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Unionists Rally in Montana To Denounce Budget Cuts

Montana has the revenue it needs to maintain public services, but that fact seems to be lost on the Republican-led Legislature.

More than 500 faith leaders, small business owners, parents, teachers, firefighters, state employees, higher education faculty and others gathered to rally at the Statehouse in Helena Feb. 21 to call on lawmakers to reverse cuts to education, human services and public safety. The event was co-organized by the MEA-MFT and the Montana Organizing Project.

MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver, who also is an AFT vice president, explained to the crowd that the Republican majority in the appropriations subcommittees has made cumulative decisions resulting in more than $1 billion in cuts from Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposed budget.

The cuts are perplexing. Montana has enough revenue to fund state services and education at current levels—and still have $360 million in the bank.

"I think some of these legislators have deficit envy," said MEA-MFT member Kristin Intemann, a professor at Montana State University-Bozeman. "Montana is one of two states in the nation without a budget deficit, and some legislators can't stand being left out of the action."

Intemann said the legislators have not created one job, "but their cuts will destroy hundreds of existing jobs."

MEA-MFT member Cheryl Parker, who works for the Department of Public Health and Human Services in Missoula, said the $500 million in cuts to her agency "will hurt the elderly, the mentally ill, the disabled, our kids, people who need Meals on Wheels, rural hospitals and the Low Income Energy Assistance Program."

Billings firefighter Joe Sands said the Republican legislative majority has "declared open season on our retirement, our benefits, our pay, our rights to organize and negotiate." The agenda was not lost on Sands or others at the rally. "Wisconsin's Gov. Walker made it brutally clear what he cares about. It is about crushing the one group that stands up for the middle class—the unions," Sands said. "Thank God we have a governor who believes in public services and public education, who stands with us."

"The state budget is not just a bunch of numbers," state Rep. Edie McClafferty (D-Butte) told the crowd. "The state budget is all about people's lives. The cuts proposed so far have the potential to devastate Montana. Our children's education is at stake. Our elders' care is at stake. Our economy, our clean air, our safe communities—our very future is at stake."

McClafferty told the cheering crowd that it is not too late to reverse the cuts, "but we need your help."

After the rally, participants took their message inside the Capitol, where they asked lawmakers to reverse the cuts and pass the state pay plan, which gives state employees a 1 percent salary increase in January 2012 and 3 percent in January 2013. "Two years ago, when the economy went south, state employees stepped up and took a voluntary pay freeze," said Parker. "But now the economy is improving. The revenue is available to fund the pay plan. It's a minimal increase, but it will help." [Sanna Porte, MEA-MFT; Kathy Nicholson]

February 23, 2011