Patera represents four Montana independent living centers that help disabled people with the daily tasks of life so they can stay in their own homes and be a part of their communities.

In 2003, enrollees in the program were reduced to three showers per week. If budget cuts proposed by Republicans become reality, meal preparation time will be cut to four hours a week, roughly 11 minutes per meal.

Patera said she’s just one of many disabled Montanans who want to live productive lives. “This is my goal, and this is the dream of everyone I serve,” she said.

To do this, though, she said they need the Senate Finance and Claims Committee to restore funding to the personal assistance program.

“No one ever dreams that they’re going to need public assistance,” Patera said. “But it’s here and we have to understand that the system is needed for people.”

The question of how much help taxpayers should offer Montana’s poor, aged, sick and disabled is at the heart of every legislative session. But concerns are heightened this year by the recent recession, which strained both taxpayers and programs for those in need.

Neither side’s argument is without emotion or logic, but the conservative majority is calling the shots, and the results of budget cuts could be dramatic.

GOP-controlled budget committees are slashing Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed budgets for food stamps, for family planning clinics, and for health insurance for children from low-income families. They are cutting proposals for rural hospitals, for personal care for disabled Montanans, for Big Brother and Sisters programs, and for anti-smoking education. The list goes on.

Republicans in the powerful Senate Finance and Claims Committee last week rejected more than 60 attempts to overturn the cuts, which the House has already approved.

The hearings began with an angry confrontation with Schweitzer’s budget director, David Ewer, who all but promised a veto of a GOP budget he called “woefully” inadequate, even “absurd” in its refusal on principle to accept millions of federal dollars to ease the pain.

Most of the cuts come from federal money, including $35 million less for food stamps and $35 million less to help rural hospitals and community health centers speed the flow of patients’ medical information. Another cut would strip $4.7 million in support for family planning clinics.

Those programs and others, such as the state-federal Medicaid program, often require a minimal match from the state, but Republicans this session are saying no. Montanans can’t afford that, they argue. Neither, they insist, can the federal government.

Two legislators, two views

The struggle over spending for Montana’s neediest residents is reflected in the politics of two veteran legislators, both with long histories in state government. One sees a state whose economy is on the rebound, with money to help. The other is not convinced.

Sen. Dave Lewis has almost three decades of experience working with the budget. The Helena Republican served as budget director for two governors, chaired the House Appropriations Committee in 2003 and now chairs the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.

He’s a numbers guy. In the back of his head, he is always weighing costs against income. He doesn’t see enough ongoing state revenue to support the governor’s vision.

“I know where I’m at,” Lewis said early last week. “I know what I can afford to do and what I can’t do. I spent the bulk of my professional career balancing budgets; you don’t just walk away from that. I’m not going to be oblivious to how much revenue is coming in.”

Before last week’s hearings, Lewis said he would be surprised to see the Legislature restore social service spending to the levels proposed by Schweitzer.

If that’s the case, Sen. David Wanzenried, D-Missoula, wants to make sure his fellow lawmakers understand the consequences.

“We need to make sure that people understand that behind those numbers, behind those policy statements that they profess, there are lives out there that are in the balance in many cases,” Wanzenried said.

A candidate for governor in 2012, Wanzenried has a resume that dates back to the 1980s when he was Gov. Ted Schwinden’s chief of staff. He’s spent the past two interims working with health and human services organizations to understand their needs and the aid they give.

Real cuts, real consequences

Where Lewis keeps his running tally in mind, Wanzenried sees the faces of people like Travis Hoffman, a lobbyist for Montana independent living centers, whose budgets depend partly on state aid.

When Patera addressed the committee on Friday, she did so in Hoffman’s stead. He was getting his wheelchair fixed. It has broken three times during the session, and earlier in the week he was making do by wedging the dislodged joystick between pieces of the frame.

Hoffman also depends on a professional assistant to help him with the basic tasks of life, like making meals and taking showers.

As Hoffman said earlier in the week, the Republican cuts mean he’ll be eating a lot more Hot Pockets.

Lewis says he understands Hoffman’s plight. He once directed the state’s human service agency, and he chaired the House Health and Human Services Committee in 2000.

“People get in situations where they need that help, we can’t turn our back on it,” Lewis said. “But we also can’t just say the sky is the limit.”

Likewise, Wanzenried says he understands the taxpayers’ concern, but argues that keeping Hoffman, Patera and Montana’s neediest healthy can help taxpayers avoid much higher costs for emergency health care or institutionalization.

In Helena, the debate wears on. By week’s end, the budget should roll onto the Senate floor where lawmakers will consider not only cuts in budgets for human services, but cuts in Schweitzer’s plan for higher education and prisons.

Each cut will have its savings and costs, and each lawmaker will have to strike the balance of heart and brain.

– Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at 208-816-0809 or by e-mail at crbloomsburg@hotmail.com

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