Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, speaks in front of the capitol building on Wednesday.
Montana Democrats announced their platform Wednesday for how they would like to spend $1 billion in projected budget surplus, proposing to put millions toward workforce housing, property tax relief, child care and mental health.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said during a press conference Wednesday morning that the plan discussed was put together in the run up to the 2023 legislative session. Abbott said Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration has the ability to move hundreds of millions of unspent dollars in American Rescue Plan Act money that would address a number of these issues.
Montana is projected to have a total budget surplus of $1.7 billion going into the legislative session.
Workforce Housing: $500 million
Democrats would like to increase affordable housing by scaling up the Multifamily Coal Trust Homes program, first passed in 2019 and sponsored by Whitefish Democrat Rep. Dave Fern. The allocation from that program was initially $15 million, which Senate Minority Whip Sen. Pat Flowers said is almost spent now.
Flowers said the program uses Coal Tax Trust Fund dollars to provide low-interest loans to developers who build affordable homes.
When asked about how to supply workers for the construction of these new units, Flowers said that when the money is available, builders and materials will be there, that every business now is seeing the impact of supply chain issues, and he did not see it as a barrier.
Democrats are also planning to incentivize developers by proposing low-interest loans for affordable housing projects as well as no-interest loans to nonprofits.
Property Tax Relief: $250 million
The proposal includes a two-pronged approach. The first initiative would provide a one-time property tax refund for working people, and the second would cap property taxes to a percentage of annual income.
These efforts would expand on what is currently offered to veterans and qualifying seniors through the Property Tax Assistance program.
Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, proposed legislation towards this end in the last session, SB 394, that did not pass.
“It’s time to actually get this property tax protection in the books for our Montana working families,” O’Brien said Wednesday. “We have the money we need, so cost can’t be an excuse.”
Child Care: $125 million
Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said child care is a cornerstone of the economy.
“Think if child care centers went on strike and shut down, there wouldn’t be doctors to care for us,” she said.
Democrats are looking to establish more providers through grants and low-interest loans, expand capacity through pay raises for existing childcare workers, and lower access barriers by expanding scholarship eligibility.
Mental Health: $125 million
A key point for Democrats in expanding access to mental health care is coming back from the cuts to mental healthcare made in 2017 when $49 million was eliminated from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
“We have never since that point, including today when we have so much money, so much grain in the grain bin, have not invested to get that level of funding up to meet the needs of our communities,” said Caferro.
When asked about the potential impact on inflation, Abbott said inflation was an issue being felt both nationally and internationally.
“We’re not going to fix it in the state of Montana, and we’re not gonna make it worse in the state of Montana either,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith, R-Billings, said in a statement Wednesday that it was “very nice of Democrats to hold a press conference touting how strong Montana’s economy, record employment, and tax revenues are under Governor Gianforte and the Republican Legislature’s leadership.
“Republican lawmakers look forward to continuing to be good stewards of Montana’s economy and providing further tax relief for Montanans.”
Spokesperson for the Republican Senate Kyle Schmauch said Republicans are in talks about their goals for the next session.
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