What is the Earned Income Credit?

This session, the Montana legislature is considering legislation to create a state earned income credit – the Working Families Credit – to provide assistance for low- and moderate-income working families, modeled after the successful federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Doing so could help boost incomes for thousands Montana working families. Today we are going to give a little more background on what the EITC is, and how it works.

History

The EITC was first created in the 1970s, but was expanded significantly in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan, who called it the “best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.” The measure had broad bipartisan support because it improves the lives of low-income families while encouraging work. In 2013, the federal EITC lifted more than 6.2 million people, including 3.2 million children, out of poverty.

How it works

The credit is based on the amount of money that an individual earns, helping to encourage work. The credit begins with the first dollar earned, increasing before reaching a maximum amount where it plateaus, and then tapers off. This model helps to encourage workers to increase their hours and wages, without punishing them for earning too much. The credit also increases with the number of children in a family, maxing out at three children. Low-income workers without children are eligible for a very small credit, but majority of the benefit goes to adults with children.

Figure 1 _EITC. 3-17 (1)

The federal EITC in Montana

In Montana, 80,000 families receive the federal EITC, with an average amount of $2,168. Rural counties especially benefit from the credit – 21 percent of federal households in rural counties receive the EITC, compared to 17 percent in the rest of the state. In 2014, the federal EITC brought in $173 million into Montana’s economy.

State EITCs across the nation

Because the EITC has been so successful at reducing poverty and encouraging work, 26 states and D.C. have enacted state versions set at a percent of the federal credit. The state credit helps to further support for low-income working families.

Montana’s families would likewise benefit from the Montana Working Families Credit. Two bills are making their way through the process – HB 391 and SB 156. Our legislature should act now to help improve the incomes of working families across the state.

House Appropriations Passes Budget But Leaves Devastating Cuts

Following two lengthy days of hearings, the House Appropriations Committee made amendments to HB 2 on Thursday and Friday and passed it out of committee. The full House of Representatives will begin debate on HB 2 later this week. While the Committee passed several amendments to partially restore some funds, the budget still includes devastating cuts to programs critical to Montana’s students, seniors, and our most vulnerable communities.

To recap, legislative leaders began the budgetary process in January, by adopting cuts in the governor’s proposed budget and then taking additional deep cuts to nearly every state agency. Subcommittees worked through January and February and added back some funds. However, most of those additions simply reflect present law adjustments, or the amount of funds needed to continue existing services into the next biennium, and did not restore the deep cuts to the underlying programs.

Areas facing the deepest cuts include senior and long-term care, which provides Medicaid services to seniors and Montanans with disabilities, and higher education, with major cuts to Montana’s colleges and universities.

Here is an update on what happened in House Appropriations last week:

  • The deep cuts to Senior & Long-Term Care (SLTC) largely remain. While the Committee passed an amendment to add back some (but not all) federal funds, it did not add general fund dollars. This action is meaningless. In other words, if the legislature fails to appropriate state general fund dollars, Montana will not receive the federal matching funds. Therefore, SLTC continues to face a budget hole of $53 million in total funds below the present law budget. The Committee considered amendments to: fully restore legislative cuts to SLTC; pare back the current 8% vacancy savings; provide an increase to direct care worker wages; and restore funds for respite services for family caregivers. All of these amendments failed. The committee did add back about $200,000 in funds for independent living contracts within the Disability & Employment Transition Division.
  • Deep cuts to higher education remain, even with the additional $11.6 million in higher education funding, but this represents only 1/3 of the cuts below a present law budget. Of this $11.6 million, about $9 million will go to the MUS units (MSU, UM, and satellite colleges and universities). With this restoration, community colleges received of $1.7 million, and Tribal colleges received $81,000. Amendments to add back additional funds for the university units, funds for the Montana Seed Lab, and funding for the Governor’s Best and Brightest Scholarship fund, all failed to pass. Prior to full Committee action last week, the higher education budget sat about $30 million below present law budget. This includes the $23 million in cuts taken in early action, as well as a $7.8 million present law adjustment that the Subcommittee did not take. Again, simply looking at a comparison of present law budget with legislative action so far, the Committee action last week restored about one-third of the total $30 million in cuts below the present law.
  • The Committee restored funding to support child care providers and improvements to quality care. The STARS to Quality program is a voluntary program for child care providers to improve quality of early childhood education and care. Previously, the subcommittee added back the one-time-only funds for STARS to Quality, but made the funding contingent upon the passage of a bill to legalize and tax blackjack. The full Appropriations Committee stripped that contingency language, providing $2.4 million in OTO funds for STARS to Quality.
  • The Committee failed to pass an amendment to restore funds for workplace safety programs. Subcommittee action included cuts to the Employment Relations Division, cutting about $1 million within the workplace safety division. Legislators noted that Montana has ranked as one of the worst states for the number of workplace accidents. This cut will result in greater pressure on the Department of Labor and will likely increase accidents in the workplace. An amendment to restore the funds failed to pass.
  • Efforts to restore funding for Department of Military Affairs failed, including funding to support regional response teams. The early cuts in the session included across-the-board reductions to Department of Military Affairs and cuts to the 6 regional hazardous materials teams with Disaster & Emergency Services, which provides training and assistance to local response teams handling hazardous material. The cut in state funding results in additional loss of federal funds. An amendment to restore these funds failed.
  • The Committee restored funds for the Governor’s airplane.

The full House of Representatives will hear HB 2 later this week, presenting another opportunity to restore these deep cuts, and ensure that our seniors and Montanans with disabilities can continue to receive the services they and their families in need.

Blog Series: Who Has the Most to Lose With a Capped System

Who has the most to lose from capping Medicaid spending?

In yesterday’s blog, we talked about some of the recent proposals by Congress to impose a block grant or per capita cap on federal Medicaid spending. We also wrote about the disastrous impact it would have on state budgets and ability to provide affordable health coverage for families. Today, we are going to take a deeper look at who has the most to lose under a capped system.

As a quick refresher, if Congress votes to cap the federal government’s contribution to states’ Medicaid programs through either a block grant or per capita cap, states will then have to take up a greater share of their Medicaid costs as health care costs increase, to the tune of over $560 billion over the next decade. In turn, states would likely face significant budgetary pressure to begin cutting Medicaid services, critical to millions of families across the country.

Impact on the State Budget

As Montana sees diminishing contributions from the federal government, our state will have to pick up an increasingly larger share of costs. This could put a significant strain on the state’s budget, making it likely that at some point the state will have to reduce benefits. As the state’s share of Medicaid costs grows, Montana would be faced with difficult decisions to limit Medicaid costs moving forward, including: (i) cuts to the level of benefits under Medicaid; (ii) cuts to the number of Montanans enrolled in Medicaid; and/or (iii) cuts to Medicaid payments made to doctors, hospitals and other providers. All of these options will hurt Montana families trying to access Medicaid coverage.

Block Grant

Cuts to benefits

Medicaid currently provides more benefits than private insurance, and does so at a significantly lower cost for beneficiaries. While proponents of block grants tout the “flexibility” that states will have, the flexibility essentially means that states will be able to cut important services. For example, to save costs, states may cut a pediatric benefit known as Early Periodic Screening, Diagnostic, and Treatment (EPSDT) that assesses the health and development of children and covers the services they need. Covering fewer services is a shortsighted move that would reduce the overall health and well being of thousands of Montanans and potentially lead to much larger statewide health care costs down the road.

Cuts to enrollees

Montana would most likely have to cut the number of people it enrolls through Medicaid, including some of the most vulnerable recipients.

Those most at risk of losing coverage would be the over 70,000 Montanans who have gained affordable coverage through the Montana HELP Act, the state’s Medicaid expansion program. Congressional House legislation could effectively end Medicaid expansion, by eliminating the current 90% federal match after 2019. The Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership (HELP) Act, designed with bipartisan support, has expanded health care to over 70,000 Montanans, who now risk losing that coverage.

Montana currently provides Medicaid to pregnant women with incomes up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), even though federal law only requires coverage up to 138 percent. As costs rise, Montana may be forced to drop coverage for pregnant women with incomes above the federal minimum.

Cuts to payments for doctors, nurses, health care clinics, and hospitals

Spending caps could also mean that Montana would have to reduce the payments it sends to providers. The Urban Institute has estimated that block grants could cause states to reduce reimbursements, which are already lower than what private insurance pays, to providers by more than 30 percent. In turn, this could cause a decrease in the number of providers willing to accept Medicaid payment for services. For rural Montanans, fewer providers could drastically reduce their ability to access affordable health care.

Block granting Medicaid or implementing per capita spending caps would wreak havoc in Montana and reduce our ability to provide comprehensive, affordable health care coverage to people in need. Capping Medicaid spending does nothing to improve health care, but rather only limits Montana’s options and flexibility.

Blog Series: Medicaid Block Grants and Per Capita Caps

This week, House Republicans are aiming to begin marking up the repeal of ACA. House leaders have announced a plan that would drastically alter states’ Medicaid programs by putting a cap on the federal contribution for Medicaid. This change could significantly reduce access to health care for tens of thousands of Montanans. Nationally, these changes could result in cutting federal Medicaid support by over $560 billion over the next decade.

There are two ways that the federal government can cap spending – Medicaid block grants and per capita caps. Both of these measures would limit the amount of money the federal government sends to states for Medicaid, while increasing cost for state governments.

These two options are structured differently, but have similar long-term results.

How does Medicaid spending work now? Currently, Montana receives a fixed share of its Medicaid costs from the federal government. On average, a state receives about 64 percent of this cost. (Under Medicaid expansion, which has helped over 70,000 Montanans get access to health coverage, the federal share is even higher, a minimum of 90%.) In the past, if a state spends more on Medicaid one year, say due to a bad flu season, the federal government would send more money, keeping the percentage the same.

Under a block grant, states would receive a fixed amount of federal funds for Medicaid. Anything above that amount, the state would be responsible for paying. Under a block grant, Congress eliminates the set federal matching rates, and instead, the states will receive a total fixed amount of funds to run their Medicaid programs.

Per Capita Cap

A per capita cap is similar, but instead of setting a dollar limit for the entire Medicaid program, it would cap the amount of spending per beneficiary. If a beneficiary’s health needs exceeds that capped amount, the state would be responsible for the entire amount of those costs. The per capita cap would likely be set using current per-beneficiary spending and grow only slightly over time using an inflationary adjustment (but highly unlikely to keep pace with rising health care costs).

So why are spending caps so dangerous?

On a federal level, block grants and per capita caps are designed to do the same thing: create savings for the federal government in the long run, primarily by passing the cost along to the states. They achieve this by setting a cap below what the federal government is projected to spend, and then increase that cost each year only slightly, at or less than the rate of inflation. As noted above, health care costs have grown faster than inflation. The cost of Montana’s Medicaid program would increase over time, but the federal contribution would not. After a few years, the federal government would be contributing a much smaller percentage than it is now, leaving Montana holding the bag.

We have historical evidence of how disastrous block granting can be for social safety net programs critical to low-income families. The most direct example of block granting is the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which Congress implemented in 1996 to replace the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Because federal support was capped, the TANF program in Montana now serves about 13 of every 100 families experiencing poverty in the state. Before TANF, AFDC served 63 of 100 Montana families living in poverty.

Why would health care costs increase?

Historically, health care costs have increased faster than inflation. Although the rate at which they have increased has slowed down, lawmakers cannot be sure if this slowdown is permanent or temporary, especially while they make other changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Montana also has a rapidly aging population, and the health care costs for older adults is significantly more expensive than it is for younger adults. By 2030, Montana is expected to be the fifth oldest state in the nation, and many older Montanans are served through the Medicaid program.

Last, with new diseases and new treatments, per-beneficiary costs could increase. For example, if researchers discover a new treatment for cancer, people’s lives could be saved but costs could increase. Similarly, if there is an outbreak of a new disease – such as Zika, or an epidemic similar to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s – per-person treatment costs could increase.

So what happens?

If the amount of money the federal government sends is capped, the state would have to either spend more of its own money, or reduce the amount of health care it provides. This could leave thousands of Montanans without access to affordable health care.

Tomorrow, we will talk about who has the most to lose from putting a cap on Medicaid spending.

Budget Troubles Loom Large Second Half of Legislative Session

This week the Legislative Fiscal Division released a 694-page HB 2 Narrative summarizing final Joint Appropriation Subcommittee action, comparing the current legislative budget to the executive proposed budget and to the last biennial budget. The Narrative includes a 12-page summary as well as more in-depth analyses of each agency. The summary section is a helpful overview of changes the legislature has made so far compared to the executive budget. However, this year the overview could easily lead a reader to believe that legislative subcommittee action left the state budget and the programs, services, and infrastructure it funds in much better shape than it actually is.

Here are the main highlights from the LFD Narrative:

  • The legislature cut general fund appropriations by $43.8 million from the executive’s budget and $19 million from the 2017 biennium budget.
  • The legislature’s appropriations of state special revenue cut $46.7 million from the executive’s budget and $44.8 million from the 2017 biennium budget.

While the legislature appears to have provided a far greater amount of federal funds in HB 2, this requires some additional clarification:

  • The Governor proposed to appropriate $359 million in federal funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through a statutory appropriation, rather than HB 2. After discounting this fund shift, the increased federal dollars from the executive budget is only about $207 million.
  • Of this $207 million in federal funds, $193 million is federal funds for highway dollars tied to matching state dollars. In order to restore federal highway dollars, the legislature has made state funding cuts to the Montana Department of Transportation. (See below for more info.)
  • Finally, over $50 million in federal Medicaid funds were added to the DPHHS budget for Health Resources Division in late subcommittee action as a result of updated caseload estimates, a routine process that occurs throughout the budget creation process. This adjustment does not restore the almost $90 million in cuts made to DPHHS alone.

Some additional commentary on subcommittee action

An important comparison to consider is how the legislature has funded programs compared to the present law budget, or the level of funding necessary to maintain current government services. As LFD notes, “present law gives the legislature a baseline budget presentation and illustrates a beginning point of the legislative budget decisions that require legislation.”

In early action by the legislature, subcommittees cut hundreds of millions of dollars in total funds to agencies. While subcommittees have added back some funds, nearly all of these additions reflect present law adjustments needed to continue existing services. So it is helpful to look at the present law budget as a baseline and then factor in the cuts or additions made beyond these adjustments. An initial take shows that the legislature has cut more than $100 million from the core programs and services that help make our communities and families safe, healthy, and economically secure.

Below are some initial thoughts on how things are faring for programs essential to our communities. These aren’t just numbers and dollar signs. They represent devastating cuts to services for seniors and people with disabilities and probable double-digit tuition increases for students and their families.

The slight budgetary increase to DPHHS reflected in the LFD Narrative is a result of standard inflationary adjustments and additional federal funds for caseload adjustments. Essential programs for seniors and individuals with disabilities continue to face deep and devastating cuts. While the present law adjustments for DPHHS reflect an increase of total funds of about $97 million, the Department is also taking a cut of $89 million in total funds in “new proposals.” These cuts represent $2.2 million cut to Disability and Employment Training Division that provides services to people with disabilities, including counseling, career training, transportation, adaptive equipment, and independent living services.

Senior and Long-Term Care, which administers Medicaid services for seniors and persons with disabilities, including Meals on Wheels, transportation services, in-home assisted living services, and nursing homes, continues to see the deepest cuts in DPHHS. In addition to negative present law adjustments, the legislature has cut $53 million in total funds for programs, potentially impacting provider rates, worker wages, and services for seniors living in their own homes and those in nursing homes. Montana’s population continues to age, and projections show that by 2025, nearly one-fourth of the state’s population will be over the age of 65. We should be very concerned about how these cuts will harm seniors and their families today, but also concerned about how these cuts set the stage for declining services in communities over time.

The legislature has funded Montana’s colleges and universities at $33 million below the past biennium, risking double-digit tuition increases for students and families in the next biennium. As discussed in our past report, early actions by the legislature reduced higher education investment by approximately $23 million. On top of this, the legislature did not provide the standard present law adjustment to the university system, representing an additional $7.8 million in cuts to a fully funded budget.

The Legislature’s effort to restore federal highway funds relies heavily upon deep cuts to the Department of Transportation, which could impact the health and safety of all drivers and future federal funds. Some legislators and the broad Montana Infrastructure Coalition have called for an increase to the state gas tax in order to avoid losing $193 million in federal matching funds used for construction and maintenance of roads, highways, and bridges. Instead, the budget subcommittee that oversees the Department of Transportation (MDT), dramatically cut state funding for MDT and used those savings to shore up the state highway account used to match federal funds. This plan would eliminate 75 vacant positions and cut overtime pay. MDT has raised concerns that this level of cuts could impact safety, which could result in failing to meet federal standards and a corresponding further loss of federal funds.

 

The Legislature will come back from its break next week and will have 45 more days to ensure we continue to invest in the services our families rely upon. Seniors, people with disabilities, students, and families who want a better life for their children shouldn’t be asked to shoulder the entire burden of our state revenue downturn. Montana can get to a balance budget while funding essential services, by ensuring we have adequate revenue and that everyone is paying their fair share.

Blog Series: What ACA Repeal Could Mean to Health Care Providers

In the coming weeks, Congressional House members could begin committee work on the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). MBPC released a report last month on the detrimental impact of repeal on those who risk losing insurance coverage, including the over 71,000 Montanans who have gained coverage through Medicaid expansion. Montana is experiencing record levels of Montanans with insurance, but that could change quickly as families lose access to Medicaid and adequate subsidies to pay for insurance through the exchanges. A more recent report from the Urban Institute describes the impact of repeal on Montana’s hospitals and medical providers. This report assumes partial repeal similar to that passed by Congress in 2016 (and vetoed by President Obama), which included the elimination of Medicaid expansion, the individual and employer mandates, and Marketplace subsidies.

We don’t yet have full details on what exactly the House will take up this week, but Urban report provides a glimpse at how repeal of ACA could impact hospitals and providers across the state. If Congress does choose to eliminate these aspects of the ACA, Montana providers could face nearly one billion dollars less of health care spending in 2019, putting additional pressure on uncompensated care costs and those with insurance.

 

Estimated total Health Care Spending in Montana for 2019 (in millions)
  ACA ACA Repealed through Reconciliation Difference
Total Health Care Spending 5,636 4,664 -972
Hospitals 2,111 1,722 -390
Physician Practices 857 740 -117
Over Services 1,366 1,125 -241
Prescription drugs 1,301 1,077 -224

When fewer people have health insurance, health care spending decreases because people either forego care or are unable to pay in full. Statewide, health care providers stand to lose $972 million in 2019 with the loss of Medicaid expansion, the individual mandate, and existing health care subsidies.

From 2019-2028, these costs would add up. If the ACA were kept in place, Montana insurers would spend an estimated $71.3 billion on health care over this time period. But if the ACA is repealed without an adequate replacement plan included, this spending could decrease by $13.6 billion.

If someone is unable to forego medical care without insurance, and are unable to pay out of pocket, hospitals and other providers are left to pick up the tab. In 2019, uncompensated care would rise by $481 million across the state. Between 2019-2028, this figure would rise to over $5 billion.

Someone must pay for uncompensated care, meaning hospitals and other providers shift the cost to private insurance companies. This “cost-shift” forces insurance companies to raise their premiums, passing the burden along to those with insurance.

Reduction in health care spending would also result in the loss of jobs across the state. In 2019, Montana could lose up to 8,000 jobs, according to the Commonwealth Fund. Three thousand of these jobs would be in the health care sector.

Repeal of the ACA could have dramatic effects for Montana’s economy, from rising health care costs to lost jobs. For more information about the effects of repeal, be sure to read MBPC’s latest report: 142,000 Montanans Face Uncertainty of Health Coverage with Threat of ACA Repeal.

Blog Series: ACA Repeal could have devastating impacts on health care, jobs, and the economy

This week, Congressional House Republicans are aiming to move forward with a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), putting the health care of tens of thousands of Montanans at risk. Exactly what the bill will look like is still unclear, but as we get more details, we will be sure to share our initial analysis of the impact on Montana families and the broader economy. With thousands of Montanans depending on provisions of the ACA – including 71,000 who have received insurance through Medicaid expansion and another 58,000 who access insurance through the exchange – repeal of the ACA could have devastating impacts on access to health care, jobs, and the economy.

Last month, MBPC released a report highlighting the repeal of ACA could put coverage for 142,000 Montanans in danger. Before the law was passed, a staggering one in five Montanans did not have health care coverage. Now, that number is down to only one in 14. Repeal could cause an even higher rate in the uninsured, as uncertainty in the marketplace causes insurers to raise their prices.

Those at greatest risk of losing their insurance are people who gained coverage when the Montana state legislature decided to expand Medicaid with bipartisan support. The Health and Economic Livelihood Plan (HELP) was the first of its kind in the country, and today over 71,000 Montanans have accessed affordable health coverage, including:

  • 38,832 womenmed preventive Services
  • 60,988 people living below the poverty level
  • 9,916 American Indians
  • 17,130 people between 50-64 years old

The HELP plan has also provided thousands of preventative care services to patients, including:

  • 19,491 cancer screenings
  • 7,137 diabetes screenings
  • 26,581 dental services
  • 7,419 preventative wellness exams
  • 5,409 vaccines

Repealing Medicaid expansion could also significantly hurt Montana’s economy, as it has increased the demand for health care services and therefore increased the need for health care jobs for doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, and other medical services staff. In just one year, Medicaid expansion has brought in $284 million in federal funds to health care services to Montanans.

This week on the blog we will be looking into the ways that repeal of the ACA could impact Montanans. Please be sure to follow along as we explore how repeal effects children, hospitals, American Indians, and people who used the federal exchange to find affordable insurance.

Legislative Status Sheet: A Glimpse at Revenue and Spending

This week, the Legislative Fiscal Division (LFD) released the first general fund status sheet for the 2017 legislative session. The status sheet provides a glimpse at where we stand with revenue, projected spending, and the resulting ending fund balance, factoring in actions taken so far by the legislature. Right now, we sit roughly $140 million below the goal of a $300 million ending fund balance. Unless legislators get serious about the need for additional revenue, we could expect even further cuts (on top of the devastating cuts already taken).

Over the past month of session, subcommittees in charge of various parts of the budget have been taking action on the main budget bill – HB 2. These early actions on the budget included deep cuts to nearly all state agencies, including cuts to social service programs for seniors, the disabled, and our most vulnerable families, as well as cuts to higher education that will likely result in double-digit tuition increases for Montana students and families. When factoring both state cuts and corresponding federal dollars we lose, the legislature’s initial actions represent a total $449 million in cuts.

While subcommittees have taken action to add back some funding, most of these additions are “present law adjustments” and are simply a reflection of inflationary needs to continue the current level of services in the next biennium. To be clear: the cuts made in subcommittees will have a serious impact on our communities and families across the state.

The second page of the status sheet provides the general fund balance sheet. It shows that we begin the session with a beginning fund balance of $110 million. As we’ve talked about previously, lower revenue levels than projected have resulted in a much lower beginning fund balance than previously anticipated. The balance sheet then shows the amount of revenue projected to come in during the next biennium. The balance sheet also provides an estimate of expenditures that the legislature has approved thus far. This includes subcommittee action on HB 2, bills on which the legislature has taken positive action, and one-time-only spending approved so far. LFD will update the general fund status sheet on a weekly basis, take into account further changes to HB 2 and bills passing or failing. Right now, when you factor in the projected revenue minus the expenditures passed thus far, we finish the next biennium with an ending fund balance of $159 million.

We are not yet halfway through the session, but Montana families should be concerned about the deep cuts already taken to the state budget and how that will impact our seniors, students, and services vital to our communities. The good news is that there is still time. The Legislature has 49 more days to identify new revenue in the state and restore the deep and potentially devastating cuts they have made to the budget. It is possible in the state of Montana to have a balanced budget, fund the services that help citizens and communities across the state, and leave a healthy ending fund balance. We can do all of this by ensuing that the super wealthy and out-of-state corporations are paying their fair share.

Guest Blog: SNAP Supports a Strong Montana

It can be hard to imagine that thousands of our neighbors struggle with hunger, yet that is the reality for the nearly 140,000 Montanans living in food insecure households. Seniors, families with children, veterans, and even working Montanans aren’t always able to put food on the table, impacting the health, productivity, and academic success of our families and communities.

Our nation’s most important tool to combat hunger is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). LBurhopSNAP fills in the cracks for low-wage workers, making sure they aren’t forced to choose between feeding their families and paying the rent. For kids, SNAP ensures they have nutritious foods outside of school hours, helping them focus and succeed in the classroom. For seniors, SNAP ensures they can fill their prescriptions and still buy enough groceries to remain healthy and independent. And for adults struggling through an unexpected job loss, illness, or other tragedy, SNAP provides an important stepping stone, helping them get through a hard time. Last but not least, SNAP supports our grocery stores, farmers markets, and state economy by bringing our federal tax dollars back to Montana.

That’s why we are concerned by continual attempts to weaken SNAP, at both the state and federal levels.

The first threat at the federal level will be through the upcoming budget resolution process, followed by the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. Congress has yet to develop specific policy proposals so it is crucial to reach out now to express the importance and effectiveness of SNAP. Let Montana’s Congressional leaders know that attempts to cut the program or undermine its foundational effectiveness through block granting or other structural changes are unacceptable.

SNAP is also at risk at the state level. A bill to revise SNAP eligibility, HB 361 sponsored by Rep. Tom Burnett, would make income guidelines even more stringent than they currently are, and would reinstitute a resource limit. Decreasing our state’s gross income test will primarily hurt working families with children, as well as families with high housing costs. Resource limits can be particularly harmful for low-income seniors but negatively impact all families. Numerous studies have demonstrated that having savings and other resources are critical for families trying to get back on their feet. Building assets helps low-income families invest in their future and avert a financial crisis that can push them deeper into poverty. At asset limit discourages savings and forces families to spend down all of their resources before receiving help.

Please speak out against harmful changes to SNAP. Let our lawmakers know that SNAP is one of our most effective and efficient public programs. It is quietly providing dignity and opportunity for thousands of Montanans when they need it most. Denying individuals the ability to access food assistance would have long terms costs on our nation’s health and productivity that are far greater than any immediate budget savings.

Lorianne Burhop, Chief Policy Officer, Montana Food Bank Network

We Need a State Earned Income Tax Credit. Here’s Why.

We need a state Earned Income Tax Credit. Here’s Why.

A state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), like the federal credit, could go a long way to helping Montana families meet their basic needs. But it could also do a lot to improve the fairness of our tax code.

Low- and moderate-income families in Montana pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than do the wealthiest families. The lowest income one-fifth of Montanans pay 6.1 percent of their income in taxes, whereas the top 20 percent pays far less. In fact, the top one percent pays just 4.7 percent of their income in taxes.

While Montana’s income tax is progressive, meaning the more you earn the larger percentage of your income you pay in taxes, other taxes like sales and property taxes are not. People with smaller incomes end up spending a much greater percentage of their income on these taxes than higher income taxpayers. For example, families in the bottom 20 percent of incomes pay 3.3 percent of their income on property tax. The top one percent, however, pays just 1.6 percent. As a result, people with the lowest incomes actually spend much more of their money on state and local taxes than people with the highest.

mbpcslA state EITC could help correct this imbalance in our state taxes.

Twenty six states, plus the District of Columbia, have enacted state EITCs in order to help improve the lives of
working families. After seeing the success of the program, many have expanded their programs. Iowa, for instance, raised their credit to 15 percent of the federal credit. New Jersey recently set their credit to 35 percent of the federal credit. Maine also decided to make their credit refundable, meaning if the total amount of credit exceeds the taxes paid, the taxpayer receives the difference.

A state EITC would be easy for Montana to administer because it is calculated based off of the federal EITC. Administrative costs would be equal to less than one percent of the benefits provided.

It could also boost our local economy. House Bill 391 would establish a state EITC at 10 percent of the federal credit. If passed, this credit would funnel $16.5 million back into the hands of working Montanans and into our economy.

When families spend their tax credit on basic needs like school supplies and groceries, local businesses reap the benefits. A state EITC that could help the economy, as well as reduce the inequalities in our tax code, is a good deal for Montana.