Update: Tribal Sovereignty During COVID-19

Our previous blog, Tribal Sovereignty During COVID-19, covered the actions tribal nations have taken in reservations across Montana to protect public health and prevent the spread of COVID-19. While Montana has moved closer to reopening, tribal nations have continued to prioritize public health through measures that include extended stay-at-home orders and travel checkpoints.

Tribal nations are now faced with an increase of coronavirus cases on their reservations because surrounding areas and travelers have not adhered to the same measures. This pandemic has made evident how necessary respecting tribal sovereignty is to American Indian health and public health.

As we wrote in our previous blog, tribal nations are more susceptible to the pandemic for many intersecting reasons. 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 disparities are direct results of historic and ongoing policies pursued by the federal government, states, and settlers.

In Montana, American Indians make up just 6.7 percent of the population but 15 percent of the total number of coronavirus cases. The past month has been especially hard on tribal communities who have seen a rise in the amount of COVID-19 cases impacting tribal citizens, including many elders. Elder tribal citizens are an especially vulnerable group, and tribal nations have taken measures to safeguard them. Elders hold important roles within tribal nations, communities, and families. Not only are elders beloved, they pass on irreplaceable indigenous knowledge and languages to future generations.

Over the past three weeks on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, the tribal nation lost 24 citizens due to the coronavirus, and many were tribal elders. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has taken steps to flatten the curve on the reservation. The tribal nation has implemented a reservation-wide curfew and stay-at-home order that it recently extended until total active COVID-19 cases remain at or below 50 for 30 consecutive days. According to the Northern Cheyenne Board of Health, there were 657 cumulative positive tests as of October 2.

In addition, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe has been distributing personal protective equipment (PPE), food, hygiene products, and more to its citizens. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe also has an elderly assistance program in place that provides services such as grocery and pharmacy pick-up.

The Crow Tribe of Indians reported 899 cumulative positive tests and 24 deaths on the reservation by October 2. The Crow Tribe of Indians is continuing to encourage travelers to stay off of the reservation. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized the efforts of the Crow’s Incident Command Center and its efficacy.

The Blackfeet Nation closed all tribal programs and departments from October 4-25, with the exception of emergency and essential services, to assist in curbing the rising number of COVID-19 cases on the reservation. The Blackfeet Nation also distributes goods and PPE to its citizens. According to Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command, there were 325 active cases of COVID-19 on the Blackfeet Reservation as of October 6.

Although the federal government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on March 27, providing $8 billion to tribal nations to buffer the economic impact of the coronavirus, there is still more need. Some tribal nations have used this funding to purchase PPE and testing kits and have funded other tribal government response efforts.

Many tribal nations have also decided to give stimulus relief checks to their tribal citizens to offset some of the financial hardships of the pandemic. Most are often less than a thousand dollars per person depending on the tribal nation. However, these assistance programs are not recurring, and the funds are limited. Although these funds may provide some temporary relief to tribal citizens, this does not change structural inequities like access to health care.

Respecting tribal sovereignty throughout this pandemic and beyond is integral to the health of tribal citizens. This could be the fulfillment of treaty obligations to fully fund IHS, deferring to tribal taxation authority, and adhering to tribal nations’ travel restrictions. Everyone has a role to play in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and protecting those most susceptible to it.

2020 State-Tribal Symposium Wrap Up

Thank you to all those who attended our 2020 State-Tribal Policy Symposium: Advancing Investments in Indian Country.

This year’s symposium had attendees from each tribal nation in Montana and more from across the country. We had tribal leaders, lawyers, students, community members, American Indian business owners, state legislators, and more.

This was our first time doing this event virtually and we learned so much. We appreciate everyone who attended – whether on zoom or by watching our Facebook live. We want to thank everyone who filled out an evaluation which will help inform our work moving forward.

You can find our most updated version of the State Budget Handbook for Indian Country online. This handbook mirrors the agenda we walked through at the Symposium. However, it is a useful tool even if you were not able to attend. We also hope you’ll check out all of our State-Tribal work here.

For those who weren’t able to make it, or for those of you who want to watch again, you can find recordings of each session at the following links:

Session 1 – The State Budget and Indian Country

Session 2 – Legislative Session 101 – Crash Course

Session 3 – Panel: Elevating American Indian Voices at the Capitol: Current Investments and Future Opportunities

Session 4 – Testimony, Advocacy, and Community Engagement

Session 5 – Keynote, Tara Houska

Again, thank you for your support for this year’s State-Tribal Policy Symposium.

To stay on top of MBPC’s State-Tribal work, follow @MontanaBudget on Facebook and Twitter.

Conscious Decoupling Could Save Montana $137 Million

Did you know that a provision included in the federal CARES Act, passed by Congress earlier this year, could result in the loss of $137 million in state general fund revenue for Montana? But the good news is that Montana can do something about it. The Revenue Interim Committee’s subcommittee studying Montana’s state and local tax system had their last meeting August 25. In addition to the four thoughtful tax fairness proposals the interim subcommittee passed last meeting, the subcommittee voted to move forward a bill decoupling the state from federal business tax breaks passed in the federal CARES Act. Here’s a quick summary of the CARES Act provision and why it’s so important for the state to take action.

What does the federal CARES Act do?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was enacted by Congress in March, providing direct support for individuals, businesses, and states impacted by COVID-19. One lesser known provision in the CARES Act allows businesses to take additional net operating losses (NOLs) against income, reducing their taxes. Under the CARES Act, passthrough businesses can carry their NOLs back up to five years for 2018, 2019, and 2020 and increase the amount of NOLs that businesses can carry forward.

Why does this federal change impact Montana state revenue?

Montana is one of less than half of states with rolling conformity with the federal tax code. That means that if Congress decides to make a change, the Montana budget is affected without having a say. Many states choose to have rolling conformity with the federal tax code, so in cases like this where there is a potentially huge revenue loss due to a decision made by Congress, they have a say on whether or not to make that change. This is especially important for states who are required to balance their budget every year, unlike the federal government.

What does the proposed state bill do?

This bill currently being considered in the Revenue Interim Committee would simply maintain the status quo for businesses to calculate their net operating losses (NOLs) as they did prior to the pandemic. HJ 35-08 would decouple from provisions that allow business owners to carry back NOLs for five years from 2018, 2019, and 2020, forcing the state to pay businesses refunds immediately, rather than allowing them to take their losses on the regular schedule.

Without action, all of these business tax cuts in the CARES Act will force the state to pay companies big refunds at a time when the state does not have any extra money lying around. Businesses would still receive the federal expansion of NOLs, and would be able to claim them in Montana as they always have. Plus, Montana would have a slightly easier time balancing our budget this coming session.

Now is the time for the Montana Legislature to ensure that Montana has fighting chance to fund the services we Montanans rely on, especially during this pandemic. Our communities need access to mental health supports, good schools, healthy food, and good infrastructure. Let’s start the 2021 session heading in the right direction for Montanans.

10 Days Left to Register for the State-Tribal Symposium

Register today for MBPC’s 2020 State-Tribal Symposium: Advancing Investments in Indian Country.

There are only 100 spots per session. If you register now you will receive materials for the symposium, be able to join the presenters for a Q&A, and receive recordings of each session. If you are unable to join, the symposium will also be available on MBPC’s Facebook live and recordings will be posted to our website.

This free symposium provides tribal leaders and advocates with information on how the state budget process works and how people can get involved to secure important investments in Indian Country. Over the past few legislative sessions, the state has invested state funds into programs like indigenous language preservation, tribal colleges, Indian Country Economic Development, suicide prevention, and Medicaid expansion.

Hear from experts on some of the state-funded programs that impact Indian Country. Get the details on what they are, why they are important, and where they stand going into the legislative session. Get an overview of how a bill becomes law, how to track legislative activity online, and learn how to get involved in the process. Review examples of legislative wins and learn how they apply to future opportunities.

Who should attend: state and tribal elected officials, program directors, tribal-led advocacy groups, community organizers, educators and tribal college students, and others from Indian Country who are interested in learning more about becoming active in the state budget and legislative process.

Updates from the August 24 State-Tribal Relations Committee Meeting

On August 24, the State-Tribal Relations Committee (STRC) met virtually for the last time of this interim to discuss a variety of topics.

As a reminder, the 2001 Montana Legislature established the STRC as a permanent interim committee. However, various versions of the committee have existed since the 1970s. Today, the STRC functions to:

  1. Act as a liaison with tribal governments,
  2. Encourage state-tribal and local government-tribal cooperation,
  3. Conduct interim studies, and
  4. Report its activities, findings, recommendations, and any proposed legislation.

The following summarizes some of the STRC’s legislative proposals for the 2021 session. The full agenda is broader and includes links to draft legislation.

Improving Communication Between the State and Tribal Nations in Child Neglect Cases

In August 2019, the STRC discussed how communication issues between the Child and Family Services Division of the Department of Public Health and Human Services and tribal nations contribute to the disproportionate placement of American Indian children into the foster care system.

Over the course of the interim, the STRC has studied solutions to keep families together. One solution gets families before a judge as quickly as possible after child removal. In February 2020, Yellowstone County Judges Jessica Fehr and Ashley Harada began a pilot project to shorten the timeframe between removal of a child from a home and the parents’ initial hearing in court. Currently, statute requires a hearing within 20 days of removal. In this pilot project, the judges are aiming to have all initial hearings within 2-5 calendar days.

For the 2021 legislative session, the STRC is moving forward with a bill that would require a hearing within five business days. For more on the STRC’s interim activity on this topic, see this draft report.

Runaway Youth

For the 2019 legislative session, the STRC requested Senate Joint Resolution 2 (SJ 2), an interim study bill of options to break the cycle of youth who run away from home. Although the Legislature failed to pass the bill, the STRC chose to learn more about the issue this interim.

STRC decided to move forward with three legislative proposals for the 2021 session. The proposals would allow youth who run away to stay at homeless shelters without parental consent and allow them to graduate without meeting a school district’s individual credit requirement, should the youth meet the credit requirement established by the Montana Board of Public Education. For more on the STRC’s interim activity on this topic, see this draft report.

Statutory Changes in Light of Little Shell Federal Recognition

In December 2019, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians gained federal recognition. To honor the tribal nation’s status, the STRC is proposing legislation that would revise existing Montana law to reflect Little Shell’s federal recognition.

Missing Persons

The STRC began studying the high rates of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in Montana in 2017 and proposed a number of bills that the 2019 Legislature passed. This interim, the STRC continued to study the issue and is proposing four bills for the upcoming session. One bill would establish a missing persons review commission, which would 1) examine the trends and patterns of missing indigenous persons in Montana, 2) provide education about missing indigenous persons and strategies for investigation and prevention, and 3) recommend policies and practices that may encourage jurisdictional collaboration and coordination. Another bill would establish a grant program that would help fund training opportunities for community-based missing persons response teams. The third bill would extend the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, although the bill would not fund the task force. The final bill would extend and fund the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force and the Looping in Native Communities grant program.

For more on this issue and related legislation, see the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force report.

What Is Next?

MBPC will continue to track STRC activity and its proposed legislation through the 2021 session.

New Montana KIDS COUNT Logo

A is for Abacus.

In January, the Montana Budget & Policy Center became the KIDS COUNT grantee for Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. During the past eight months, we have been busy updating data on the KIDS COUNT Data Center, building partnerships in each state, forming advisory committees, and gaining an understanding for the policies that would most benefit the children in each state.

In the past eight months we’ve updated over 100 data points from high school graduation rates and child food insecurity, to uninsured children and WIC participants. This data is critical for nonprofits in their grant writing and for stakeholders and policymakers to better understand the needs of children. Go check it out.

We have also been hard at work developing a new brand and logo to update our look.

We are so excited that today we finally get to show off our new, fresh logo to accompany the reliable data that Montana KIDS COUNT is known for.

Doesn’t it look great?

Next we will rebuild the websites in each state and plan to launch those in December. While the look and feel of KIDS COUNT materials may look different, the trusted data and commitment to seeing children and families thrive remains the same. We are looking forward to these next steps as we build upon and expand the great work of KIDS COUNT.

Want to stay up to date? Follow us on Twitter @MTKidsCount and Facebook to get the latest information and data updates. Want to connect with KIDS COUNT further? Contact Montana KIDS COUNT Coordinator, Xanna Burg, at xburg@montanabudget.org.

It is an exciting time for Montana KIDS COUNT and we are grateful to have you with us.

Registration for 2020 State-Tribal Symposium: Advancing Investments in Indian Country

MBPC is excited to announce that registration is now open for the 2020 State-Tribal Symposium: Advancing Investments in Indian Country.

This free symposium provides tribal leaders and advocates with information on how the state budget process works and how people can get involved to secure important investments in Indian Country. Register today.

Over the past few legislative sessions, the state has invested state funds into programs like indigenous language preservation, tribal colleges, Indian Country Economic Development, suicide prevention, and Medicaid expansion. Hear from experts on some of the state-funded programs that impact Indian Country. Get the details on what they are, why they’re important, and where they stand going into the legislative session. Get an overview of how a bill becomes law, how to track legislative activity online, and learn how to get involved in the process. Review examples of legislative wins and learn how they apply to future opportunities.

Who should attend: state and tribal elected officials, program directors, tribal-led advocacy groups, community organizers, educators and tribal college students, and others from Indian Country who are interested in learning more about becoming active in the state budget and legislative process.

Monday, September 14, 2020 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
The State Budget and Indian Country
Tuesday, September 15, 2020 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
Legislative Session 101 – Crash Course
Wednesday, September 16, 2020 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
Panel: Elevating American Indian Voices at the Capitol: Current Investments and Future Opportunities
Thursday, September 17, 2020 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
Testimony, Advocacy, and Community Engagement
Friday, September 18, 2020 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
Keynote, Tara Houska

New Data Shows Montana Children and Families are Still Struggling During COVID

There are almost 229,000 children under 18 that call Montana home. Data from a new Census Bureau survey shows that Montana families with children are struggling to afford rent and food, are experiencing heightened mental health symptoms, and may be lacking technology access needed for remote education.

The data are from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey and are summarized over three four-week periods: April 23-May 26, May 28-June 23, and June 25-July 21.

Montana families are struggling to afford rent

One in four Montana households with children were behind on paying rent between June 25 and July 21. During this same time frame, households with children were about 2.5 times more likely to be behind on rent than households without children. Over the last three months that data has been collected, the percent of families behind on rent has increased, from 16.1 percent between April 23 and May 26 compared to 25.9 percent between June 25 and July 21. This data shows that Montana families have a continued need for housing relief measures that help them pay rent and avoid eviction.

Many Montana families cannot afford enough food

About 11 percent of Montana families with children report that they often or sometimes did not have enough to eat between June 25th and July 21st. This translates to 24,000 Montana children. The majority (86 percent) of families that did not have enough to eat said that they couldn’t afford to buy more food. Montana has taken steps to help families who cannot afford enough food by increasing SNAP benefits for some households, extending SNAP eligibility, and offering replacement benefits for families receiving free and reduced-price lunches. However, this data shows that many Montana families still cannot afford enough to eat and need continued relief measures to put enough food on the table. A 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits for all households would help Montana families that cannot afford enough food.

Montana families are coping with anxious feelings

A third (33.2 percent) of Montana families with children said they experienced feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge more than half of the time. The number of families coping with these negative emotions has been high since the start of the pandemic, with 29.2 percent reporting anxious symptoms between April 23 and May 26.

Prior to the pandemic, 8.2 percent of all adults in the U.S. had anxiety symptoms, much lower than the estimate from June 25-July 21 that 32.8 percent of all adults in the U.S. are now experiencing anxiety symptoms more than half the time. A pre-pandemic comparison is not available for Montana or families with children. The high proportion of families experiencing anxious feelings means that children may be exposed to high-stress environments at home, which could have long-term impacts on their development. Increasing mental health services in schools may help children cope during this time of heightened stress.

Not all Montana children have access to technology for education at home

Between June 25th and July 21st, 7.0 percent of Montana families with children under 18 rarely or never had access to a computer for educational purposes. During this same time frame, 6.5 percent of Montana families report they rarely or never had access to the internet for educational purposes. This translates to 11,000 Montana children who rarely or never have the technology tools for remote education. Compared to the U.S., Montana has a higher percentage of children without a computer or without internet for educational purposes. Interruptions in a child’s education due to lack of technology access could have long-term effects on their learning and development. More support may be needed for families with limited access to technology in order to succeed at remote learning.

Interim Subcommittee Advances Four Thoughtful Revenue Proposals

The Revenue Interim Committee and their subcommittee studying Montana’s state and local tax system (HJ 35) met this week, showing some positive momentum. The HJ 35 tax study subcommittee voted to pass four bills onto the Revenue Interim Committee that would strengthen local governments’ ability to raise revenue and improve the fairness of our tax system.

The first bill passed out of the committee, HJ 35-01, would allow local governments to keep up with inflation when making their budgets. In current law, local governments can only increase their budgets by one-half of the average inflation rate for the prior three years. This bill would enable local governments to increase their budgets by the full rate of inflation, so that we can support the level of infrastructure and public services our growing communities need.

The second bill passed out of committee, HJ 35-02, proposes a tax credit for families whose property taxes exceed an unsustainable percentage of their income. Currently, property taxes are completely disconnected from household income, and households living on lower and middle incomes pay a larger portion of their income in property taxes than the wealthy. This tax credit is most generous for homeowners living at the lowest income levels and would improve the fairness of Montana’s tax system.

The third bill, HJ 35-03, would increase the corporate minimum tax. Our current $50 corporate minimum tax has not been increased since it was passed in 1969. This proposed bill increases the corporate minimum tax to $200— almost half of what it would be if it had been increased with inflation— and would bring much-needed revenue to Montana at a small cost to some C-corporations.

The final bill the committee passed was HJ 35-04. This bill revises the calculation of the capital gains tax credit so that the credit amount is based on the lesser of the taxpayer’s net capital gains or taxable income. This bill would correct a drafting error which currently allows a taxpayer to take the capital gains tax credit on 2% of their capital gains, regardless of their taxable income. For example, currently, if a taxpayer has $1 million in taxable income and $2 million in capital gains, the taxpayer can take the capital gains tax credit against the entire $2 million in capital gains, which is twice their taxable income. This bill would limit the capital gains tax credit to be taken against, at most, taxable income.

The 2021 legislative session is only six months away. With such positive bills making progress, we have hope that this will be a time for thoughtful decisions and proactive planning about our state’s need for new and fair sources of revenue as we rebuild to a better Montana.

It is not too late for thousands of Montanans to receive their Economic Impact Payments

This spring, millions of Americans automatically received Economic Impact Payments (EIP) to help relieve the hardships caused by the coronavirus public health emergency. Taxpayers who had filed taxes in 2018 or 2019 received their payments automatically either through direct deposit or a check in the mail. An estimated 25,000 Montanans, however, live in households who are not required to file taxes due to their low incomes. These individuals are those at most at risk of not receiving their payments. To receive their share, non-filers must fill out this form on the IRS website by October 15.

The EIP payments are significant – $1,200 per eligible adult, and $500 for each eligible child. This means a two parent, two child household that qualify for $3,400. With high unemployment and skyrocketing food insecurity, these relief payments are an important tool in helping Montanans weather this crisis.

Non-filers are mostly households with extremely low incomes – individuals with incomes less than $12,400, heads of households with incomes less than $18,650, and married couples with incomes less than $24,800 – are not required to file federal taxes. Ensuring that households with very low incomes receive payments is a vital as coronavirus case numbers begin to climb again in Montana.

Let’s put the impact of these funds in perspective. Average fair market rent for a four-bedroom house in Montana is $1,453. It takes a family working 129 hours a week a minimum wage to afford it. So the $3,400 in EIP would be enough to cover rent, groceries, gas, electricity, water, and the unexpected bill or expense. For families struggling to get by, this would be a welcome lifeline.

Not only do the payments help reduce hardship for Montana households, they can also give the state and local economies a much-needed boost. In Montana, the amount of potential total payments to households who did not receive automatic payments totals $25 million. Stimulus payments to non-filing households are one of the most important means of economic recovery. Direct payments to very low-income people have been shown to be one of the most effective ways to stimulate the economy during a recession.

Economic Impact Payments were established through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. These payments, coupled with other provisions in the CARES Act, kept 12 to 16 million people nationwide out of poverty during the initial months of the pandemic.

United States citizens, permanent residents, and qualifying resident aliens who have a valid Social Security number and have not been claimed as a dependent of another taxpayer are eligible to receive payments. Several groups are excluded from payments, including immigrant families if one spouse lacks a Social Security number (and the couple filed taxes jointly), 17-year-olds, college students whom their parents can claim as dependents, and adult dependents. Payments also begin to phase out at a certain income level ($150,000 for married couples), however, non-filers generally live on low incomes and are eligible for the full amount.

Local non-profits, health service providers, faith-based organizations, and government agencies can help ensure that all Montanans receive their payments by sharing the non-filer payment tool with all those who may potentially need it. For those with limited internet access or who have difficulty navigating the form, these service providers and community organizations are an essential part of making sure all Montanans receive their payments.

Individuals have several ways they may receive their relief payments, including a paper check or direct deposit into a bank account. For those who are unbanked, they may receive payments via a financial payment app (Venmo, PayPal, or CashApp), or a prepaid debit card.

Those who do not file a form to by October 15th may still file a 2020 tax return to receive the payment in 2021.