- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A legislative panel proposed Wednesday to slash the Montana health department’s budget by $93 million despite concerns that lawmakers don’t know which programs for the elderly and vulnerable would be cut.

The Republican-led panel’s proposed cuts to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services budget include $42 million in state and federal money to senior and long-term care programs in 2018 and 2019. That’s a 15 percent reduction compared to this year.

The cuts don’t include any details beyond the dollar amounts in the spreadsheets lawmakers used as a guide, said Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena.

“We just voted on services that some members on the committee haven’t even learned about yet,” she said.

The health department’s Senior and Long Term Care Division’s services include nursing home care, home-delivered meals, hospice care and personal assistance.

Department Director Sheila Hogan said in a prepared statement the reductions beyond the governor’s budget plan would put families, seniors and children at risk.

Caferro also objected to the governor’s proposed cuts, particularly the elimination of an $87,000 contract to provide services to 30 blind children across the state. Caferro’s attempt to put that money back in the budget failed in a committee vote.

Republican leaders say the cuts being made now are only starting points for budget negotiations, and some of that money will be re-inserted in the coming weeks of the legislative session.

“We’ll have an opportunity to build some of this budget back - not to get anyone’s hopes up,” said Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad. “But it will be built back up based on legislative priorities.”

The health department cuts voted on Wednesday would reduce its budget to about $2.41 billion in 2018 and 2019, which is a nearly 2 percent overall reduction.

The proposed reduction is the largest so far in a series of deep budget cuts planned across state agencies.

The Republican-led Legislature is trying to balance the 2018-2019 state budget and leave cash in reserve without raising taxes or adding new ones, as Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is proposing.

Republican leaders are taking the more modest spending cuts proposed by Bullock and going deeper.

On Tuesday, budget subcommittees voted to make cuts to other state agencies, including $24 million for the Office of Public Instruction, $23 million for higher education and $3.4 million for the Department of Corrections, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said budget panels will spend the next month and a half looking closely at the cuts they are proposing.

“We know we have a budget shortfall we have to deal with,” Ballance said. “Our job is to figure out where we can deal with this so it’s the least pain possible.”

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