Big Sky 55+ held a remote conference Monday regarding the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion relief and economic stimulus package for Americans dealing with the finical hardships of the pandemic proposed by the Biden Administration.
The meeting was lead by Big Sky 55+ Program Director Jacob Bachmeier, a former state legislator and chair of the Hill County Democrats, who said the organization seeks to advocate for the political interests of older Montanans.
At the conference, Montana Budget and Policy Center Analyst Jackie Semmens talked about the American Rescue Plan and the problems it seeks to solve.
President Joe Biden’s plan has faced some opposition in Congress, mainly from Republicans who say it will raise deficit spending too high.
Biden and his supporters have said the size of the package is needed to get the economy moving back to full employment and healthy economic levels.
Semmens said Monday that while COVID-19 case numbers in Montana are decreasing, the nation is still in crisis and this state has its share of urgent issues that she hopes the plan will help solve.
She said discussion of economic matters like this have a tendency to be reduced to lots of numbers and statistics, but as they are discussed something crucial needs to be kept in mind.
“These are people and lives behind these numbers,” she said.
Unemployment is high in Montana at 4.4 percent, Semmens said, which is lower than it was at the height of the lockdown, but higher than last year, affecting women and people of color disproportionately.
She said job recovery has slowed in past months and that is why the unemployment benefits in the plan are important, providing $400 per week through August 2021.
She said the plan also seeks to address the hunger crisis, which has ballooned during the pandemic with nearly 10 times as many children without enough food than last year.
Semmens said 6 percent of adults in Montana report they don’t have enough to eat and 1 in 5 families with children are food insecure.
The plan will increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by 15 percent, an increase of $27 per person per month, which she said is especially important because so many recipients were excluded from benefits that were voted for over the summer.
She said SNAP is among the most effective forms of economic stimulus in the U.S. with each dollar spent on the program resulting in $1.50 of economic activity.
Semmens said the plan also includes a program to help families that would normally see their children receiving free or reduced price lunches at school but can’t due to school closures.
One respect in which she said the plan may not go far enough is how it addresses the housing crisis.
She said 1 in 10 Montanans who are renting are behind on payments, and while the plan does include assistance for them as well as a moratorium on evictions through March, more must be done to address the crisis.
Semmens did praise the plan for including relief for people living in tribal nations who often cannot get benefits through Housing and Urban Development.
She also talked about changes being made to the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit under the plan, changes to the latter of which, she said, have the potential to lift 4 million children out of poverty.
Under the plan all children, excluding those of high-income families, will receive the credit and expansions made to the EITC will be especially beneficial to low-income people who are essential or front-line workers.
She said the plan includes more funding for schools to make up for learning loss that has occurred during the pandemic as well as more general finical support amid decreasing enrollment and tax revenue.
Semmens also said Medicaid expansion will be critical during, and in the wake of, the pandemic.
She said the plan will lower or eliminate health insurance premiums for nearly everyone who isn’t high-income.
“In Montana, a 60-year-old couple making $75,000 a year, their monthly marketplace payment for health insurance would be around $2,000,” he said. “Under the new bill it will be $531.”
She also mentioned that open enrollment in health care plans is going on through May 15 and members should be cognizant of that.
Semmens said the American Rescue Plan has the potential to lift a tremendous amount of people out of poverty during this difficult time.
She said it’s important to remember that the effects of the pandemic will be around for a while, and many things the plan addresses were problems before the COVID-19.
“People already couldn’t afford health care, they already couldn’t afford rent and food,” she said, “And, as we come out of this difficult time, I think it’s good to remember that we are going to have to be addressing these problems for a long time.”
Kalispell City Council Member Kyle Waterman, who also sits on the Flathead City-County Health Board also spoke at the event focusing his time on the localized nature of how the pandemic has affected various communities across the state and he raised his concern that Gov. Greg Gianforte and the Republican-controlled Legislature don’t really understand the issues so many people face.
He said the pandemic has hit every community differently, taking a huge hit on the Flathead area’s timber and tourism industries in particular.
He said main street business, especially those that benefit from tourism, have been especially hard hit and the state government needs to be laser focused on helping them and families, not giving tax breaks to people with money to spare.
“Pushing out an agenda that prioritizes cutting taxes, when we actually a way to provide support for local families,” he said. “This is not something large businesses, millionaires and billionaires need.”
Beyond the economics of recovery, Waterman said, the pandemic has also created a feeling of isolation for many, particularly seniors who require care and the people who care for them.
He said he’s seen use of senior citizen programs in his area jump significantly in the past year and the pandemic’s economic effects are making it difficult for people to benefit from these programs already, and that’s before considering many of these programs are in danger of being cut back under the current governor and a Republican-dominated legislature.
He also expressed concern about the need for more funding of local governments both on the state and county levels amid a pandemic that is far from over.
“This is not the time to be cutting back,” he said. “We’re at mile marker 13 of a marathon, we have 13 miles to go.”
He said the American Rescue Plan prioritizes these issues and needs to be supported.
Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, who sits on the Montana House Appropriations Committee, also spoke at the conference and said she shares the concerns of Waterman that Gianforte is out of touch with the people who are suffering the worst economically during the pandemic.
She said her experiences in appropriations as well as on the Tax Committee last session have given her a taste of both sides of the state-level budgeting process, and she said Montana has been able to create lean and efficient budgets that have worked well in past years.
However, Kerr-Carpenter said, 2020 was an uncommonly challenging year for the state and agreed with Waterman that cutting programs is not acceptable now of all times, especially to pay for tax cuts for the already-rich when small businesses need help.
She said even with an ambitious plan on the federal level the consequences of the Montana Legislature’s decisions, particularly with regards to the tax bill will be felt for years.
“Even with that support from the fed, if we use that to fund devastating tax cuts … it is going to have far-reaching consequences beyond this biennium into the next couple decades,” she said.
Kerr-Carpenter said the American Rescue Plan will help local and state governments by investing $350 billion into them, and Montana’s congressional delegation should support it.
A member of the audience Barbara Archer, asked what can people do to push the lawmakers in Washington and Montana to listen.
“It feels like we’re working in handcuffs,” Archer said.
Bachmeier said it will be frustrating, but people need to keep contacting members of Montana’s congressional delegation to support the plan.
Kerr-Carpenter said when it comes to the legislature people should be thinking about the next election already, and talking to people they know who may be supporting politicians who don’t represent their interests.