More money for renters, emergency preparedness and childcare likely with COVID relief funds

Subcommittee discusses how best to use federal funds as it puts together state’s budget

By: - March 18, 2021 4:45 pm

Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, speaks during a Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on March 18, 2021 (Montana Public Access Network).

Montana lawmakers on Thursday found themselves in an unfamiliar position: Having hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, with little guidance yet from the federal government and the clock ticking on the legislative session.

Members of the Legislature came together to review the American Rescue Plan Act funds that are targeted toward health and human services, some commerce programs, and justice and law enforcement. In total, Montana will receive more than $2.7 billion.

The joint appropriations subcommittee met on Thursday to help decide how to spend more than $700 million in 25 different programming areas ranging from state veterans’ homes to homelessness.

However, Chairman Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, recognized the process for the recommendations would be different. The committee formulated a list of categories and funds from ARPA and discussed how to best use those in Montana, despite conflicting or little guidance from the federal government.

Members of the committee agreed that most of the funding should go toward programs already in existence or get to communities throughout Montana. Lawmakers of both parties warned against creating new programs or positions within state government from the funds, which are temporary and could leave future legislatures with budget holes to fill.

For example, the plan includes additional funding for assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. A large bloc of money was also dedicated to childcare, and lawmakers stressed that part of getting Montanans back to work will require a more robust daycare market.

In a rare moment of unity between the two political parties, both sides seemed to agree the most important way to use the funds was to ensure Montanans either got back to work, or more good-paying jobs are created.

“I am all about jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings. “Whatever we can do to advocate for high-demand, high-wage workforce training. I hope going forward that people can move up and out of poverty and get off these programs and never come back.”

Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, said she was concerned that before many families can get back into the workforce fully, they need reliable childcare. ARPA funding designated $111 million in childcare for Montana.

“That is going to be a chokehold in getting back to work. There simply aren’t enough slots,” Kerr-Carpenter said.

McNally said she’d like to see a way to make people on unemployment eligible for childcare support so that they can get back into the workforce.

“We also need to look at how do we address the childcare deserts that the state talks about,” said Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell.

State officials said the childcare support can go to centers that are open, or those that closed due to health rules.

More than $143 million was suggested for improving contact tracing and preparing for future emergencies. Outside organizations ranging from St. John’s United in Billings to the Department of Corrections submitted proposals to help better equip organizations and prepare communities.

Lawmakers also considered how to provide incentives for healthcare workers, and make more investments in the workforce. For example, Rep. Fiona Nave, R-Columbus, suggested a program that gives bonuses to workers after six and 12 months.

“I think we need to have programs that encourage people to come back to work rather than just supplement unemployment,” Nave said.

Rep. Fiona Nave, R-Columbus, speaks during a Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on March 18, 2021 (Montana Public Access Network).

Emergency assistance for families garnered some attention as foster families would receive more money, and Nave argued for assistance for families looking to adopt. Rep. Kerr-Carpenter said money should also be directed toward families working on reunification.

More than $152 million has been earmarked for emergency renters assistance, and $50 million was suggested for homeowner assistance.

More than $11 million was set aside for homeless assistance. McNally said she believed that was necessary because she’s noticed an uptick in the problem in Yellowstone County. She advocated for heated and lighted warming shelters and targeted case management.

“We should not be just trying to prevent it, but people need to be there helping people who are already there,” McNally said.

Nave wanted to make sure the money went to changing people’s lives, not necessarily keeping a status quo.

“These are really big piles of money, and there’s not that much homelessness in Montana,” Nave said. “I have heartburn for these amounts of money and also what we can use them on. Giving people rent for a year is not helping them. It’s not a hand up.”

She argued that more money should be spent on public safety, and that business help should specifically target small business, rural broadband and agriculture.

“We have to get people back to work more than we need assistance,” she said. “We need to send the message that small businesses are open, it is safe and you can shop and you need to show local.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.