The American Rescue Plan (ARP) offers a glimmer of light at the end of a year-long pandemic tunnel, and this legislature should appropriate it wisely.
Montanans have been hit hard by this pandemic–businesses struggled or closed their doors, children lost time in schools, grandparents sat in isolation, and people lost jobs—and every red cent of ARP funding should go to Montana workers and communities.
Montana will receive $2.7 billion, and we have an incredible opportunity to help get people back to work, thank the essential workers who have continued to provide services every day of the pandemic, and help Montana emerge stronger for our children, and our grandchildren.
State employees bargained a one-year pay freeze for themselves in consideration of Montana’s foreseeable pandemic budget shortage and out of respect for private-sector employees suffering layoffs and business closures. The Montana legislature should allocate ARP funds to buoy Main Street businesses across Montana and fill in the pay plan gap with a $0.55 cent raise in the next fiscal year. Money in workers’ pockets gets recycled in the Main Street economy over and over again as state employees buy gas and groceries and pay rent. Montana customers with financial security are the key to unlocking small business growth and employment.
Montana schools wrestled with PPE and sanitation guidelines to safely provide in-person education as early and often as possible. The Montana legislature should save local taxpayers money by updating school ventilations systems, installing lead-free water fixtures, and establishing broadband access. And they should cover the cost of reduced-price school lunches while they’re at it, so no student goes hungry in class while we play catch-up next year.
Public services are slashed and burned every legislative session, leaving Montana families in the lurch as politicians balance the budget using vacancy savings in every agency imaginable. Vacancy savings mean Montanans lose jobs and services—a double whammy for working families. The Montana legislature should pass budget with zero vacancy savings—now THAT would be a jobs bill.
Right now, politicians and bureaucrats in DPHHS and OPI are pointing fingers about a lack of funding for mental health services in k-12 schools, putting CSCT services at risk when students need them more than ever. The Montana legislature should fund mental health services for the next quarter while everyone works together for a long-term solution.
Let’s not forget Higher Education. This legislature has a real opportunity to fund tuition and fee rebates for all students in their first two years of higher education, incentivizing job training and workforce development for the Montana students who lost their Senior year of high school and went on to college pandemic be damned.
Yes, there are some restrictions on the funds, and yes, these funds will not be coming year after year, but they are here now. None of the items listed herein require continual funding. Instead of looking for tricky accounting practices to give tax cuts to the wealthy, this legislature should think of creative ways to use ARP funds to help Montana get ahead. That would be the literal definition of a comeback plan.
Amanda Curtis is president of MFPE Montana’s largest union representing tens of thousands of Montana public employees working in Head Start; k-12 schools; two- and four-year higher education institutions; city, county, and state government; and law enforcement including city police, county sheriff’s deputies, dispatchers, probation and parole, corrections, and highway patrol. www.mfpe.org