Bill calls for health department staff cuts, tuition freeze

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As the Montana House Appropriations Committee opened public testimony last week on the bill that sets the budget for state agencies, one of the most controversial proposals to emerge is the elimination of more than 100 full-time equivalent jobs from the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Health Department Director Sheila Hogan said the cuts will especially hurt rural areas where it’s difficult to find qualified people to do skill-intensive jobs.

“Sure the positions can be cut, but the work remains, and that is where the ripple effect occurs. It impacts those receiving services and how we deliver those services,” Hogan said.

Vice chairman of the committee, Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said since the jobs have been empty for over a year, there will not be a reduction in services offered by the otherwise large department.

“The number 100 is thrown out as a large number, but it has 3,300, I believe, or 3,500 employees,” Jones said. “I don’t think there’s anyone on the legislative side that doesn’t want to be effective or efficient, but we can only do that when the agencies speak to us.”

Jones also said if the Health Department was worried about cuts to specific programs, like vocational rehabilitation, then they should have been working with the Legislature before the cuts were suggested.

Shyla Patera, a specialist at North Central Independent Living, told the committee that without vocational rehabilitation, she wouldn’t be able to live the life she has now. The training helps individuals living with disabilities gain skills and find employment.

“We all as citizens with disabilities want to live, work and play in our communities,” Patera said.

Co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said the budget bill will be voted on after all five sections of the bill have had a public hearing.

Education Funding

The House Appropriations Committee heard from the public about education funding at last week’s hearing on the budget bill, House Bill 2. The education section of the proposed budget includes a tuition freeze for higher education and does not include funding for a public preschool program.

Jones said the preschool program, which is endorsed by Gov. Steve Bullock, was left out because a bill that would outline the program in detail has not been introduced.

However, Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, is carrying House Bill 225, which includes funding for preschool and inflationary adjustments for special education. It was heard in committee on Feb. 4 but lawmakers have not voted on it yet.

When HB 225 was introduced, Jones said it was not likely pass because it included too many programs. He said he would like to see each piece of the bill pass through the body individually.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen told the committee she was pleased the Legislature was able to pass the legally required inflationary adjustments early in the session. Bullock signed House Bill 159 into law on Feb. 27, and Arntzen said schools were able to see it by March 1 to create their budgets for the upcoming year.

Arntzen said the Office of Public Instruction will also be asking for an additional $7 million in state funding for 600 unanticipated students who have enrolled in Montana’s public school system.

Another significant section of public education funding goes to higher education — the Montana University System. Bullock and the Commissioner of Higher Education, Clayton Christian, asked for lawmakers to freeze tuition at 4- and 2-year institutions. The education subcommittee complied with the request in its proposed budget.

The Office of the Commissioner for Higher Education also asked lawmakers to allocated $5 million to offer need-based financial aid to college students, which the university system would match dollar-for-dollar.

“Montana is a low-aid state. In fact we’re 49th in the country,” Christian said.

The subcommittee included an allocation of $2 million for need-based aid.

Student and President of the Montana Associated Students, Mariah Welch, testified in the hearing and asked lawmakers to add $3 million to that allocation. Welch receives the state’s Native American waiver for college expenses, and said this type of aid is important.

“Without this funding, college did not seem financially available to me,” Welch said.

Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce are reporters with the UM Legislative News Service.

, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at shaylee.ragar@umontana.edu. Tim can be reached at tim.pierce@umontana.edu.

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