It could have been worse. That’s the best most Montanans can say of the November special legislative session.

In the big picture, the Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock limited some of the fallout from the biennial budget they adopted at the end of the regular session six months ago.

“We walked out in a much better place than when we walked in,” Bullock told The Gazette Friday in a phone interview. Instead of cutting $227 million from an already-lean biennial budget, Bullock and the Legislature agreed to cut $76 million.

The biennial budget over-estimated how much revenue the state general fund would collect through the end of the fiscal year on June 30, and it over-estimated how much money would be collected in the first few months of the present fiscal year. Meanwhile, Montana had its most expensive wildfire season ever and burned through $70 million.

Based on those facts, Budget Director Dan Villa projected in September that the general fund would will be $227 million short of its legally required minimum balance at the end of the biennium on June 30, 2019.

Republican legislative leaders, chiefly Sen. Llew Jones, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, and Rep. Nancy Balance, chairwoman of the House appropriations committee, met with the governor’s office. The bills they introduced in the two-day session last week showed a considerable degree of thought, research and strategy. Unfortunately, there was no bipartisan agreement on exactly what the Democratic governor and the Republican legislative majority would do.

Republicans stuck with their no-tax-increases position, rejecting even temporary increases in the state’s lodging and rental car taxes.

About $49 million of the $76 million in budget cuts is in the Department of Public Health and Human Services, and will result in a loss of federal matching funds. The cuts will fall hardest on Montanans with severe disabilities who rely on in-home care and mental health services to live independently outside of hospitals and nursing homes.

Bullock said he made 10 percent cuts in several other agencies so that the DPHHS reduction would be lower percentage: 4.69 percent.

Let’s remember that the April budget bill already reduced state spending by shifting school funding to local property taxpayers, putting a hole in the university system budget (that resulted in tuition increases and faculty reductions) and requiring state agencies to achieve 8 percent vacancy savings by leaving budgeted jobs unfilled. The budget also calls for a 1 percent raise next year for state employees, but the raise wasn’t actually funded.

In the final days of the Legislature in April, Senate Bill 261 passed, mandating about $94 million in cuts if general fund revenues dipped below certain “trigger” levels. Those cuts are automatic and some have been taken, including reductions in K-12 school funding.

The public and some legislators pushed back against proposed cuts in rates paid to hospitals, doctors and clinics who care for Medicaid enrollees. But the SB261 cuts still loom because that new law says the budget must be reduced.

What does this all mean?

Essential public services will be reduced to Montanans in every county.

A special session isn’t the place to make major policy changes. The timeline is too short for meaningful public participation. Bills are written, voted on in committee and passed by House and Senate all within 24-48 hours.

Now that lawmakers have returned home, Montana voters must step up. Pay attention. If you, your friends or neighbors are affected by the shrinking of state-supported health care, human services or education, speak up. All 100 House seats and 25 Senate seats are up for election in 2018. Prepare to vote for your best interests.

-- The Billings Gazette