Next week, members of the Montana Legislature will head back to Helena to participate in “Legislative Week.” This is an opportunity for our state lawmakers to continue to engage each other and the broader public in important policy topics on the minds of many Montanans.
Just three short years ago, Montana faced massive cuts to the state budget, which decimated services across the state. As a result of the budget reductions, many communities lost access to behavioral health services, workforce training offices, and public assistance and outreach offices that provide support for families and seniors living on low incomes. Nonprofit service providers scaled back services, and in some instances, shuttered their doors.
While the Legislature restored some funding in 2019, families continue to struggle to get the help they need. Hundreds of seniors and individuals with disabilities sit on waiting lists to access home and community-based services so they can stay in their homes. Working parents grapple with affording early childhood education for their young children, and many families simply cannot manage to pay for a college education. In some instances, state cuts to education and other programs have put greater pressure on local governments and residential property taxpayers to pick up the tab.
Looking ahead, Montana faces challenges that warrant close attention by our state lawmakers. One in five children under the age of 6 are living at or near the poverty line. Montana’s existing early childhood education system has capacity to serve less than half of Montana children needing care. There is no county in Montana where a two-bedroom home is considered affordable for a family living on minimum wage. Montana’s overall population is aging, with one in four Montanans over the age of 60. In the next 10 years, over 20% of Montana’s workforce is expected to retire, placing greater importance on worker training and attracting and retaining skilled workers.
These are serious issues that deserve serious discussions. We welcome legislators back to the Capitol and hope they use this opportunity to discuss the issues most important to Montana families and communities. Montana must do better to support adults and children with disabilities. The growing needs of Montana seniors isn’t going away, and we need innovative solutions. Lawmakers should invest more in community mental health and substance use disorder treatment to ensure these services are available for all Montana families and communities. We can find a way to provide access to quality child care and education for all families. In order to grow Montana’s economy, lawmakers should expand Montana’s skilled workforce, support workers and families, and fund need-based aid to make college more affordable for families on low and middle incomes.
Legislative Week is a time to find common ground on how to invest in our communities, remind legislators of the painful cuts that occurred just a few short years ago, and find ways to right the wrongs to ensure families have what they need to live full lives.
Heather O’Loughlin is co-director of the Montana Budget & Policy Center.