What’s up in Helena?

A quick look at Montana’s current legislative session

Like so many others, I’ve struggled to find my political footing in the current national flux.  One goal I’ve tried to chase is to find ways to be more politically informed at the local level.  To that end, I spent last weekend at the Women’s Policy Leadership Institute, hosted by Montana Women Vote in Helena.  I was there to learn some specifics about what’s going on in the current legislative session, and the Institute’s leaders definitely delivered on that front. I learned about the budget shortfall, bills promoting human rights, health care, and immigration policy in Montana, and found out about a bunch of local organizations working together to promote progressive ideas throughout the state. My summary (complete with bill names, links, and phone numbers wherever possible) is below.

      1. The Budget
      2. Bills to Help People
      3. Issues Indian Country
      4. Some truly shocking things about Montana criminal justice
      5. Local Projects

If you’ve forgotten who your legislators are, you can look them up using this neat map.

*A disclaimer: I know very little about policy, and this really was an imersive experience for me. I may have details wrong in some places, but I’m putting this out quickly since some of these issues are live right now.  I will continue editing as I learn more. If you see errors, please contact me!


The Budget

(quick overview)
Montana is facing a major budget shortfall in this session, largely due to an overly optimistic projection of revenues from oil and gas and corporate income tax, and to a lesser extent individual income taxes.  The state typically retains about $300 million in slush funds to deal with rainy day emergencies (and just this sort of missed projection), and fortunately those funds meant the legislature did not have to come back and change the budget midway through the last biennium. However, they’re gone now, and we don’t have additional rainy day reserves. Therefore, the legislature and the governor are looking for ways to constain spending in the state, while also restocking that reserve fund.

(proposed solutions)

Montana’s state budget is on the order of $2 billion per biennium. The budget consists of balancing appropriations with revenue. Governor Bullock proposed in his budget to deal with the shortfall by making $109 million in cuts to the state budget, reducing new proposal expenditures by $77 million, and raising an additional $150 million in revenue (through progressive tax increases on individual incomes, specifically adding a new top tax bracket and increasing the tax rate for individuals in that bracket by ~2%, as well as an ensemble of sin taxes, mainly targeting tobacco products, wine, and medical marijuana).

The legislature, unsurprisingly, is not interested in raising revenue (except possibly through sin taxes). They instead propose taking the entire $109 million Bullock proposed in cuts, and finding an additional $40 million to cut from the state budget. On top of this, and this is the big problem, the legislature proposes cutting $115 million from the state’s General Fund.

Now, here’s the issue. Money for most programs funded through the general fund receives about a 2:1 federal match, so that every dollar Montana puts in is matched by $2 from the feds. So, if we cut our contributions by $115 million to those programs, we will lose access to $345 million total.  This equates to roughly half a billion dollars in cuts.

(proposed cuts)

The legislature proposes to make a lot of the cuts from the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). Approximately $100 million would come from health care, child and family services (though this area is likely to fare a bit better because Bullock has some pet early childhood development projects), services for the disabled, and largely, from senior and long-term care, who are currently scheduled to take on ~$80 million in cuts.

Higher Ed is also projected to take a big hit, to the tune of $23 million (here’s the talking point: counteracting that would require an estimated 23% tuition hike).

The Department of Corrections (who is apparently extremely strapped for cash) is projected to a $3 million cut.

(next steps)

There are a few steps forward here. First, it does look like the revenue projections were a bit pessimistic, and revenue numbers are still being updated. The legislature is currently working with an old set of numbers. They could move to update to the new projections, which would reduce the amount to cut some (I’m not sure how much). It is not entirely clear that they will do this, because some of them are just so fiscally responsible. This is a point on which constituent feedback may be helpful.

The legislature’s current set of cuts doesn’t yet meet the state’s monetary gap, so there is some possibility that they could cut further. Keep an eye on this over the next couple weeks as the legislative sub-committees complete their work and move forward.


Bills to Help People

The legislature is trying to do some good work on behalf of marginalized Montanans. This is a quick list of what’s been proposed, and how to support (or oppose) these ideas.

  1. State Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

The federal earned income tax credit is regularly tauted as a critical means for getting money into the hands of folks with very limited resources. Both the Montana House and the Senate are considering state EITC bills that would expand on the EITC for Montanans. The Senate’s bill (SB156) proposes a program at approximately 3% of the federal rate; the House bill (HB391) proposes a program at 10% the federal rate. The budget-knowledgables at this workshop suggested either of these bills (but especially the House bill) would be really helpful to low-income Montanans.

To support the state EITC, you can call into the legislative office, (406) 444-4800, and leave a message of support for the entire House tax committee (leaving a message for a whole committee is a thing you can do, apparently).

2. Montana Human Rights Act amendment

The legislature is yet again trying to revise the Montana Human Rights Act to cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (these are not currently included in our state Human Rights Act). The proposed amendment is HB417, sponsored by Kelly McCarthy. The Montana Human Rights Network, and Montana Women Vote are both collecting stories of discrimination. If you have one that you’re willing to put forward, please contact them.

3. Paid family leave

The federal Paid Family Leave Act (FMLA) ensures unpaid family leave for employees in companies with over 50 employees. That means that 2/3 of Montanans are NOT covered by the FMLA. The state is trying to fill this gap with a 1% tax on employees (matched by a 1% tax on employers) that would allow everyone some paid leave. My understanding is that the planned payout is regressive, so that people at the lower end of the earning spectrum receive nearly 100% of their typical pay while on leave, whereas folks who earn more are paid out a lower rate (bottoming out around %60 of typical pay, I believe). Paid family leave is covered in HB392, which is currently with the House Business and Labor Committee. Call the legislature at (406) 444-4800 and leave a message for the House Business and Labor Committee in support of paid family leave, or provide stories to Time For Montana.


Issues for Indian Country

The Native American communities in Montana are getting caught in the same budget downfall as the rest of the state (apparently tribes’ budgets are tied to the state’s budget, as opposed to being a separate entity, which I had not previously realized). Montana Budget and Policy Center‘s Heather Cahoon noted four major projects that are likely to get axed due to the state budget shortfall:

      1. Indian Country Economic Development Program (which aims to support Native American entrepreneurs through small grants)
      2. Native Language Emersion programs
      3. Tribal College assistance programs (these are largely funds to support non-native locals who attend tribal colleges and are not currently funded. As an aside, non-native students account for between 3 and 30% of students at Montana’s seven tribal colleges)
      4. Indian Country Suicide Prevention Program (btw, if you missed this nytimes piece on suicide and Standing Rock, I recommend reading it)

Access to good medical care remains a crucial issue for Native Americans in Montana, particularly for folks not living on reservations with Indian Health Service facilities (Lillian Alvernez, a law student at University of Montana reported that IHS is pretty inaccessible for approximately 40% of Native Americans in Montana).


Truly shocking things about Montana criminal justice

One theme at the meeting was criminalization of poverty. I think this isn’t a new idea for most media savvy liberal types, but there were a few special features to the situation in Montana that merit special mention.

First, the distribution of the people in Montana’s correctional system are skewed heavily toward detention and pre-release facilities, which provide programming (or, “programming”) to help rehabilitate (“rehabilitate”) people transitioning from the criminal justice system back to normal life. Most of these facilities (5 of the 7 pre-release facilities) in Montana are privately owned, and subject to the totally normal capitalist pull of maintaining a user base. Their incentive structure is not necessarily to set people up so that they leave the system forever.

Our criminal justice system costs roughly $200 million annually (compare that to the state budget above), in a system where 8 of 10 adult inmates are non-violent.

Prison poverty rates are absolutely unreal, with 37% of female inmates and 28% of male inmates earning less that $600/month prior to entering prison. 37%. Wow.

Yet incarceration rates in Montana are rising by about 200 sentences per year, even as sentence deferral rates are falling across the state.

There is currently a bill in the legislature (I missed the bill number:( ) to tie police academy funding to a court service fee. This is bad, since it financially incentivizes police to arrest people and have them processed by the courts.



Local Projects You Could Support

I learned a lot about different local efforts that I’d previously missed or overlooked. Here are a few.

Montana Women Vote

Montana Budget and Policy Center (they have great reports)

Montana ACLU (underfunded, understaffed, doing great work to support local action)

Gallatin Progressive Action Network (for your Bozeman-area protest-related needs; find them on facebook)



Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance



Montana Racial Equity Project (based in Bozeman; fighting racism in MT)

Montana Human Rights Network (doing good things for Human Rights in Montana)


Choice stuff

Planned Parenthood of Montana

Susan Wickland Fund (provides grants to help women in mountain west get to providers; based in Livingston)


Advancing Native American Communities:

Western Native Voice (based in Billings; supporting Native American communities)

Indian People’s Action

Native Generational Change

ACLU of North Dakota (has way too few people — what I heard was two people total — on the ground right now…)



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