MBPC Announces Daliyah Killsback as New State-Tribal Policy Outreach Coordinator

MBPC is excited to announce Daliyah Killsback as our new State-Tribal Policy Outreach Coordinator.

Daliyah will conduct research, analysis, and outreach on state budget, taxes, and other policies affecting Indian Country in Montana and aims to increase tribal engagement. Prior to coming on board to MBPC, Daliyah served as a legislative assistant to Washington State Senator John McCoy, working on state and tribal policy issues ranging from K-12 education to tribal fishing and water rights. In 2017, through Reed College’s Social Justice Research and Education Fund, Daliyah worked with the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Board of Health to research comparative tribal solutions addressing methamphetamine-use, data sovereignty, and tribal restorative justice.

Daliyah received her Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology from Reed College with a focus in American Indian Studies and legal anthropology. Daliyah is a Northern Cheyenne tribal citizen and grew up in Missoula and on the Northern Cheyenne and Flathead reservations.

In 2011, MBPC expanded our work to include a special focus on state-tribal policy to promote sound fiscal and budget policy that can help reverse the history of economic injustice for American Indians. Our work aims to inform policymakers on how state tax and budget choices affect Indian Country, and to increase the involvement of American Indian leaders in state budget advocacy.

Daliyah will work closely with Preston Parish, our State-Tribal Policy Analyst. We are excited to build upon this work and expand our research and community building strategies with Daliyah on the team.

Proposed Changes to SNAP Would Punish Montanans for Working and Saving

Last week, the Trump administration announced its plan to take food assistance away from 3.1 million Americans by proposing a rule change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). If enacted, the proposed change would eliminate Broad Based Categorical Eligibility, and cause millions of people in working families, seniors, and people with disabilities to lose their benefits.

Broad-based categorical eligibility (known as expanded categorical eligibility, or ECE, in Montana) is a bipartisan, two-decades old policy which allows states to slightly raise the income eligibility and impose less restrictive asset tests for those seeking food assistance. Montana, along with 40 other states, uses ECE to support families living on low-incomes, as well as to encourage work and asset building.

It is still unclear how many Montana families will be impacted, but we know that at least 2,000 households (6,000 people) will lose their benefits if this rule change proceeds. This is the number of people who will lose eligibility due to the lower income cap, however, the number of additional people who will lose their benefits due to the lower asset test is yet to be determined.

How does it work?

There are two ways to qualify for SNAP. The first is having an income of less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). For a family of four, this equals a monthly income of $2,720. The second way is by being categorically (that is, automatically) eligible by qualifying for another program, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). In Montana, families who receive non-cash assistance through the TANF Information and Referral Services Brochure qualify for expanded categorical eligibility.

Families who qualify for SNAP through ECE must have a gross income of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, this equals an annual income of $50,208. Households qualifying through ECE are not required to pass a net income test. There is no asset or resource test for households qualifying through ECE. Households that qualify through ECE still have their monthly benefit calculated in the same manner as other SNAP households, so households with substantial assets will still not receive much in the way of SNAP benefits. But families with modest savings will also not be required to deplete them before receiving any assistance, allowing them keep moving out of poverty.

Why is this important?

ECE provides an essential gateway out of poverty for working families, by encouraging families to work and to build savings. Without ECE and under traditional SNAP rules, a household’s benefits would be cut off as soon as income or assets are increased. The rule change would sharply penalize people who work more hours, seek raises, or build their savings.

Consider these two examples:

Under traditional SNAP, a single mother of two making $12.50 an hour (125 percent of the poverty level) would receive $161 in SNAP benefits. If she receives a 50-cent hourly raise (an increase of $86 a month), she would be slightly above the 130 percent cut-off, and lose her $161 in benefits. In total, she loses $75 a month, effectively punishing her for working more.

Under ECE, however, the opposite happens. If the same mother receives a 50-cent raise, her SNAP benefits would be reduced, but not cut off. She would now still be receiving $130 in SNAP benefits ($31 less than before). With her $86 a month raise, she is $55 better off a month, rather than $75 poorer.

Cutting ECE would also harm families who are trying to save for emergencies. Under current rules, countable assets cannot exceed $2,500 ($3,500 for households with elderly members or members with a disability). Montana eliminates the asset test for households who qualify through ECE. SNAP households in states that have done away with or raised the asset test are more likely to have $500 in assets than states that maintain the federal asset limit, an Urban Institute study found. The rule change would force families to choose between moving out of poverty by saving for emergencies and for their future and doing without food assistance.

Who will be hurt?

 ECE allows households with slightly higher than poverty level incomes, but whose expenses put them at or near poverty level, to still qualify for SNAP benefits. Even with the increase in income limits, benefits still go to families struggling to make ends meet. Because benefits are calculated the same way for ECE households as traditionally eligible households, families only receive a sizeable benefit if they have high expenses, such as costly housing or childcare. In cities like Bozeman, where rent prices have increased by as much as 20 percent in the last five years, ECE can help working families facing skyrocketing rents.

Despite its importance in encouraging work and savings, only eight percent of SNAP participants nationwide qualify through Broad-based Categorical Eligibility, which accounts for only 4 percent of the federal SNAP budget. SNAP enrollment has already been on a downward trend as the economic recovery continues, with 115,000 Montanans receiving benefits in 2018 compared to 129,000 in 2013. Cutting food assistance from three million people would do little to address the deficit caused by the Trump administration’s tax cuts.

What we can do?

If the current administration decides to do away with states’ abilities to set their own income and asset limits for SNAP by getting rid of ECE, millions of people nationwide and thousands in Montana will lose their benefits. Members of the public can submit comments until September 23. Now is the time to let the administration know the importance of SNAP in Montana communities, so please take a moment to voice your concerns about the proposed rule change here.

It is Time to Decolonize Data

“One of the ways that there is a continuing genocide against American Indians/Alaska Natives is through data. When we are invisible in the data, we no longer exist,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk, Director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, an organization committed to decolonizing data.

Decolonizing data reclaims the indigenous value of data collection, analysis, and research; prioritizes data for indigenous people, by indigenous people; and recognizes the inherent strength of indigenous people. By decolonizing data, indigenous communities determine the information they want to gather, think through why they are gathering it, and know who is interpreting the data and if the interpretation is being done in a way that serves the community. Put simply, decolonizing data is when indigenous peoples control their stories and information.

Too often, data is collected and presented in a way that perpetuates the narrative of poverty and need, painting a portrait of disparity and deficit. From health outcomes to economic indicators to educational attainment, mainstream data collection and presentation leaves little room to showcase the many strengths of indigenous people. Mainstream data collection, for example, would not have allowed Eleanor YellowRobe to reveal in 2007 that tribes in Montana contribute more than $1 billion to the state economy each year. Infrequently does data tell such a story. It is all too common for datasets to make invisible indigenous identity or to present indigenous communities as statistically insignificant because of small sample sizes, a framing that makes policy inaction or negligence a viable and acceptable option. Decolonizing data flips that script.

“Data has become a global currency, a valuable asset, and a source of power,” according to the Native Nations Institute. It defines problems, informs policy decisions, and tailors solutions. It determines where and how resources are allocated and defines who deserves to receive those resources.

The collection and presentation of data is as much political as it is anything else. Mainstream data practices maintain the status quo, or the current state of affairs; further entrench power structures that exclude indigenous peoples and nations; and perpetuate indigenous invisibility

Indigenous nations are sovereign, independent, political entities, with which the U.S. government works on a government-to-government basis. As political entities, indigenous nations are more than passive participants or common stakeholders in data ecosystems. Indigenous data sovereignty recognizes that political status. Indigenous peoples have always been data creators, users, and stewards. Indigenous data sovereignty is the right of indigenous peoples and nations to have ownership over the collection, management, and dissemination of their own data. It stems from tribal sovereignty and the right of indigenous nations to have the right to govern their peoples, lands, and resources, a right articulated through treaties and negotiations with other nations. The State of Open Data notes that right as the fundamental difference in the relationship between indigenous peoples and indigenous data and other stakeholders’ relationships with indigenous data. Examples of other stakeholders include non-tribal governments and researchers.

Indigenous data sovereignty is about self-determination, or self-governance and autonomy. When indigenous peoples and nations control what and how data and knowledge will be generated, analyzed, documented, and disseminated, indigenous peoples and nations have a say in what story is told and in how self-determination is achieved.

During the 2019 legislative session, Rep. Jade Bahr sponsored and successfully championed through the Legislature HB 632, a bill that empowers Indian Country with data. It requires the Department of Commerce to coordinate and produce a decennial report on the economic contributions of reservations in Montana. Throughout the bill’s hearings, proponents pointed to the fact that information is power and that this information in particular would help to tell a story about Indian Country that is not told enough. Moving forward, HB 632 will make it harder to deny the collective impact of Indian Country.

The legacy of colonization and harmful federal policies of assimilation have resulted in a contemporary data ecosystem that collects data about indigenous peoples and nations, but in a way that is rarely done by and for indigenous peoples and nations. Today, the all-too-common practices of exploitative research and policymaking have contributed to the problem wherein data is inconsistent, inaccurate, or irrelevant to indigenous peoples and nations.

To decolonize data and promote indigenous data sovereignty, the Native Nations Institute recommends:

  • Acknowledging indigenous data sovereignty as an objective and incorporating it into tribal, federal, and other entities’ data policies;
  • Generating resources and building support for indigenous data governance;
  • Growing tribal data capacities, including establishing data governance policies and procedures and recruiting and developing data warriors (indigenous professionals and community members who are skilled at creating, collecting, and managing data); and
  • Establishing strong relationships between tribal leaders and data warriors.

Like the Urban Indian Health Institute, MBPC is committed to decolonizing data. This means centering the voices of indigenous peoples and nations in policymaking and research, from beginning to end. It means being intentional about growing relationships with partners from Indian Country, and it means recognizing that indigenous peoples and nations are experts in their own communities.

As the Urban Indian Health Institute notes about indigenous communities, “Don’t come to us because you think we have the most problems; come to us because we have the answers.”

Tax Overhauls in the Last Two Decades

This interim, the Montana Legislature will be studying Montana’s overall tax system. House Joint Resolution 35 asks the revenue interim committee to create a subcommittee with public members that will study Montana’s state and local tax systems and make recommendations for improvement. In addition, House Bill 715 directs the Legislative Finance Committee to study the long-term budget and revenue needs with the changing economy and demographics.

Over the past two decades, the Legislature has passed a handful of major tax overhaul bills. Six of these bills resulted in a significant loss of revenue to the state and only one of the bills was expected to result in any increased revenue. This loss of revenue matters – it has resulted in the state failing to keep up with critical investments in our communities, and in some instances, budgetary cuts that have resulted in fewer services for families across the state.

One of the more significant (and costly) structural changes to Montana’s state tax system came in 2003 with the passage of SB 407. SB 407 reduced individual income taxes and provided a partial offset from limited excise sales taxes. This bill collapsed the number of tax brackets from 10 to 6, lowered the top tax rate for the personal income tax, and created a credit for capital gains, effectively lowering the tax rate on this type of income. The bill also enacted a few limited excise sales taxes and capped the state’s deduction for federal taxes paid. The changes in income tax were estimated to be a loss in revenue to the general fund of $26 million, but the actual loss in revenue cost the state about $100 million. MBPC has written a lot about these changes, including who benefited (spoiler alert: higher-income households).

And while we’ve written more about the income tax changes in 2003, there are several other measures over the past two decades that have restructured taxes in Montana.

In 1999, the Legislature passed SB 184, moving the state from a 3-year reappraisal cycle to a 6-year reappraisal cycle in place, altering rules for how the Department of Revenue values property, and providing reimbursements to local governments for a loss in revenue, among other changes. The bill was estimated to cost the state general fund $28.4 million in FY 2000 and $66.2 million in FY 2001.

In 2001, the Legislature passed HB 124, which created the system of entitlement share payments. This bill, often referred to as the “Big Bill,” significantly restructured the funding relationship between the state and local governments by, among other things, providing that the state collect revenue that was previously collected by local governments and, in return, assuming district court and public assistance costs and providing payments to local governments for services they provide, referred to as the entitlement share payments. This bill was expected to reduce general fund revenue annually by about $2 million, but the overall costs have exceeded projections.

In 2009, the Montana legislature passed HB 658 to mitigate reappraisal. This bill phased in the new values over a 6-year period, established new tax rates for some types of property, and raised some exemptions. The bill was estimated to cost the state $10 million in FY 2010, increasing each year to about $45 million in FY 2013.

The 2011 legislature passed SB 372 which lowered business equipment tax. This bill reduced the tax rate on business equipment and required the state to reimburse local governments for the loss in revenue. This bill was estimated to cost $1.4 million in FY 2012, increasing to $23 million annually by FY 2015.

The 2013 legislature passed SB 96 which expanded the business equipment tax reductions passed by the 2011 legislature.  This bill was estimated to cost the state $5.2 million in FY 2014, increasing to $11.4 million in FY 2017.

The most recent major tax overhaul was SB 157, passed in 2015. This bill is the only major tax overhaul that was expected to result in increased revenue in the last two decades. The bill changed the reappraisal cycle from a 6-year to a 2-year cycle for residential and commercial property; adjusted tax rates; and revised Montana’s Property Tax Assistance Program and Montana Disabled Veteran Property Tax Relief Program; among other changes. The bill was estimated to cost the state $10 million in FY 2010, with the cost increasing to about $45 million in FY 2013.

Montana’s tax base has been slowly eroding over the last two decades. Hopefully, the work done in the coming months will bring about some forward-looking proposals to improve our state’s ability to meet our residents’ needs with revenues collected fairly, efficiently, and with an eye toward the future.

Key Terms

Reappraisal: Reappraisal is when the Department of Revenue models and assigns values to property in the state. Some classes of property are reappraised every year, and other have a longer space of time between reappraisals. Residential and commercial property in the state is now reappraised on a 2-year cycle. Prior to the passage of SB 157 in 2015, these classes of property were reappraised on a 6-year cycle.

Access to Health Care Coverage for Nearly 100,000 Montanans Protected with Continuation of Medicaid Expansion

The Montana Legislature passed HB 658, a continuation of Montana’s Medicaid expansion program, providing health care coverage for over 96,000 Montanans. The Legislature enacted Medicaid expansion in 2015, but included a termination date on the law for June 30, 2019. Action in this legislative session ensures the continuation of Montana’s program, but includes some notable changes.

1. Current Exemptions from 2015 Waiver

HB 658 maintains the current exemptions for requirements set out in the 2015 waiver. These exemptions apply to premium requirements and the taxpayer integrity fee, and exempted those enrollees from the TPA plan (though this is no longer applicable due to actions taken during the 2017 Legislative Session). These exemptions include American Indians, medically frail, and those with incomes below 50% of the federal poverty line, and are maintained and moved to MCA 53-6-1304.

2. Community Engagement (Work) Requirements

The biggest change to the law is the “community engagement” (or work reporting) requirement for some enrollees. Those enrolled aged 19 to 54 and who do not meet one of the below exemptions specific to the work requirements will need to show they are working 80 hours per month. The law leaves it to DPHHS to put in place reporting requirements (i.e., how frequently, in what form) and the process DPHHS will undergo for verifying reporting.

a) Allowable Activities

The law lists several categories of allowable activities that will count toward 80 hours a month. DPHHS will likely further define these activities by rule:

    1. employment;
    2. volunteering;
    3. workforce training;
    4. secondary, postsecondary, or vocational education;
    5. substance abuse education or treatment; and
    6. other activities as defined by DPHHS that further the health purposes of Medicaid.

b) Exemptions

The law exempts a significant portion of enrollees from these new community engagement (work) reporting requirements. The law allows (and encourages) DPHHS to use existing data sources to verify exemptions, alleviating (in many, but probably not all, cases) the need for enrollees to self-attest to an exemption. Data used should include wage/income data, enrollment data, insurance claims data, and data from other safety net programs. The community engagement exemptions include:

    1. those with incomes that exceed an amount equal to the average of 80 hours per month multiplied by minimum wage (of annual wages of $8,160);
    2. medically frail;
    3. disabled, blind, or pregnant;
    4. experiencing an acute medical condition requiring immediate medical treatment;
    5. mentally or physically unable to work;
    6. a parent or other caregiver of someone unable to provide self-care;
    7. foster parent;
    8. full-time or part-time student enrolled in postsecondary education;
    9. meeting or exempt from TANF or SNAP work requirements;
    10. under supervision of corrections or county jail, including those on probation or parole;
    11. experiencing chronic homelessness;
    12. victim of domestic violence; or
    13. living in a high-poverty area.

An enrollee is temporarily exempt from the requirements if facing hospitalization or serious illness, caring for someone who is hospitalized or facing a serious illness, or impacted by a catastrophic event that prevents compliance. The exemption would apply during the reporting period(s) while facing such hardship.

c) Failure to Meet Community Engagement – Suspension – Reinstatement of Coverage

If a participant subject to the new community engagement requirements fails to meet or report activities or an exemption, DPHHS shall notify the participant of the requirements. At that point, the participant then has 180 days to come into compliance. If a participant fails to comply within the 180 days, DPHHS will suspend coverage for up to 180 days. However, DPHHS can reinstate coverage prior to the 180 days if: (i) the enrollee meets an exemption; or (ii) the enrollee meets the community engagement requirements for 30 days.

3. New Premium Requirements

For the narrow population of enrollees that are subject to premiums, HB 658 maintains the current requirement to pay premiums equal to two percent of enrollee’s modified adjusted gross income. However, the law then requires those individuals: (i) subject to premiums; (ii) who are enrolled for more than two years; and (iii) subject to the community engagement requirements, to pay higher premiums (increased by 0.5 percent each year after the second year). Those exempt from the “community engagement” requirements would be exempt from increased premiums. The 2019 law eliminates copays.

4. Taxpayer Integrity Fee (TIF)

The 2019 law maintains the fee imposed by Department of Revenue (DOR) for enrollees owning a certain amount of assets but makes significant changes to how it is calculated. First, the fee is now calculated using equity in particular assets. (Previously, the threshold values were calculated using the value of the asset, rather than equity in the asset.) Second, the fee will now apply if an enrollee meets any of the three asset calculations. (Previously, an enrollee had to have assets that exceeded all three prongs.)

The fee will apply if an enrollee owns:

    1. Equity in real property or improvements in real property that exceed $255,000; or
    2. Equity in more than one vehicle with total appreciable value that exceeds $25,000; or
    3. Ownership in agricultural land with taxable value that exceeds $1,500.

If a participant owns the above type of assets that exceed that asset limit, the enrollee is assessed a fee (by DOR) equal to $100 a month, plus $4 a month for each of the following:

    1. Each $1,000 in equity value in land above the $255,000 limit;
    2. Each $1,000 in equity value in vehicles above the $25,000 limit; and
    3. Each $100 of taxable value in ag land above the $1,500 limit.

5. Timeline

The current HELP Act (as passed in 2015) will stay in effect until December 31, 2019.

The law requires DPHHS to submit a new waiver to CMS by August 30, 2019. DPHHS will solicit public comment (law requires 60-day period) and submit the draft waiver to the Medicaid advisory council and the Children, Families, Health, and Human Services legislative interim committee.

CMS will then consider the waiver submitted and must provide a 30-day public comment period. Exactly how long CMS will take to approve the waiver is unclear (it will take at least 45 days from submission, but likely to take longer). As a reminder, CMS (under a different administration) approved Montana’s original waiver on November 2, 2015.

The new provisions within HB 658 (including community engagement requirement and increased premiums) go into effect on January 1, 2020. Many of these provisions will likely require DPHHS rulemaking. Enrollees subject to the community engagement requirements must come into compliance within 180 days of implementation.

End-of-Session State-Tribal Legislative Updates

With the 2019 legislative session behind us, it is time to share updates on a number of key bills that impact Indian Country.

Montana State Budget

House Bill (HB) 2, the General Appropriations Act, is the bill that provides for Montana’s state budget and includes several direct investments in Indian Country. They include the Indian Country Economic Development (ICED) Grant Program, which funds projects that strengthen Montana’s economy through the development and enhancement of business opportunities in Indian Country and for American Indian businesses, and the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program (MILP), which aims to preserve tribal languages in Montana.

Currently, both programs are funded on a one-time-only (OTO) basis, meaning their funding must be reapproved by the Legislature every two years. Despite the governor’s request to make both ICED and MILP funding permanent, the Legislature has maintained their OTO status for the biennium at $1.75 million for ICED and at $1.5 million for MILP. The funding level for both meets the amount requested in the governor’s proposed budget. However, OTO funding presents challenges for both programs. For tribal languages, it means uncertainty around future resources that support preservation efforts to curb the alarming rate of language loss. For ICED funding recipients, it means more difficulty in making long-term business plans. The bill is waiting to be signed by the governor.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

The Legislature heard a number of bills that would address the high rates of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). At the center of the package of MMIW bills was HB 21, or Hanna’s Act. After the Legislature stripped the bill of its original funding and made the functions of the bill optional, the Legislature restored the bill and ultimately passed it with overwhelming bipartisan support. Hanna’s Act authorizes the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) to assist with the investigation of all missing persons cases, creates a missing persons specialist, and appropriates just more than $200,000 to the DOJ for the biennium for this purpose. The bill is waiting to be signed by the governor.

The fate of Hanna’s Act was tied to SB 312, which legislators revived late in the session and ultimately passed. SB 312 creates the Looping in Native Communities network grant program, also known as LINC, to create a network that supports tribal efforts to identify, report, and find missing American Indian people in Montana. The grant to administer the program will be awarded to a tribal college. SB 312 also creates a missing indigenous persons task force, which will be responsible for administering the grant and for identifying and improving jurisdictional barriers and communication between law enforcement agencies investigating missing persons cases. The task force will receive $25,000 for the biennium to award as matching funds to tribes implementing LINC. The bill is waiting to be signed by the governor.

Health

HB 599 establishes the Indian Health Service’s Community Health Aide Program (CHAP) in Montana. Although CHAP is a federal program, states must adopt it through legislation. CHAP is a proven strategy for expanding access to health and dental care in underserved communities by allowing for the use of paraprofessional health care workers, like community health aides, to perform a wide range of duties, such as health education and dental health. Differing versions of the bill passed the House and Senate, after which a Conference Committee resolved the differences. It is waiting to be signed by the governor.

SB 30 came before the Legislature at the request of the State-Tribal Relations Committee and allows peer support services to be reimbursed under Medicaid, increasing access to much-needed behavioral health services in Montana. Specifically, SB 30 allows people experiencing behavioral health disorders to receive support, mentoring, and guidance from peers with similar life experiences. After passing the Senate, the House Human Services Committee tabled the bill. The Legislature, however, revived the bill and ultimately passed it, appropriating $2.5 million for the biennium to the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) for behavioral peer support specialists. It is waiting to be signed by the governor.

HB 696 appropriates $500,000 to DPHHS to support suicide prevention efforts among groups at increased risk of suicide – American Indian youth and service members, veterans, and their families. For almost 40 years, Montana has had one of the highest suicide rates in the country; yet, the Legislature failed to pass a number of other suicide prevention bills this session. HB 696 was a last option this session for legislators to invest in efforts to address this ongoing public health issue. The Legislature made the right decision and passed HB 696. It is waiting to be signed by the governor.

Tax

HB 401 would have repealed SB 412, which the 2011 Montana Legislature passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. SB 412 created the temporary tribal property tax exemption (for up to five years) for tribal fee lands when those lands have a trust application pending with the federal government. MBPC opposed this bill because it failed to honor tribal sovereignty and recognize the political status of tribes. The House Taxation Committee tabled HB 401 in committee, after which the bill’s sponsor introduced a similar bill, HB 733. It would have allowed counties to recapture any taxes that they may have missed during the fee-to-trust application process, should the application be denied. Like HB 401, HB 733 would have undermined tribal sovereignty. The Senate Taxation Committee tabled HB 733 in committee.

Conclusion

Montana is stronger when Indian Country is stronger. The Legislature made the right call on a number of key bills impacting Indian Country. Despite the session being over, MBPC’s work is not done. MBPC will continue to work with tribal communities to advance reasonable tax and budget policies that work for all of Montana.

 

Happy Tax Day from MBPC

Monday, April 15, as most of us are (hopefully) aware, is Tax Day.

More than just the filing deadline for tax returns, Tax Day represents an annual act of civic engagement, when we all unite to invest in the public interest and achieve together what we couldn’t individually. Like voting on Election Day, paying our taxes is a vital expression of democracy, in which we quite literally put our money where our mouth is and provide financial backing to the pursuit of the ideals upon which our government was founded—among others, to “promote the general welfare”.

Our tax dollars enable us to continue striving toward the kind of society we aspire to build—one that lifts up its least fortunate and ensures equality of opportunity for all its citizens. We often see these ideals invoked in the name of ambitious national policy plans, but more often we see them reflected in our communities, where the impact of our tax dollars is visible every day.

When Montanans pay their taxes, they can take pride in doing their part to contribute to improvements to infrastructure, protection of public lands, quality public education, access to affordable health care, and much more.

Whenever we travel, we are walking on sidewalks, driving on roads, and flying in planes kept safely in the air by our tax dollars. Especially in a state as vast as ours, our tax dollars keep us connected to our friends, neighbors, and loved ones.

Our investment in public lands reflects our love for our shared natural heritage and the importance we place in responsible stewardship. Whenever we hunt, fish, hike, climb, raft, or ski, we can be proud of our small role in funding the access to and protection of our forests, rivers, streams, and mountains.

Our investment in public education, from pre-school to the university system, reflects our desire to ensure that every kid has the tools both to succeed in life as individuals and to collectively build a stronger Montana. Each child that learns to read in a public school does so because their community’s tax dollars make it possible.

Our investment in public health reflects our desire to lift each other up in times of hardship. When a person long suffering from a substance use disorder gains access to treatment for the first time in their life through Medicaid, we have all played a small but extraordinary support role in turning a person’s life around.

This Tax Day, we at MBPC are proud to look around and take stock of the innumerable ways that our tax dollars lift up our neighbors and communities. We measure the impact of our individual contributions in the beauty of our public lands, in the children educated in our public schools, and in the stories of our fellow citizens who reclaim their health and their lives with the support of public health programs.

In short, our taxes help to build a better Montana, and for that we are proud to pay.

Happy Tax Day from all of us at MBPC.

Medicaid Expansion Passes House, Heads to the Senate

On March 29, the Montana House passed HB 658 to continue Medicaid expansion in Montana.

As a quick recap, the 2015 Legislature expanded Medicaid but included a termination date, sunsetting the law on June 30, 2019. On March 16, the House Committee on Human Services considered two separate measures to continue the program. The first, HB 425, proposed a “clean” continuation of Medicaid program, but that bill died in committee. The second, HB 658, proposed changes to expansion, including harsh reporting requirements that could have resulted in the loss of coverage for 50,000 to 56,000 enrollees. On March 26, the House Committee on Human Services passed HB 658, but not before making significant amendments to the bill’s new requirements. That version passed the full House, with a vote of 61-37.

While the heavily-amended HB 658 is far from perfect, it represents a negotiated compromise with bipartisan support. While Montana Budget & Policy Center was one of many organizations that opposed HB 658 in its original form, we support this compromise. This bill is now in the hands of the Senate, where we are hopeful the chamber acts quickly to pass the measure and give over 96,000 enrollees the peace of mind that they will not lose their health insurance in a few short months.

While HB 658 still requires “community engagement” (or work reporting) requirements for some, HB 658 now exempts the vast majority of enrollees from these new requirements. These exemptions recognize that those who are already working, going to school, or providing critical caregiving responsibilities should not be required to complete bureaucratic reporting requirements that can often penalize those who are already in compliance. Furthermore, HB 658 protects Montanans who are facing serious barriers to work, such as those that are disabled, medically frail, or living in areas with high unemployment. HB 658 requires the department to first use existing data to verify compliance and exemptions and lessen the burden on enrollees to navigate bureaucratic red tape.

According to the fiscal note, the state has determined that, using existing data, roughly 88,000 of the 96,000 Medicaid expansion enrollees are meeting the requirements or are exempt under the amended HB 658. This leaves about 8,000 individuals who will be subject to the requirements, and failure to meet the requirements could result in the loss of coverage for up to six months. To be clear, we do not take lightly the risk that Montana enrollees, albeit a smaller percentage, may face the loss of health insurance. However, HB 658 now allows the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) to reenroll someone during that 6-month period if the enrollee comes into compliance or meets an exemption.

HB 658 maintains the current requirements to pay 2 percent premiums (including the current exemptions) that are already part of the HELP Act. HB 658 would then require those individuals subject to premiums and who are enrolled for more than two years to pay higher premiums (increased by 0.5 percent each year after the second year). Those exempt from the “community engagement” requirements would also be exempt from increased premiums. Montana already faces one of the highest premium levels in the country, and we do have concerns about how higher premiums would make it harder on families living on low-incomes to access critical health coverage.

While MBPC is disappointed that the legislature wants to change Montana’s successful Medicaid expansion that puts at risk coverage for some enrollees, we recognize that we must find common ground in order to protect the coverage of nearly 1 in 10 Montanans. Overall, HB 658 represents Montana’s chance to continue a program that works. Medicaid expansion has brought tangible benefits to every corner of this state, helping people to access much-needed physical and mental health care services, connecting Montanans with better employment opportunities, and supporting rural economies. This is a compromise that protects people’s health care, and for the vast majority of enrollees, their Medicaid coverage will remain unchanged. For the smaller percentage of enrollees who will face new reporting requirements, there are some protections in place to help ensure they will not lose coverage erroneously. We support HB 658 as a compromise policy that protects care, limits harm, and allows Medicaid expansion to continue.

A Tale of Two Medicaid Bills: With Very Different Endings

On Saturday, March 16, the House Committee on Human Services will hear two bills, both of which will continue Montana’s Medicaid expansion program, but handle the program moving forward in very different ways and will lead to very different results.

HB 425, sponsored by Rep. Caferro, will continue the successes of Medicaid expansion, which has expanded health care coverage to more than 96,000 Montanans, increased access to substance use disorder (SUD) treatment, and lowered the uninsured rate in the state. At the same time, workforce participation went up for populations with low-incomes, a trend not happening elsewhere in the country. In fact, over half of those employed after completing the HELP Link workforce training program had higher wages, with an average wage gain of $8,057 average over the previous year. Medicaid expansion is working, and HB 425 will continue those successes.

HB 658, sponsored by Rep. Buttrey, would have a much different effect. HB 658 would add new requirements for those on Medicaid expansion to report work activities at the risk of losing health insurance, often when it is needed most. HB 658 would require enrollees to report 80 hours per month of specific activities in order to keep their insurance. Compared to requirements proposed in other states, HB 658 exempts fewer individuals and will result in greater loss of coverage, including those that are likely already working, caring for family members, or facing serious barriers to employment. For example, unlike nearly every other state that has proposed similar reporting requirements, HB 658 would require those with mental health or substance use disorders to report 80 hours per month of activities, even while getting treatment. While the legislation technically exempts full-time students in college, this exemption is unlikely to apply to nearly all Montanans enrolled in colleges and universities in the state. For those who are caring for others, individuals are only exempt when caring for a child under the age of 7 or caring for a family member that is receiving disability benefits, leaving out thousands of parents and Montanans caring for other family members.

We have said time and time again – harsh reporting requirements will hurt those struggling the most to access work and health coverage. For the populations where we have some of the most positive benefits of expansion – rural communities, veterans, American Indians, and those with substance use or mental health disorders, all of whom desperately need access to health care coverage –will be hit the hardest by this bill.

HB 658 lock outs Montanans from the health care coverage for failing to navigate bureaucratic regulations. Not only do individuals have to complete reporting for work or other activities, but HB 658 also requires enrollees to fill out a health risk assessment and a work readiness assessment annually. On top of that, enrollees must report any permanent change of income within 10 days. While all of this may seem harmless, think about the confusion of filling multiple forms that seem very similar and have arbitrary deadlines.

Experts project that the harsh requirements embedded in HB 658 would result in roughly 40,000 Montanans to lose their health care coverage and will take Montana back to a time when people could not get coverage and families suffered. This is a bill that will cause thousands to fall through the cracks. Parents of young children caring for their kids while grappling with how to pay for child care. Montanans struggling with substance use disorders who have finally accessed critical treatment and now being asked to focus on bureaucratic reporting requirement. A worker caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s that now must also participate in certain activities. One mistake, and they lose protection against cancer or another serious illness. One missed deadline, and they lose access to drug treatment. One misstep, and any family’s nightmare turns into a reality.

House Bill 401 Perpetuates Policy Rooted in Racism

The patchwork pattern of reservation lands in Montana today is the product of treaty violations and intentional efforts made by the federal government to break up tribal governments, get rid of reservations, and assimilate American Indians into non-Indian society – efforts all rooted in racism.

House Bill 401, sponsored by Rep. Greg Hertz, perpetuates those efforts under the guise of tax policy by imposing property taxes on certain tribal lands that are currently tax-exempt. Today, March 13th, the House Taxation Committee will hear testimony that supports and opposes this bill.

What Is House Bill 401?

House Bill 401 would repeal Senate Bill 412, which the 2011 Montana Legislature passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Senate Bill 412 created the temporary tribal property tax exemption (for up to five years) for tribal fee lands when those lands have a trust application pending with the federal government. The need for tribes to go through this process stems from racist policies and practices and colonization.

Rep. Hertz and fellow supporters of House Bill 401 argue that local communities are missing out on much-needed revenue because of the temporary tax exemption. Yet, House Bill 401 is projected to generate little more than $125,000 for the state General Fund across the next four years, or less than one-half of one percent of property taxes collected by the state in the last year, a paltry sum to undermine the political status of tribal nations.

House Bill 401 Undermines Tribal Sovereignty 

By imposing taxes on tribal fee land, House Bill 401 ultimately places a greater burden on tribes when they seek to reclaim land stolen under allotment, potentially delaying the process altogether and upholding the practice that sought to destroy tribal communities.

Between 1887 and 1934, under the General Allotment Act of 1887, Congress divided reservation lands into individual parcels, gave each tribal member or household a parcel, and sold surplus parcels to non-Indians. In total, the U.S. government took more than 90 million acres (roughly the size of present-day Montana) from tribes and sold it to settlers, often without compensating tribes. As intended, allotment hurt tribal economies, cultures, governments, and the overall well-being of American Indians.

Because of allotment, reservations in Montana are made up largely of fee land and trust land, which is central to the issue today. Fee land is generally private property and can be owned by tribes, individual American Indians, or non-Indians; and is subject to property taxes. Trust land is land collectively owned by a tribe, as well as land allotted to individual tribal members; is held in trust by the federal government; and is exempt from property taxes.

In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in an attempt to right the wrongs of allotment. Under the IRA, tribes and the federal government can place land in trust to protect and restore tribal homelands, and to conserve and develop tribal lands, resources, and economies. This is key to tribal sovereignty, or the authority to self-govern. However, placing land in trust can be both a lengthy and costly process for tribes to undertake. The 2011 Legislature passed Senate Bill 412 to recognize that one government did not want to tax another while the wheels of the federal government turned slowly.

House Bill 401 Disregards the Political Status of Tribal Nations

In Montana, property that is owned by federal, state, and local governments is tax-exempt. House Bill 401 targets land owned by tribal governments, disregarding and dishonoring the government-to-government relationship and political status of tribal nations as sovereign.

Neighboring states honor this relationship. Oregon, for example, exempts tribal lands from property taxes when a fee-to-trust application is pending. Even Idaho exempts property on a reservation belonging to a federally recognized tribe from property taxes altogether, in an effort to treat all government properties the same, whether federal, state, county, or tribal.

Placing Land in Trust Is Good for the Economy

House Bill 401 undermines tribal economic development and redirects tribes from funding services in tribal communities that benefit both American Indians and non-Indians.

Tribes and the state benefit in many ways from placing land into trust. One way comes simply from reconnecting fragmented tribal lands, which allows tribes to more strategically invest in their economies. This is good for all of Montana.

The act of reconnecting lands allows tribes to be more flexible in negotiating leases, creating business opportunities, and identifying natural resource development and commerce opportunities. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony of Nevada (RSIC), for example, transferred fee land into trust to develop several major car dealerships, a Wal-Mart Superstore, and a tribal health center – major economic development activities.

Tribal communities play an important role in moving the state forward by growing our shared economies for our shared communities. When tribal communities are better able to invest in economic development activities, the benefits ripple out to regional economies and the state economy.

House Bill 401 Is Bad for Montana

Although it was recognized as bad policy long ago, tribes continue to feel the impacts of allotment. Taking land into trust can address those negative effects, but House Bill 401 seeks to undermine those efforts and penalize tribes for protecting and restoring once-stolen tribal lands.

As it did by passing Senate Bill 412 in 2011, the Montana Legislature should honor tribal sovereignty and vote down House Bill 401.