Tribal Sovereignty During COVID-19

Tribal nations are showcasing leadership during COVID-19 by prioritizing the safety and health of vulnerable populations, tribal citizens, and non-citizens. To fight the spread of COVID-19, many tribal nations have exercised their sovereign right to regulate the movement of peoples on their lands. This includes opening travel check points and shelter-in-place orders.

Despite Montana’s decisions to enter phase two of reopening, some tribal nations have extended stay-at-home orders and continued to implement travel checkpoints to protect their citizens and non-citizen travelers. Elder tribal citizens are an especially vulnerable group, and tribal nations have taken measures to safeguard them.

The Blackfeet Tribe implemented an ordinance continuing their shelter-in-place order, closing roads within the reservation to essential use, and closing entrances to Glacier National Park located within the reservation. Blackfeet’s Incident Commander, Robert DesRosier, explained the tribal nation is not aligning with the Governor’s reopening timeline because, “we just have a vulnerable population, our elders… They’re the most sacred group of people that we honor and respect.” Elders hold important roles within tribal nations, communities, and families. Not only are elders beloved, they pass irreplaceable indigenous knowledge forms and languages on to future generations.

The Crow Tribe opened a series of checkpoints in late March to limit the spread of COVID-19. More recently, the Crow Tribe extended its stay-at-home order to June 15th, and travelers have also been encouraged to not travel to the reservation even for recreational activities. Governor Bullock has respected the sovereignty of tribal nations to put in place these more restrictive measures while the rest of the state prepares for phase two of reopening. 

In contrast, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has attempted to order the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe to remove the travel checkpoints each tribal nation operates on their own lands. Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe responded with a letter citing the tribal nation’s sovereign authority to determine who travels through their lands, and the responsibility of the tribal nation to protect its citizens as well as non-citizens.

In a recent survey, the top three categories of concern for tribal governments during COVID-19 were structural barriers to finance, access to food and supplies, and the well-being of elders and families. Many tribal nations do not have adequate economic resources to respond to COVID-19, and are experiencing a disproportionate impact to their revenues.

As we have written about before, tribal governments operate many of the same public services as other levels of government, but they must do so without the usual tax revenue other levels of government rely on, such as property tax. State and local governments have successfully challenged in court tribal governments’ exclusive right to levy taxes within their reservation and stifled reservation economic growth.

As a result, many tribes must rely on their natural resources and tribally owned business enterprises as their only source of revenue outside federal dollars. However, COVID-19 has forced many of these tribal enterprises, such as non-essential businesses and casinos, to close.

Tribal nations and their citizens also face structural barriers to healthcare and emergency medical resources, and it has become a starker reality in the context of COVID-19. Despite the United States government’s legal obligation, or federal trust responsibility, to provide health care to tribal nations and their citizens, the chronic underfunding of the Indian Health Service (IHS) existed long before the pandemic.

In addition to structural barriers to health care, settler-colonialism’s attempt to erase indigenous food systems, economies, and lands negatively impacted the health of American Indians. These health disparities, such as the fact American Indians are three times as likely to have diabetes than whites, could affect susceptibilities to COVID-19. However, it is important to emphasize that these susceptibilities do not have to do with a lack of immunity. These disparities are direct results of historic and ongoing policies, such as the Indian Removal Act, pursued by the federal government, states, and settlers.

On March 27th, the federal government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES Act) which would provide $8 billion to tribal nations to buffer the economic impact of coronavirus. However, these funds were delayed for weeks and some tribal nations are still waiting. In Montana, all eight federally-recognized tribal nations are expected to receive CARES Act funds.

The Crow Tribe, for instance, received CARES Act funds on May 13th to purchase personal protective equipment, testing kits, and other tribal government response efforts. The recently federally-recognized Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians does not have an IHS facility and will not receive funds to support medical staff. Little Shell will receive funds for housing, but Chairman Gray worries this may not be enough to assist the tribal nation’s ability to fight the virus. Governor Bullock has made efforts towards making testing more accessible to tribal nations during the pandemic, and recently sent kits to the Fort Belknap, Blackfeet, and Crow reservations.

Despite the numerous barriers they face, tribal nations continue to consider public health and safety for all, expanding beyond their own citizens. Tribal nations have prioritized vulnerable populations, such as elders, as integral to the fabric of the tribal nation, community, and families.

Children are going hungry with school closures. Montana can help.

Montana can help thousands of low-income students get enough to eat during school closures, but it must act swiftly.  

A new program established through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Coronavirus Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), allows states to provide assistance to families with children who would otherwise be receiving free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches if schools were in session. With thousands of parents having lost their jobs or working reduced hours and children across the state out of school, P-EBT can help ensure kids are receiving the nutrition they need. 

In Montana, 65,000 children receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Four out of every ten students in Montana public schools receive these meals, and many are at an increased risk of hunger while schools are out of session.  

School districts across the state have been providing pick-up meals, an important stop-gap service for those in need, but they are not enough. In February, the NSLP provided over 2 million free and reduced price meals to Montana students. In March, despite school still being in session for the first two weeks of the monthschool meal programs provided half a million fewer meals. Many families are unable to make outings multiple times a day for meals, and P-EBT can help make up the difference.  

P-EBT benefits can help increase nutrition for children at risk of going hungry. The benefits amount to $114 a month per child. If schools in Montana remain out for the rest of the year, families may receive over $300 in assistance per child.  

Enacting P-EBT, however, is not without its challenges. For those families with children who receive free and reducedprice lunches and are also enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the state can automatically issue benefits through SNAP for these families.  

However, there are many who are not already enrolled in SNAP. To reach these children,  Montana must find thembut contact information on the NSLP may not be immediately available. The state may need to use data from school districts, Healthy Montana Kids, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), foster care, and other programs to ensure no one slips through the cracks. Outlining a plan to identifstudents eligible for assistance is a necessary step to get state approval for P-EBT.  

While many school districts have voted to close for the rest of the school year, some uncertainty about the weeks ahead remain. Nevertheless, obtaining P-EBT benefits for families should be a priority for Montana. P-EBT benefits can be issued retroactively, helping to ease the unexpected financial difficulty many families have endured over the past month and a half. 

So far, Montana has taken several measures to help ease the financial burden of the pandemic The state has taken action to ensure households will not be kicked off of SNAP in this critical time and has increased the benefit amount for many households. Now, the state should take another step and make kids a priority as well. 

Thirty-one states have been approved for P-EBT thus far. Montana has the opportunity to ease the pressure on families and reduce childhood hunger. The state should create a plan to issue P-EBT benefits to eligible households as soon as possible. 

COVID Lays Bare Inequities for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the inequities built into the very systems that are meant to serve families facing financial insecurity. As a result, BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are disproportionately feeling the devastating impacts of this pandemic and resulting economic recession.

Essential or frontline workers, such as those working in grocery and food services, child care, and health services, are putting their lives on the line so that we can collectively stay safe and continue to enjoy access goods and services during these times. Existing policies that have limited economic mobility, such as unequal access to educational and job opportunities, result in more women and black, indigenous, and people of color employed in frontline work. Frontline workers have always been and continue to be critical to our communities – we simply see it more clearly now. And today they face greater risks of exposure to COVID-19, while they help others stay in their homes and stay safe.

To make things worse, BIPOC communities also have less access to health care services, and subsequently, experience higher rates of underlying health issues that can pose greater risks of illness from coronavirus. As just one example, African Americans comprise less than one third of the population in Louisiana, but represent nearly three-quarters of those dying from COVID-19 in the state. Inadequate investments in the core building blocks that ensure economic stability, such as safe and stable housing, public transportation, and quality education, have a lasting impact on the health and wellbeing of communities. The systematic underinvestment in low-income communities have resulted in families less likely to receive preventative health services and lower-quality care overall.

Access to health services for American Indians is inextricably linked to the federal government’s unique trust obligations and its failures to meet those obligations. Through over 400 treaties negotiated between the U.S. government and tribal nations, tribes ceded control of millions of acres of their homelands in the U.S., in exchange for compensation, which often included medical services. And yet, severe and chronic underfunding of Indian Health Service and tribal health departments has resulted in limited medical services for indigenous people. Thirty-five percent of American Indians in Montana lack access to a primary health care provider, compared to 26 percent of whites. This lack of access to health services coupled with generations of historical trauma has resulted in higher rates of asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. Many tribal nations in the U.S. are seeing greater spread of COVID with fewer resources to address it.

Historic racism and present-day discrimination have also resulted in policies that don’t reach BIPOC communities in a meaningful way. Workers making lower wages are less likely to have access to paid sick days or paid family leave or employer-provided health care. Traditional small business lending programs are often geared toward white-owned businesses with access to collateral and needed resources. The pervasive legacy of racist policies, such as redlining, and current day discriminations through housing, education, and employment have prevented many BIPOC families from moving up the income scale, but even more starkly, from building wealth. Today, the average wealth held by a white individual who has dropped out of high school exceeds that of a Black or Latino college graduate. Black, indigenous, and families of color living on low incomes are more likely to lack even a few hundred dollars in savings to call upon in times of crisis.

As we rebuild our economy, this is an opportunity to create structures to no longer harm, but instead support, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. BIPOC communities best know how to begin to right these injustices and must be represented as we collectively work to fix system deficiencies that have been made more apparent during this pandemic. We must look at policies that will address the historical injustices and ensure that all communities have the freedom to thrive.

Montana’s Frontline Workers Are Mostly Women and People of Color

In Montana and across the world, the coronavirus pandemic is keeping many of us safely in our homes. Frontline workers are making this protection possible, providing deliveries, healthcare, childcare, social services, and stocking stores with food and necessities. Frontline workers have always played a critical role in our communities, but as the streets are quieted from the typical hustle and bustle, we can see more clearly who is making sure that families can buy food, children are taken care of, and seniors and people with disabilities continue to receive daily care. As a result of historical oppression, like policies that have kept women and people of color out of university systems, and current day discrimination, frontline workers are often disproportionately women and people of color.

In Montana, over 100,000 workers are frontline workers, which is about the population of Billings, Montana. They include grocery store clerks, nurses, cleaners, warehouse workers, child care workers, home health aides, and bus drivers, among others. They were essential before the pandemic hit, but today there is a bright light on their importance. However, these workers are often overworked, underpaid, under protected, and under appreciated. Due in part to historical racial and gender discrimination, frontline workers in Montana are more likely to be women, American Indian, or over the age of 50. Women account for 47 percent of all workers, however they make up 65 percent of frontline workers. Many frontline workers also have family care obligations, as over a third, in Montana and nationwide, have minor children at home.

Many frontline workers support themselves and their families on very low incomes. Montana should prioritize the needs of frontline workers during this moment of crisis (and moving forward), including adequate compensation, expanding as access to health care, child care assistance, and paid sick and family leave. Strengthening economic security for frontline workers will recognize this critical role in our economy and leave all of us better equipped to face downturns in the future.

The Power to Tax in Indian Country

Even though the novel coronavirus pandemic has pushed back Tax Day this year from April 15 to July 15, MBPC wanted to honor April 15, the day we all recognize as Tax Day under normal circumstances, by discussing taxation authority in Indian Country.

Every government relies on tax revenues to fund the essential programs, services, and functions that benefit us all. The power to tax is an inherent right of self-government and is one of many rights retained by tribal nations. However, while tribal governments once held exclusive taxation authority on their reservations, including over non-Indians, state and local governments have repeatedly challenged this authority, making this one of the most litigated issues between tribal, state, and local governments.

Tribal governments are fully functioning governments that provide a range of services similar to those of federal, state, and local governments. They manage tribal lands and resources; provide health care; maintain tribal roads, bridges, and other infrastructure; provide housing; conduct elections; ensure public safety; and more. Many of these services benefit all reservation residents, including non-Indians.

Like other governments, tribal governments have elected officials and employ a sizeable workforce to provide essential functions and services. In fact, tribal governments are oftentimes the largest employers in their geographic areas, and like any government, tribal governments require revenue to carry out their duties and meet their obligations to their citizens.

While tribal governments operate many of the same public services as other levels of government, they must do so without the usual tax revenue on which other levels of government rely. In part, this is because state and local governments have successfully challenged in court tribal governments’ once-exclusive right to levy taxes within their reservation boundaries to the point that tribal taxation authority is greatly reduced today.

Now, many tribal nations must rely on their natural resources and tribally owned business enterprises as their only source of revenue outside federal dollars. Even in those cases, states have fought for the ability to co-tax certain economic activities and natural resource development involving non-Indians in Indian Country, extracting wealth from tribal communities and creating a system where the threat of dual taxation depresses reservation economic growth.

Dual taxation occurs when an activity is subject to both the tribal and non-tribal tax. When state and local taxing jurisdictions insist upon assessing taxes where a tribal tax exists, those non-tribal jurisdictions may significantly increase the costs of doing business, making it more difficult to attract economic development opportunities to Indian Country. For example, in a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the court established that in certain instances, such as cigarette sales, the state can impose its tax on non-Indians making purchases on the reservation. This ruling creates a scenario in which non-Indians are subject to both the state and tribal tax.

While tribal governments in Montana today assess some taxes, including excise taxes on on-reservation sales of alcohol and fuel, revenue derived from those taxes is shared with the state of Montana through revenue sharing agreements. These agreements are important steps in state-tribal tax relations and are intended to reduce the threat of dual taxation. However, the state can and should do more.

Deferring to tribal taxation authority would be a good start. The 2015 Washington Legislature passed House Bill 2000 to authorize the governor to enter into agreements regarding marijuana with tribal governments. The law specifies that each intergovernmental agreement must provide for a tribal marijuana tax that is at least 100 percent of the state tax. The law does not require revenue-sharing. According to the fiscal note, the state marijuana excise tax does not apply to marijuana activities governed by tribal marijuana agreements; state and local sales and use taxes are also excluded.

On this Tax Day, it is important to remember that all governments need tax revenue to provide us with the programs, functions, and services upon which we all rely and to exercise self-governance. That is why the power to tax is essential to tribal sovereignty. Honoring tribal taxation authority increases the ability of tribal governments to generate revenue; operate essential programs, services, and functions; and exercise sovereignty.

Indian Country economic development is good for the state. When reservation economies grow, so do state economies.

For more about taxes in Indian Country, see MBPC’s two-part series on the taxes that tribal citizens and tribal governments pay.

CARES Act: Frequently Asked Questions About Recovery Rebates

This post was originally posted on April 10 but was updated on April 16. 

On March 27, 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) a $2.2 trillion package that includes direct financial assistance to many families, unemployment support, necessary resources to address impending fiscal cliffs faced by state and local governments, and more. Here are answers to some of the questions about who receives rebates and how to get them.

What are the recovery rebates?

The CARES Act authorized direct one-time payments to individuals and families of $1,200 per adult and $500 per dependent child 16 or younger. The payments begin to phase out at annual earnings of $75,000 for single individual, $112,500 for a single head-of-household with one or more dependents, and $150,000 for a married couple. The payment is reduced by $5 for every $100 above those thresholds, fully phasing out at $99,000 for single individual or $198,000 for married couple.

Montanans are expected to receive a total of $1.105 billion in recovery rebates.

What if I haven’t filed my 2019 taxes?

The IRS will use income reported on 2019 tax filings to determine if people are eligible for the rebate. If 2019 taxes have not been filed, the information on 2018 tax returns will be used to determine eligibility.

What if I didn’t file my 2018 taxes? 

Anyone who has not yet filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return should do so as soon as possible, and provide their direct deposit information on the return for the rebate payment. For those receiving social security, the IRS will use that data to generate a rebate without having to file. Those that may be on other assistance, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) but are required to file a tax return, will need to file to receive their rebate.

Not everyone is required to file their taxes; for those who are not, the here is the IRS link to enter information to receive your stimulus check. The rebates will be available through the rest of 2020.

When can I expect my recovery rebate?

The Treasury Department and IRS announced March 30 that the distribution of the rebates would begin sometime in first three weeks of April. The IRS will be sending a letter to each taxpayer’s last known address about the recovery rebates, up to 15 days after payments are made. The letter will give instructions to follow if payment was not received. People should be careful of scams related to the recovery rebates, and individuals should check the IRS website to confirm information in a letter, if they are unsure if a letter received was legitimate.

What if I didn’t do direct deposit for my tax returns?

For individuals with direct deposit information on file with the IRS, the rebates will be deposited. Individuals who may not have direct deposit information on file can check and enter information through a web-based portal. Otherwise, checks will be mailed. Individuals who do not typically file tax returns will need to submit a simple tax return to receive their rebates.

Is everyone eligible for a rebate?

No. Those who are dependents age 17 and over or immigrants who file taxes via the Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN) are not eligible for a rebate.

Will the rebate affect my 2020 tax refund?

The rebate is a refundable tax credit for 2020, paid out in advance, and in general, should not affect a taxpayer’s 2020 tax refund. The only way the rebate would reduce a taxpayer’s 2020 refund would be if their 2019 (or 2018) income was lower than 2020 income, and they didn’t qualify for as much of the credit as they received. For example, if a single taxpayer made over $75,000 in 2020, but under $75,000 in 2019 and received the rebate based on their 2019 income, they would have to pay the excess amount back when paying their 2020 taxes.

What if my family household has changed since my most recent tax filing?

To update household filing status, file or amend your 2019 return as soon as possible. For changes in address, a temporary change of address notice is available through USPS, a form may be filed with the IRS, and taxpayers may write to the IRS informing them of a change of address, which should redirect checks which will be sent if the IRS does not have correct direct deposit information.

If the changes are not caught by the time refund checks are issued, the changes will be made in 2020 tax filings.

The CARES Act and Unemployment Insurance: Who Is Eligible?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides important expansions to the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program to help relieve some of the economic decline caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment has risen at an unprecedented rate. Nationwide, over the past two weeks, nearly 10 million people applied for UI. Montana has seen its UI claims skyrocket, with over 19,000 filing during the week of March 21.

Montana is expected to be one of the states hardest hit by sharp rises in unemployment due to its high share of jobs in the retail, hospitality, and leisure industries. The state is expected to lose 68,000 jobs by summer, with a projected job loss of 17.5 percent of private-sector employment.

There are three primary expansions to UI, and confusingly, are all similarly named:

  • expanded benefit eligibility – new unemployment benefit program for those not eligible for state UI program, like self-employed workers (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance);
  • additional 11 weeks for those eligible under state UI (Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation); and
  • additional $600 weekly benefit for workers receiving UI or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (Pandemic Unemployment Compensation).

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

Many workers are not typically eligible for Unemployment Insurance. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) will cover self-employed, independent contractors, workers seeking part-time work, and workers who do not have a long enough work history to qualify for benefits. An applicant must show that they are unemployed and unable to work as a result of COVID-19 (place of work has closed; sick with or quarantined; caring for someone who is sick or quarantined; or caring for a child as a result of school or child care closure).

Workers are not eligible for PUA if they are able to telework or are receiving paid sick days or paid leave. Undocumented workers are also not eligible for PUA. PUA cannot exceed 39 weeks and expires on December 31, 2020. PUA is calculated under the amount that the state’s current law – a formula that calculates UI based on a percentage of past wages earned. Those eligible for PUA are also eligible for the additional $600 weekly benefit under Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. PUA is federally funded.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation

Prior to the passage of the CARES Act, Montana offered 28 weeks of Unemployment Insurance, more than any other state. The CARES Act allows for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), an extension of UI benefits through December 31, 2020. For Montanans, this will result in up to an additional 11 weeks of UI benefits.

The federal government will fund PEUC (that is, the federal government will pay the amount after Montana’s 28 weeks of UI). However, the state may not move to reduce the number of weeks it currently provides of UI.

Pandemic Unemployment Compensation

The CARES act substantially increases weekly unemployment benefits for claimants through July 31 through Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC). Claimants will receive the amount they would normally receive in unemployment benefits, plus an extra $600 a week. Those receiving partial unemployment benefits are also eligible for PUC.

PUC is a significant expansion of benefits – in state fiscal year 2019, the average weekly benefit for Montanans was $384, with a minimum weekly amount of $163 and a maximum amount of $552. Those receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), mentioned above, will also be eligible for PUC.

PUC is not considered income for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP, known in Montana as Healthy Montana Kids). Unemployment insurance is considered income for the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). PUC is federally funded.

If you are in need of assistance

If you are an employer looking for more information, or if you have lost work and are in need of assistance, you can find more information at the Department of Labor and Industry’s website, dli.mt.gov. If you want to submit an unemployment insurance claim, go to MontanaWorks.gov to submit an application. Answers and claims may be delayed as these programs are implemented and become fully functional.

Food Access: Changes to SNAP, WIC, and Child Nutrition During COVID-19

In times of crisis and uncertainty, Montanans come together to take care of each other. In the last two weeks, record numbers of people have lost their jobs and are at risk of hunger.

In order to address this crisis, Montana, the federal government, and local communities have taken great strides to help ensure no one goes hungry during this pandemic. While there is more work to be done, here is a run-down of the changes to important food programs in the state.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps)

SNAP is the nation’s “first-responder” in times of crisis. It is one of the fastest ways to not only get food on people’s tables, but to support local economies as well. There have been several changes to SNAP in the past few weeks, which will help make it easier for struggling families to eat.

  • Suspension of the work requirement – Under SNAP rules, able-bodied adults without dependents age 18-49 are expected to work. Due to widespread job losses and mandated social distancing, the work requirement has been suspended as of April 1. Adults who have lost their jobs will not have to worry about losing their SNAP assistance as well.
  • Increased benefit amounts – SNAP benefits are calculated by a formula which deducts certain expenses from a household’s income in order to determine how much they should be able to spend on food. With incomes and expenses in flux, state caseworkers taking on larger caseloads, and the need to make sure everyone can stay as healthy as possible, Montana has been able to increase every household’s benefit to the maximum benefit allowed for their household size.
  • Extended certification periods – The state has moved to extend the benefits of households whose benefits were about to expire. If a household’s benefits were set to expire in March, April, or May, they have been extended by an additional six months. This move will prevent households from falling through the cracks, and free up caseworkers to process new applications.

Child Nutrition Programs

When schools closed, many children were at risk of losing their school breakfasts and lunches. Montana has helped see that children are still able to get the food that they need.

  • School meals – Montana schools are allowed to serve meals through either the Summer Food Service Program or the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast program in a non-congregate setting. Schools are not required to offer meals, but there are currently 277 sites around the state offering meals and/or snacks to children. A list of sites that children can receive meals and/or snacks can be found here.

Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Program

WIC is a vital nutrition program which allows women with young children to purchase certain products, such as milk and produce.

  • Food package substitution – Montana has received waivers to allow WIC recipients to swap products if they are unavailable – for example, substituting frozen vegetables for fresh ones.
  • Physical Presence Waiver – WIC appointments can now be done on the telephone or computer, instead of in person. This move allows families to receive benefits without putting themselves or caseworkers in danger.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, more must be done to help ensure that no one goes hungry. However, these initial steps that our communities have taken to prevent hunger will help protect thousands of Montanans in this difficult time.

State Action on Evictions, Foreclosures, and Utilities

This week, Governor Bullock issued an executive order to place a moratorium on evictions in light of COVID-19. We included this recommendation in our report released earlier this week, and it is a step that many other housing advocates are calling for. With thousands of workers facing reduced hours or layoff, families are grappling with how to cover basic necessities, like food, utilities, and housing costs. Enforcing evictions and forcing families into precarious living situations poses a threat to public health, at a time that emergency shelters or other affordable housing are all at maximum capacity.

At least 34 states have issued moratoriums on evictions, either through executive order or by court order. Governors in twenty-two other states (Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, California, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin) have issued executive orders providing a moratorium on evictions. Montana’s executive order is consistent with these other orders.

Here is a quick rundown of Governor Bullock’s executive order:

The moratorium applies from March 31 through April 10, 2020, and applies to:

  • Evictions on residential renters when that eviction is tied to nonpayment;
  • Foreclosures on residential homeowners when that eviction is tied to nonpayment; and
  • Shutting off utilities, including electricity, water, telephone, and internet services to a dwelling unit or residence.

The order directs the courts to immediately stay (or halt) pending eviction actions, and prevents new eviction filings or enforcement during the applicable period.

The order prohibits trustee’s sale, sheriff’s sale, or other involuntary sale/foreclosure proceeding of residential property during the applicable period, and directs the courts to stay any pending foreclosure actions during the applicable period.

Landlords are also prohibited from:

  • charging late fees, interest, or other charges related to nonpayment of rent;
  • increasing rent amounts that were not previously agreed to in an existing lease;
  • requesting suspension or termination of utilities; or
  • reporting a tenant’s nonpayment to a credit agency.

The order provides an exemption from this moratorium for evictions and foreclosures that may be related to reasons other than nonpayment (for example, criminal actions or damage to the property).

The order does not apply to evictions or foreclosures of property used for commercial purposes.

We applaud Governor Bullock’s actions that continue to protect the public health and ensure families do not lose their home during this difficult period of time.

State Takes Steps on SNAP to Help Families Impacted by COVID-19

On March 23, we published a report on ways the state can help ensure no one goes hungry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are pleased to see the Governor has taken quick action one of the items we included: to guarantee no one’s Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) coverage will lapse during this crisis. The Federal Nutrition Service (FNS) has approved Montana’s waiver to extend household’s SNAP eligibility period. For households whose benefits were set to expire in March, April, or May, they will instead be up for recertification in September, October, or November, respectively.

This move will prevent lapses in coverage during this crisis. The vast majority of SNAP participants are seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children.  Preventing gaps in coverage for these groups is essential during this public health crisis. Furthermore, extending certification periods frees up staff to work on processing new applications for those who have lost their source of income, instead of using valuable time to recertify current participants.

We appreciate the Governor’s responsiveness to food security during this health care crisis. Montana families need the stability of SNAP during this difficult time.

To read the rest of our recommendations on SNAP, read our full report here.