Rob Tallon

Rob Tallon

Our state budget impacts every single Montanan, whether we realize it or not. It provides funding for our schools, health care services, community safety, natural resources, and our roads, just to name a few. The budget also outlines our priorities as a state. Right now, it looks like those priorities are out of synch with the real needs of Montanans.

The seemingly endless rounds of state budget cuts will hurt thousands of Montanans, yet the news of slashed services for people with developmental disabilities hasn’t received adequate coverage. Our communities have the right to know what these cuts will mean for the day-to-day support, basic needs, and lifeline services for these citizens. The resources they need right now are in jeopardy of being stripped away. Organizations like Reach, that serve adults with disabilities, may be forced to reduce staff and limit services to our clients.

The governor met with the Chronicle editorial board recently and it reported that, “Bullock said people aren’t talking about the budget shortfall and the problem hasn’t really sunk in yet. He said that likely wouldn’t happen until after budget cuts are implemented and people feel the effects of programs being cut.”

Given this situation, agencies like Reach are faced with three options: cut expenses, increase revenues or decrease services. At Reach, we have already cut expenses to the bone. We can’t increase revenues by raising our rate or charging tuition. We are, however, in the middle of a fundraising campaign that will offset part of the proposed reductions. If that effort does not cover all the cuts, we will be forced to reduce services. Cutting services to such vulnerable people will be very tough. Two group homes have already closed in other Montana cities due to lack of funding and more closures may be on the way.

As executive director of Reach, Inc., I have gone to the capitol during the legislative session multiple times to share my perspective on the challenges and needs of serving adults with developmental disabilities. Hundreds of individuals showed up time and again to share their stories about how important funding and services through DPHHS are for themselves and their loved ones. Their personal testimony was powerful. They asked legislators over and over again to maintain or increase funding that provides critical services for vulnerable people. Many more people came to testify at committee hearings in support of revenue bills to preemptively offset many of these budget cuts.

I showed up multiple times to testify in support of revenue bills, like the tobacco tax bill, which should—and still could—make it across the finish line.

It is clear that the heartbreaking personal testimony from all corners of the state and the call for more revenue fell on deaf ears. Then, without any opportunity for public testimony, Senate Bill 261 tied increases in the budget to a revenue target that we did not even get close to meeting. As a result, a 3 percent across-the-board cut has been triggered for service providers. This is in addition to the governor’s 10 percent cut triggered by our failure to meet the legally required budget surplus.

While I’m upset about how we got here, what is more important is how to get out of this mess. Blaming doesn’t get us there, solutions do. It’s now up to each of us to make sure our voices are heard. We must call and email our elected officials to tell them we need increased revenue to save these programs, and the only way to do that is through a special session of the legislature. We must ask them to put people first.

We all deserve a representative government that listens to the citizens, prioritizes people first, and takes responsibility for its actions. Whether we know someone these programs serves or not, these cuts hurt our communities and the people who live here. Support for people with disabilities is an essential function of government. On behalf of all the people that Reach has supported in the past four decades, I implore our elected representatives to get back to work and invest in all Montanans.

Rob Tallon is the executive director of Reach, Inc., and has worked with people with disabilities in Montana for more 40 years.