This week, Governor Gianforte submitted a request to legislators to use a portion of federal American Recovery Plan funds to pay out-of-state health workers and pump money into criminal investigations. Like putting a band-aid on a broken leg, the proposed short-term “fixes” will do nothing to address the fundamental issues workers and communities face, like housing shortages and the decimated behavioral health system. While a majority of legislators on the ARPA commission approved these recommendations as-is, there is still the opportunity for the legislature to invest in meaningful system changes that will support communities today and into the future.
The executive’s proposal to address health care worker shortages and rising crime rates fails to look at the systemic issues Montana faces: the lack of housing and a broken behavioral health system. To date, Montana has spent just 4 percent of the federal recovery funds awarded, including less than $18 million of the $906 million in flexible fiscal relief funds. Other funding streams allocated to housing and health services do not scratch the surface of the needs.
Housing shortages in nearly every community result in workers and families unable to find safe and stable housing and small businesses facing workforce shortages. For many Montanans in essential industries, in both urban and rural communities, finding housing located close to their jobs that is affordable is nearly impossible. While we deem our frontline workers essential, workers in these occupations face lower wages on average. Frontline workers come from disproportionately socio-economically disadvantaged groups compared to the overall workforce. This is a result of ongoing racist, oppressive, and discriminatory policies and practices that limit economic mobility. A narrow approach of providing bonuses to recruit out-of-state health workers will do nothing for the Montanans who worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic and continue to experience burnout and economic hardship. They deserve our support first and foremost.
In addition, the executive’s focus on patching holes in the criminal justice system will do nothing to address the structural barriers many Montanans face in finding safe and stable housing and appropriate medical care. Social isolation, economic stress, and persistent lack of access to mental health care put even more strain on systems that support people in crisis. These are the conditions that put people at greater risk of becoming involved in our criminal justice system. Past state budget cuts have decimated supportive services in our communities, leaving local governments, providers, and families with too few options to help. As experts in the field have noted, “the behavioral health system in Montana is in danger of imminent collapse unless it receives immediate relief.”
Montana can invest in solutions that will have a lasting impact on Montana families and support thriving communities. We should invest one-time federal dollars to provide hazard pay and housing support for nurses and other essential workers, increase reimbursement rates for mental health and substance use providers, and fund case management, culturally appropriate diversion and reentry programs, and targeted housing assistance in high-demand communities. Montana needs a multi-prong approach to address housing, including the construction of new housing, expansion of housing assistance programs, and support for local governments to address growing homelessness. We can utilize the historic investment of one-time federal funds to provide meaningful support for families, workers, and communities that will outlast the dollars. Let’s not squander our opportunity to build a strong Montana.