COVID funds offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to raise up Montana

One of the staircases leading to the legislative chambers of the state capitol in Helena, Montana. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan)

When we went into the 67th Legislative session three months ago, we were in the throes of an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. Democrats knew at the start that our single priority was going to be to advance policies that create jobs and opportunity for all Montanans and allow our state, our local economies, and our families to rebuild stronger than ever. We hit the ground running in pursuit of that objective, and made substantial progress, moving the ball forward on broadband infrastructure, lowering health care costs, and cutting taxes for middle and working class families.

That was all before Congress passed the most consequential piece of legislation in a generation.

The American Rescue Plan Act, delivered by Sen. Jon Tester and President Joe Biden, is a watershed moment for Montana families. Beyond streamlining and accelerating the vaccine production and distribution process, and sending $1,400 checks to the vast majority of Montanans, ARPA sends $2.7 billion of federal dollars to Montana, giving us a once in a lifetime opportunity to catapult our state forward.

For a long time, we’ve had a growing understanding of the issues holding Montana families back. Lack of access to reliable high speed internet is making it impossible for small businesses and entrepreneurs in rural and tribal communities to create jobs and compete. Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable for working Montana families, who are being crowded out of the market by wealthy newcomers. Our aging infrastructure is ill-prepared to support a growing economy or encourage necessary investment. And Montana families who were struggling to find a solid foothold in the workforce before the pandemic are in more need of help than ever.

These are serious problems. But they aren’t new, and they aren’t mysteries. For a long time, ideas on how to tackle the major issues we face have been well-known by policy makers. Solutions haven’t been lacking — resources have. With nearly $3 billion heading our way, that is no longer the case.

We have the means to revolutionize Montana’s broadband infrastructure and create jobs across the state. We can meaningfully invest in affordable housing to increase supply and reduce cost, and allow hardworking Montana families to buy a home and cement their roots in their community. We can green-light the backlog of shovel-ready infrastructure projects that have been awaiting funding. We can support Montana businesses by supporting Montana families.  Investing in high-wage, high-demand job training, child care, and paid family leave can help every Montanan participate in a thriving economy.

And we can say thank you to all the essential workers who risked everything to keep our state running during the last year with a one-time $2000 bonus.

Montana’s problems aren’t unknown to us, and these are the priorities that Democrats are advancing to solve them. We know what we need to do, and now we have the means to go out and do it. What we can’t do is let this moment pass us by. We need our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to join us, and commit to working with us to seize this generational opportunity.

A brighter, more prosperous Montana is within our grasp — all we have to do is reach out and take it.

Rep. Mary Caferro is the Democratic Vice-Chair of the House Appropriations Committee and represents House District 81. Sen. Pat Flowers sits on Senate Finance and Claims and represents Senate District 32.