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Montana Indian Caucus lawmakers warn budget cuts could hurt native communities

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State Capitol building in Helena. (MTN News) State Capitol building in Helena. (MTN News)

HELENA - Lawmakers from the Montana Legislature’s Indian Caucus are raising concerns about the effects proposed state budget cuts could have on native communities.

Montana is facing a $200 million projected budget deficit, after a year of record-high firefighting costs and lower-than-expected tax revenues. Gov. Steve Bullock’s office has proposed up to 10 percent cuts in state agencies’ funding to close the gap.

During a conference call Friday, Indian Caucus members said Montana’s native population would be particularly affected by the proposed cuts, especially those related to public schools or health and human services.

Rep. Shane Morigeau, a Democrat from Missoula, pointed to a number of programs that would be affected by the reductions, from foster care and child welfare assistance for tribes, to services for domestic violence victims and those with mental health issues. He said many members of the caucus already felt those programs were underfunded

“Our perspective is that this isn’t about politics or the next catchy catchphrase that people can put into an op-ed,” Morigeau said. “It’s literally a matter of life and death, and members of the Indian Caucus are not going to sit on the sidelines and watch.”

Democratic Sen. Lea Whitford of Cut Bank said the Legislature needs to work on finding ways to raise more revenue, to reduce the required cuts.

“First of all, we have to get everybody to a special session to talk about what are the alternatives in revenue streams,” Whitford said.

Bullock has not yet announced which of the proposed cuts to state agencies he will make. Some lawmakers have suggested a deal in which he could make smaller reductions, and the Legislature could cover the remainder of the budget gap with temporary taxes or other changes. But caucus members said Friday that type of deal still hasn’t been reached.

Whatever the governor and lawmakers decide, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat from Box Elder, said they are responsible for making sure the effects of the cuts don’t fall on the most vulnerable Montanans.

“We’re all to blame for this,” said Windy Boy.

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