A Legislature somewhat unexpectedly flush with federal cash is still pinching every penny it can reach.
Fiscal restraint is a good guiding principle, and despite the infusion of some $2.7 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds, we understand that legislators must be careful to avoid funding things with the federal money that will commit future state funds down the road.
That said, some of the exclusions from the budget as the debate unfolded on the House floor this week made little sense.
A case in point is $1 million for suicide prevention programs. Even the painful personal plea of Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena, D-Lame Deer, who told lawmakers that her grandson died by suicide last week, failed to sway Republican legislators determined to kill every “social program” in sight.
“I got a phone call. My grandson committed suicide. Twenty-four years old,” Whiteman Pena said. “ … We are the voice of the Montana people. We were elected to these positions for this very reason.”
It’s well-known that Montana has one of the worst suicide rates — particularly youth suicide — in the country.
Rep. Matt Regier, a Kalispell Republican who chairs the subcommittee that dealt with the health department budget, said there aren't good ways to track whether money spent on suicide prevention has been effective.
There are some things, Rep. Regier, that one needs to, if not take on faith, then accept without demur. It is painfully obvious that we can’t tell how many more Montanans would have killed themselves had we not had the basic prevention measures the state has previously employed. Unfortunately, the way it looks we’ll be able to do exactly that — when it’s too late for the state to do anything about it.
Such shortsightedness was on full display with other budget amendment votes.
Rejected was $2.4 million in stopgap funding for a program to provide mental health care for kids in schools.
Really? Is that who we are?
While those cuts were GOP-initiated and approved on party-line votes, we find similar fault with the Democratic House members for voting against Rep. Seth Berglee’s amendment to provide $1 million in for the university system to use for firearms training, metal detectors for events, gun safes for campus resident housing and safety awareness campaigns.
This funding, of course, is made prudent by the earlier passage of Berglee’s bill expanding permitless concealed carry and allowing guns on state university campuses. The Democratic rationale for opposing this funding seems to be “we told you this would be needed and you ignored us earlier.” Which is a weak rationale.
We editorialized in favor of more gun-safety training and other safety measures at the time of the passage of the expanded gun-rights measure, and we are glad to see this amendment pass.
But it is the Republicans’ parsimony that carries the day. We are distressed to see state funding for necessary, previously budgeted items suddenly be withdrawn so that the federal ARPA funds can take its place. That is the opposite of prudence; when the federal funding dries up there will be a hole in the budget that future legislators will need to fill.
And if the prevailing sentiment remains as it is today, we can see more needed programs go on the scrap heap when that happens.
When “savings” means unfunded future societal cost, budget politics should take a back seat to common sense.
— The Billings Gazette
The Billings Gazette Editorial Board consists of President and Publisher Dave Worstell, Regional Editor David McCumber and Chief Photographer Larry Mayer.