Continuous Eligibility: Providing Stability During Uncertain Times.

During times of crisis, Montanans need stability. In recent months, thousands of Montanans living on low incomes have turned to Medicaid expansion to give them continuous health care coverage during a volatile job market.

Montana’s Medicaid expansion program, the HELP plan, allows recipients to maintain their eligibility for one year, even if their income fluctuates over those twelve months. This option is known as continuous eligibility. Montana has long had continuous eligibility for its Healthy Montana Kids program, providing critical health insurance coverage for Montana’s children.

During an unstable job market, continuous eligibility provides Montanans with continuity of care, as their work hours (and income) can fluctuate. Nearly 75 percent of Montana’s Medicaid recipients are working, often at jobs that are seasonal or have frequently changing schedules. With businesses opening and closing, Montanans on Medicaid need to know their health care is available, even if their incomes fluctuate.

Continuous eligibility also relieves some of the state’s administrative burden. If Medicaid recipients were forced to re-apply for their benefits more frequently, the state would likely face more recipients cycling on and off the program. This effect is known as churn and occurs when people who are still eligible for the program lose their benefits, and then must reapply shortly thereafter. Churn wastes time and money for both the state and for beneficiaries.

In 2003, the State of Washington began requiring children on Medicaid to renew eligibility every six months. As families struggled to navigate the process and provide the proper documentation, the number of children enrolled fell by 30,000 over two years. The state eventually restored 12-month eligibility, and in a year, enrollment again rose by 30,000. Continuous eligibility had previously been preventing this sort of churn of eligible individuals on and off the program.

Most Medicaid expansion recipients only need the program temporarily. The average Medicaid expansion recipient in Montana stays on the program for less than two years, and 30 percent stay on the program for less than one year. As most recipients only need the program for a short duration, a shorter eligibility period would only create unnecessary paperwork and strain for both individuals and the state.  

Not only is churn inefficient and costly for the state, but even brief gaps in health care coverage can be dangerous. Adults who have gaps in health care coverage are less likely to have a regular doctor and less likely to receive preventive care, research shows. Another study in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas showed that nearly half of adults who had gaps in health care coverage reported skipping doses of prescription medicine or stopped taking it all together.  

As our state begins to recover from the pandemic, Montanans should not have to worry about losing their health care coverage. A one-year eligibility period is not only more efficient for the state, but also provides Montanans the stability they need in these uncertain times.

Quick Tips: How to Testify Remotely

It’s important that our legislators hear from us, but between Montana winters, COVID, and busy schedules, going to Helena may not be possible. Fortunately, this year Montanans can testify virtually from a computer or a phone.

We created a check list of what you should know to testify remotely this legislative session. You can see it here.

You can also check out this great video about how to navigate the virtual testimony process.

Time for Montana to Provide Paid Family and Medical Leave

One year ago this March, families across the state found themselves suddenly trying to balance the responsibilities of working while carrying for children who were not in school. In the fall, as coronavirus case numbers exploded, thousands of Montanans were again faced with a potentially deadly predicament – risk losing their income or continue working while they or someone in their care was sick.

But for too many Montanans, this year of national crisis has not been the first time families have had to make these impossible choices. Mothers have left newborns to return to work, cancer patients have lost their income when they were ill, and businesses have lost valuable employees when they could not afford to pay them while on a temporary leave.

This week, the Montana Legislature will consider a bill that aims to help working Montana families keep their jobs and income when going through times of medical crises. The Montana Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMLI) Act would pool small contributions from employees and employers to create a dedicate source of funding for when workers need time off to care for themselves or a loved one.

The FAMLI Act Provides Paid Leave for Montanans

The FAMLI Act functions similarly to how unemployment insurance work. Employers and employees would both contribute a small amount – less than one half of 1 percent of a workers’ wages – to the FAMLI fund. These contributions would allow workers to a portion of their salary (more for low wage workers) while on leave. Workers would be eligible for a maximum of 12 weeks of paid leave.

Representative Moffie Funk introduced HB 228 last month, and the House Business and Labor Committee will have a hearing this Wednesday, February 10th at 8:30. For more information on how the FAMLI Act would work, see our report House Bill 228 – Montana FAMLI Act: A Policy Design Supporting Families and Businesses.

Paid leave Is Important for Montana’s Families, Businesses, and the Economy.

Paid leave helps families facing a variety of circumstances. Under the FAMLI Act, covered individuals would be eligible to take leave for:

  • A serious health condition;
  • A family member’s serious health condition;
  • The birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child; or
  • A family member being called to active duty.

While paid leave helps give families stability during times of upheaval, the benefits extend past the time a worker takes their leave. Mothers who take paid leave are more likely to return to their careers after their leave, enabling them to earn more over their lifetime.

Businesses and Montana’s economy would benefit from paid leave as well. Employers with paid leave experience less turn over and save money that would have been spent on new training costs. Montana’s population is aging, and with more workers retiring and fewer skilled workers moving into jobs, a paid leave policy helps the state remain attractive to workers and businesses.

Share your story

Most of us have been affected by an illness of our own or a family member, or who have welcomed a new child into our family, at some point or another. If you have a story about how paid leave would have impacted your family or strengthened your business, we encourage you share it.

There is a hearing on HB 228 on Wednesday, February 10th, at 8:30 am. If you wish to testify remotely, you will need to submit your testimony or register to testify by 12:00 pm on February 9th.  For more tips on how to testify remotely, please read our blog post here.

You can also message the House Business and Labor committee to urge their support of HB 228 at 406-444-4800 or https://leg.mt.gov/web-messaging/.

Senate Bill 138 Has Deep Roots in Settler Colonialism

On this day (February 8) in 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, with the ultimate purpose of dissolving tribal governments and reservations and assimilating American Indians into non-Indian society. Last week, Senate Tax heard Senate Bill (SB) 138, a bill with deep roots in this settler-colonial policy.

What Is Senate Bill 138?

SB 138 would repeal the five-year tribal property tax exemption for fee-to-trust transfers that the 2011 Legislature created with SB 412. The 2019 Legislature voted down two bills related to SB 138: House Bill (HB) 401 and HB 733.

How Senate Bill 138 Is Connected to Allotment?

SB 138 is possible because of allotment. When Congress began the allotment and assimilation era in 1887, it divided communally held reservation lands into individual parcels without tribal consent, allocated parcels to tribal citizens and households, and sold “surplus” parcels to non-Indian settlers, most often without compensating tribal nations. In total, the U.S. government took more than 90 million acres (roughly the size of present-day Montana) from tribal nations.

Now, reservation lands are a patchwork pattern of ownership and land status types, with land generally falling into one of two status types: trust or fee. This has tax implications. Trust land is held in trust by the federal government and includes land collectively owned by a tribal nation and allotments to tribal citizens. Trust land is exempt from property taxes. Fee land is generally private property and can be owned by American Indians and non-Indians. Because of the forced allotment of reservation lands, state and local taxing jurisdictions may assess property taxes on tribally owned fee land.

As intended, allotment had devastating consequences for tribal communities. In 1934, Congress ended the allotment era when it passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Under the IRA, tribal nations and the federal government can return fee land to trust status. The process can be lengthy and costly to tribal nations. To facilitate those transfers and to recognize that one government did not want to tax another while the wheels of the federal government turn slowly, the 2011 Montana Legislature passed SB 412.

By attempting to repeal this exemption, SB 138 ultimately places a greater burden on tribal nations seeking to reclaim land stolen under allotment.

A Better Path Forward

Rather than impose property taxes on tribally owned reservation land, the Legislature should work to dismantle the legacy of allotment by expanding the tribal property tax exemption. This would be consistent with the treatment of other government-owned property in Montana, where property that is owned by federal, state, and local governments is tax-exempt. SB 138 targets land owned by tribal governments, disregarding and dishonoring the government-to-government relationship and political status of tribal nations as sovereign.

Expanding the exemption would also be consistent with the approach that other states take. Oregon, for example, exempts tribal lands from property taxes when a fee-to-trust application is pending. There are time constraints. Idaho exempts tribally owned reservation land altogether, in an effort to treat all government properties the same, whether federal, state, county, or tribal.

What Is Next?

Although it was recognized as bad policy long ago, tribal nations continue to feel the impacts of allotment today. MBPC opposes SB 138 and will continue to track its progress. If the 2019 legislative session is any indication for what to expect, LC0726 could come next. This bill would allow counties to recapture property taxes should the federal government deny a trust application or should the five-year exemption expire. MBPC would also oppose this bill.

For a deeper dive into the land status of Indian Country, see MBPC’s report, Policy Basics: Land Status of Indian Country.

Update: SNAP Proposed and Enacted Changes to Help Families

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has helped individuals and families keep food on their table and avoid hunger during this time of national crisis. When the pandemic and ensuing recession hit in the spring, SNAP responded swiftly. For more information about SNAP’s early response to the pandemic, see our blog post here.

But difficult times have continued for Montana families. In late January, nearly 56,000 adults in Montana lived in households reporting sometimes or often not having enough food to eat. For households with children, one in ten sometimes or often did not have enough food to eat in the past week.

Below, we break down the recent proposed and enacted changes to SNAP that can help alleviate hardship for struggling households.

PASSED LEGISLATION

In December, Congress passed a COVID relief package which included a variety of relief measures to people facing job loss, poverty, and hunger.

Change to SNAP: The COVID relief package included a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits through June 2021.

Who this helps: Back in April, USDA granted states waivers to allow them to issue the “emergency allotments” – the maximum SNAP benefit for their household size.

But this change left out or only marginally benefited 39,000 Montanans on SNAP, including 15,000 children, who had no or extremely low any income. These families were already receiving the maximum or close to the maximum SNAP allotment, and still facing increased hardship due to the pandemic.

A 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits will result in $27 more per person. With hunger still a major problem across the country, increasing SNAP benefits for all households – especially those who are struggling the most – will help lift people out of hunger and extreme poverty.

Change to SNAP: College students who are eligible for work study or have an expected family contribution of $0 and are enrolled at least half-time in an institution are eligible for SNAP.

Who this helps: Under regular SNAP rules, only college students who were currently participating in a work study program were eligible for SNAP. With classes and schools moving to remote instruction, work study positions may be difficult to obtain for some eligible for students. This rule change will help reduce hunger for students.

EXECUTIVE ACTIONS

In January, President Biden issued several executive actions that will help relieve hunger and hardship for Montana families.

Change to SNAP: President Biden directed the USDA to increase Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) benefits by 15 percent.

Who this helps:  The P-EBT program provides families who would normally be receiving free and reduced-price meals at school with the equivalent dollar value ($5.70 a day) when schools are closed.

While schools have mostly re-opened across the state, many families are still facing part-time schedules and occasional school closures. An increase in P-EBT benefits would help reduce the high rates of childhood food insecurity Montana is facing right now.

Unfortunately, Montana has yet to be approved for P-EBT for the 20/21 school year. Montana should act soon to ensure that families who have been struggling with school closures can get the help they need.

Change to SNAP: President Biden directed the USDA to emergency allotments for households who were already receiving the maximum SNAP allotment.

Who this helps: As mentioned earlier, households living on extremely low incomes did not receive any increase in benefits during the first round of SNAP changes. The original stimulus plan failed to support the 37 percent of SNAP households nationwide who were already receiving the maximum allotment. Emergency allotments would help these most vulnerable households.

Change to SNAP: President Biden directed the USDA to revise the Thrifty Food Plan, as directed by the 2018 Farm Bill.

Who this helps: The Thrifty Food Plan is the basis the USDA uses to calculate SNAP benefits.  But the plan is outdated – it assumes that families have more time than they do to prepare food, that affordable food is always available, does not account for special dietary needs, and does not reflect the full cost of a healthy diet. Updating the plan will help provide more accurate benefits to households.

PROPOSED LEGISLATION

Congress is currently considering more relief packages to help aid people struggling with poverty and hunger.

Change to SNAP: President Biden’s proposed American Rescue Plan would extend the 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits through September.

Who this helps: Economic recovery from this crisis will not happen immediately. SNAP is one of our best forms of economic stimulus, by not only helping people put food on their table but by supporting local stores and the agricultural community as well.

SNAP is a vital lifeline for struggling Montanans. If we are to recover from this crisis, we must provide much ensure that everyone has access to affordable food when they need it.

Details Are Important: House Bill 162 Doesn’t Actually Help Most Seniors

Nearly every session a bill comes before the Legislature seeking to exempt social security income from all Montana income taxes, and every session the Montana Budget & Policy Center opposes.

Why?

To start with, Montana already has a good system that has been in place for a long time. We mirror the federal structure, in how we exempt social security income, exempting a greater amount of social security income for those on lower and moderate incomes.

A critical component of our system is that those living on the lowest incomes do not pay any tax on their social security income. So those who need it the most can stretch their checks even farther. In tax year 2015, 75 percent of social security income was exempt from tax.

There are many problems with HB 162. It makes Montana’s regressive tax system worse by providing an additional tax break to those making the most. Over two-thirds of the proposed tax break in HB 162 would go to the richest 20 percent of households.

In addition, this bill is very expensive. It would cost our state $100 million each year. Legislators on the budget committees have already proposed reducing the health and human service budget by nearly $1 billion over the next biennium, threatening critical services that help Montanans with disabilities, Montanans struggling with mental health, and seniors. These are the same programs that bore the brunt of similar cuts in 2017. As we try to restore this funding, we cannot be giving even more tax breaks away to those with the highest incomes.

Let’s be clear. Social security received by Montanans living on lower social security incomes is already exempt.

Montanans have just begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel. HB 162 is not only bad policy but it is also something our state just cannot afford. Cutting state revenue by $100 million a year will hurt the families struggling the most and only prolong our economic recovery.

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.

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.