Legislative Action: Subcommittee Cuts Nearly $1 Billion from DPHHS Base

The first action of the Joint Appropriations/Finance & Claims Joint Subcommittee for Health and Human Services cut nearly $1 billion from the base over the biennium to start the budget process. The Subcommittee will now devote time merely rebuilding a base, at a time when families, seniors, and people with disabilities who shouldered the brunt of similar budget cuts in 2017 are still hurting. Many Montanans have been struggling this past year. Making additional cuts to home and community based services that allow family members to stay in their homes, cuts to already reduced mental health and substance use disorder services, and cuts critical payments to rural hospitals and health care providers is unconscionable during times like these.

You can learn more about the specifics of the action and where theses cuts come from here.

Present Law Budget: What does it mean and how does it affect our communities?

With the 2021 Montana legislative session less than a month away, decisions made by our state level policymakers will determine how Montanans weather this pandemic. The state budget is a big piece of that puzzle by providing funding for schools, health services, and maintenance of our roads and bridges.

Key budget terms that will be used a lot this session include present law budget, present law adjustments, and statewide present law costs. These are important actions the legislature will take to ensure the state can continue to provide critical services for our communities. Since it has been a while, we should brush up on these terms, so we can track and understand the decisions that will affect our friends, families, and communities.

Present law is the level of funding the state needs to maintain services, at the level and under the laws approved by the legislature in the last session. Present law, by itself, does not include any changes that may be a result of increased school enrollment, services caseloads, or inflation. Those are included in present law adjustments.

Present law adjustments are agency-specific budget adjustments (either up or down) needed to maintain services at the level approved by the legislature since the last budget. This could include changes in the number of people served by the Department of Corrections, the number of seniors or individuals with disabilities accessing nursing home or community services, or inflationary adjustments to provide the same level of services for the next two years. An example of a present law adjustment in the most recent budget is an increase in federal funds for the Department of Public Health & Human to continue to provide existing services for their food and energy assistance programs, given the rise in food insecurity and demand for energy assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. The budget also provides an inflationary and enrollment adjustments to support Montana’s public schools.

Statewide present law costs are costs that are adjusted for all agencies using the same methodology. Increases in the cost of personnel benefits or increases in insurance costs are examples of statewide present law costs. Present law adjustments are different from statewide present law because they are agency specific, and are not applied to all agencies, due to varying agency responsibilities.

While these adjustments to the budget may be construed as “growth,” they are really adjustments to ensure the state can continue to provide critical services at the current level. These are services allowing seniors and people with disabilities to stay in their home and live with dignity, ensuring our children are getting the education they need to succeed, and maintaining health care coverage for nearly one in four Montanans through Medicaid and CHIP.  As we head into another legislative session, we hope policymakers will keep in mind how important these adjustments are to their communities and constituents.

Supporting Montana Communities Is a Critical to Economic Recovery

Going into Montana’s 2021 legislative session, there is a lot of attention on the growth in Montana’s state budget over the past decade. The Montana budget represents the collective investments we make to educate our children, maintain a healthy and trained workforce, care for the elderly, and much, much more. Investing in Montanans through our state budget allows us to keep a healthy, running economy.

Overall, Montana’s economy has been doing pretty well the last 10 years. State gross domestic product (GDP) has increased by 47 percent from 2009 to 2019 (not adjusted for inflation), while per capita personal income in the state has increased by 45 percent over the same period.

Montana’s state budget has grown roughly at the same rate, and much of that growth has been in federal funding, not state funding. State level expenditures increased by 54 percent from the 2009 to 2019 biennium, not too different from the 47 percent increase in state GDP and 45 percent increase in personal income. A big portion of this growth comes from Montana expanding Medicaid and providing affordable health insurance to 80,000 Montanans paid at low wages. Medicaid expansion was estimated to have created 5,000 jobs and $270 million in personal income annually in Montana. Medicaid expansion is covered almost entirely through federal funds, and as a result, expenditures from federal funds increased by 66 percent from the 2009 to the 2019 biennium.

While attention may be on budget growth over the decade, we must also remember the level of cuts that took place in 2017 that devastated services for many communities. Following the 2017 budget cuts, many Montanans, especially those living in rural communities, experienced severe shortages of services, such as behavior health services, public assistance support, and home and community-based services that their families and communities rely on. While some of these cuts were restored in 2018, many communities continue to struggle to access adequate services.

The 2021 legislative session comes at an important time. Montanans have been through a lot in the last year and are beginning to see a hopeful recovery from this unprecedented pandemic. The legislature will decide whether to continue following the path of economic growth and community health that we’ve seen over the past decade, or to cut the services that our families need. Let’s continue to allow our budget to keep pace with economic growth and fund education, public health, and support the elderly with a level of dignity that Montanans deserve.

Montana Boosts Unemployment Payments But Congress Must Act

As Montanans prepare to enter what is sure to be a tough winter, the need for economic relief has never been clearer. In recent weeks, Montana’s COVID-19 case numbers have surged to new records. The economic recovery that began in May has tapered off, and many households in Montana are feeling the compounding strain of balancing family, work, and safety.

With Thanksgiving and the holidays just around the corner, 31,000 adults in Montana reported that their children did not have enough food to eat. One in ten renters in the state are not caught up on rent, and one in four Montanans are having difficulty keeping up with typical household expenses.

Even though unemployment is no longer the news story it was in March, unemployment remains higher than it was before the start of the pandemic. In the week ending on October 31, 20,901 Montanans filed unemployment insurance claims. Of those, 3,387 were filing claims for the first time.

On November 17, 2020, Gov. Bullock announced an additional $25 million to the Department of Labor and Industry to provide eligible Montanans with $200 a week in unemployment insurance between November 28 and December 19. This additional funding comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the relief package Congress passed in March.

Congress allocated $1.25 billion through the CARES Act, which enabled the state to provide business stabilization grants, emergency housing assistance, funding for public health services, child care provider supplemental payments, and other grants and services. Approximately $1.24 billion has already been allocated.

Without additional federal aid, workers in Montana have been facing the difficult choice between going without a paycheck and working – even if they are feeling sick. Lewis and Clark Public Health Officer, Drenda Niemann, told KULR8 News many of the recent cases in the county were from people attending work while symptomatic or awaiting test results.

Some businesses are also facing worker shortages, with nearly one in ten Montanans needing to quarantine in the month of October. The additional $200 a week in unemployment insurance will temporarily help Montanans make ends meet while workplaces deal with the effects of rising coronavirus cases. But without more aid, the benefit will be short-lived.

The CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) provided initial assistance to Americans during the early stages of the pandemic, but any more relief from Congress has stalled, even as the pandemic has surged to new levels across the country.

Workers in Montana will continue to face difficult choices unless Congress passes additional assistance. The boost in unemployment insurance for Montanans runs out mid-December, and many of the provisions from the FFCRA, including paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave, expire at the end of the year.

With over 8,000 cases of COVID-19 in the last week, Montana’s per capita case numbers are among the worst in the nation. Congress must act quickly to support workers, families, and struggling Montanans before the situation becomes even more dire.

Request for Proposals: Contract Lobbying for 2021 Legislative Session

The Montana Budget & Policy Center is soliciting proposals to provide lobbying services for the 2021 Legislative Session. Our legislative agenda includes protecting and expanding state revenue general fund revenue sources, tax fairness legislation, protecting Medicaid expansion coverage, and state budget investments in state-tribal initiatives. We will be considering proposals on a rolling basis, but to be considered for our first round of interviews, please respond by no later than November 20, 2020.

Term of Service: December 15, 2020 – May 1, 2021

Scope of Services:

  • Work with MBPC to identify key legislative proposals to track and monitor;
  • Lobby on behalf of MBPC for identified legislative proposals;
  • During the legislative session, meet with legislators and identified stakeholders on identified legislative proposals;
  • Interact with MBPC’s staff to coordinate legislative strategy and testimony;
  • Support and review testimony, talking points, and other informational tools that MBPC produces;
  • Identify the stance of legislators with regard to identified legislative proposals;
  • Communicate at least weekly with the Co-director of Research and Development to share information;
  • Provide information in a timely manner on contracted activities so MBPC can file reports as required by the Commissioner of Political Practices;
  • Participate in a post-session de-briefing to identify strengths, weaknesses, and recommendations; and
  • Register as a lobbyist with the Commissioner of Political Practices.

Submission Requirements

Please submit a proposal, no longer than 2 pages, that includes the following:

  • Description of professional background, including legislative experience and government relations work, including any legislative successes or lessons learned from defeats;
  • Description of experience working on progressive, social justice policy work;
  • Other agencies or organizations for which you will be provide lobbying services in 2021; and
  • Fee schedule

Send your proposals to Heather O’Loughlin, Co-director, at holoughlin@montanabudget.org. While MBPC will accept proposals on a rolling basis, to be considered in the first round of review, proposals must be submitted by 5:00 p.m., on Friday, November 20.

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.