At the Department of Public Health and Human Services, we are committed to providing direct services to Montanans that they rely on for their health and livelihoods. That’s why it’s disappointing to see Representatives Matt Regier and Carl Glimm imply in their March 20 editorial, “Republicans are working to trim fat from state agencies,” that vacant DPHHS FTEs must not be necessary. And it’s especially disappointing because the positions that have been left open for over a year are a direct result of managing complex budgetary pressures and managing finite resources.
When I became DPHHS Director in 2017, we were projected to end the year with just .002 percent in the bank of our overall budget. For anyone managing a budget — in a private business, a corporation, or even personally — ending the year by the skin of your teeth requires hard choices. My leadership team and I began constraining costs to ensure that resources to support direct services were available to meet demands.
In the winter of 2017, I implemented a hiring freeze as one component to save costs. Moreover, given the realities of further budget cuts from 2017 legislative session and the resulting special session, I made the hard, but fiscally responsible decision, to continue the hiring freeze throughout the next year. This was the only way we could continue valuable services to Montanans amid fiscal uncertainty.
On paper, this simply looks like a list of vacancies. In real life, we see committed but overwhelmed state workers who continue to weather unsustainable workloads. These state workers do more with less because they care about our clients and support our mission to serve Montanans.
With our budget now on better footing, it’s time to start delivering services back to Montanans at the level they — and we all — should expect. It’s also time to take seriously the revenue enhancers Governor Bullock will be introducing in the coming weeks. I share the Governor’s hope that the legislature will learn from the past rather than throw ideas out the window that will ensure our agency and others can do the jobs expected of us.
It’s not the time to cut the positions we need to fill — the ones that we held vacant by design to fix our budget but are absolutely essential moving forward to maintain the services we provide.
Instead of Representatives Regier and Glimm spending their time characterizing the critical services we provide as “fat,” they should come see for themselves the impact of budgetary constraints and hiring freezes on their constituents. And they should recognize that the legislature cannot do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. Calls from constituents, wait times, and service impacts will continue if we don’t have the ability to fill positions — and if they don’t take a hard look at the revenue options before them.
As a Department, we spent 45 days in subcommittee communicating our budget proposal in detail. We provided timely information to committee members and together listened to constituents from across Montana. The idea that communication is lacking is not supported by the facts.
I am personally offering to continue to have an open conversation with any legislator about our budget, the services we provide their constituents, or the challenges that have resulted from legislative decisions the last two years. I believe that we all want our fellow Montanans to get the critical services they need and deserve. And to do that, we all have to be willing to work together.
Sheila Hogan is the Director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services. She was appointed to this position by Gov. Steve Bullock.