State Trust Lands: A Critical Investment for our Schools

Yellowstone National Park is big, covering a vast 2.2 million acres. In my park ranger days, based in Mammoth near the north entrance to the park, I learned the 3,472 square miles of our nation’s first national park is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. However, the federally managed gem is small potatoes compared to the collective size of Montana’s state lands. 

Folks may be surprised to hear that Montana’s Department of Natural Resources (DNRC) manages 5.2 million acres of state land that are held in trust for our public schools, universities and specialized schools. In 2013 these trust lands “provided $400 in funding for each of the 143,000 students enrolled in Montana’s K-12 schools,” according to the “DNRC Economy,” a recent report released by the department

Congress granted land to new states following the Revolutionary War to help establish a source of ongoing support for services states need. Unfortunately, most states sold them off, wooed by short-term profit. Now, nine western states hold most of the remaining 46 million acres of state trust lands, collectively generating billions every year, and primarily for the benefit of public schools.

States continue to struggle with the best use of trust lands, and those uses have changed in the 125 years of state land management. However, the primary function of our state trust lands is to provide a steady flow of cash to invest in Montana’s schools and our children and provide that steady income into perpetuity.

Here at the Montana Budget and Policy Center, we rely on our leaders to make decisions that weigh the short-term economic benefits with long-term stability of budgets. In the case of state lands, Montana made wise choices years ago to hang on to these state lands that now generate approximately $60 million just last year. While state lands are significant and diverse, from the 13,000 acres of trails and recreation land in Whitefish, to the timberlands in the Swan Valley, to the most profitable oil fields in the Bakken, Montana should continue manage state lands carefully, protecting their long-term productivity.

On the Blog: US vs. Germany

Today, staff at MBPC have soccer on the brain because we are geared up for the World Cup match between US and Germany later this morning.

Unfortunately, we aren’t in the business of analyzing soccer. However, we are in the business of analyzing budgetary issues that impact regular people. With that in mind, we decided to do a to do a head to head comparison of US vs. cup soccer ball

Getting fit to play soccer? It will cost you 15.41% more to join a health club in Germany than in the US, and your gym shoes will cost you 38.74% more in Germany.

Watching soccer? Playing soccer might be more expensive in Germany but Americans shouldn’t get too excited because watching soccer is a different story. A cable and Internet package will cost you 35.66% more in the US and your beer will cost you 52.85% more for an import. 

But the Germany vs. US comparisons can’t stop at soccer because there are a few things we can learn from our soccer rivals.

Maternity Leave. Germany far exceeds the United States in maternity leave. German mothers get up to 6 weeks before and 8 weeks after the birth of a child. Either parent can take up to 36 months of leave and up to 12 months is paid by the government. The United States is 6-12 weeks depending on the state, size of organization, and company policy.

University Tuition. As of next academic year, attending college in Germany will be tuition free (college was free until 2006 when fees were introduced in some areas). This is in stark comparison to tuition in the United States where tuition varies greatly. In Montana, tuition and fees to attend MSU or UM averages $6,399, and almost two-thirds of Montana students take out loans to pay for college, with an average total debt of $26,440. 

So even though the US could learn a thing or two from the Germans, we are hopeful that the US World Cup team (with our German coach and a few German players) will teach the German team a thing or two on the soccer field.


Many of our comparisons came to us from Numbeo, an online database of user-contributed information.

Wonky Word Wednesdays: Fiscal Year

For budget dorks like us at the Montana Budget and Policy Center, there are few days that get us excited enough to celebrate. One is April 15 – Tax Day, the other (and possibly most exciting) is July 1st – the start of a new fiscal year. To honor and celebrate this important day, we decided to dedicate this week’s wonky word to fiscal year. 

If you’ve worked in a business, nonprofit organization, or for the government, you are at least familiar with the term. Fiscal year is a period of time used for calculating yearly financial information. It is basically the period of time a business runs its budget and “opens and closes” its books annually. Seems simple right?

Generally it is, but different entities operate on entirely different fiscal years.

  • Montana and many other states have a fiscal year from July 1 – June 30. HAPPY NEW FISCAL YEAR MONTANA!
  • The federal fiscal year is Oct 1 – Sept 30 each year.
  • Many universities operate on the July 1 – June 30 cycle because it is similar to the school year.
  • Over half of the publicly traded companies in the US follow the calendar year as the fiscal year.
  • Nonprofit organizations have a wide range of fiscal years and can be anytime an organization chooses. The two most popular coincide with the calendar year and the July-June cycle. The third most common is the Oct – Sept cycle like the federal government. (That is how we roll here at the Montana Budget and Policy Center.) However, some choose anniversaries or other programmatic dates as the start and stop of a fiscal year.Fiscal New Year copy

The State of Montana is currently wrapping up fiscal year 2014 or FY14 for short. The Legislature meets in odd numbered years and appropriates funding for the two upcoming fiscal years. For example, this last session (spring of 2013), the legislature funded fiscal years 2014 and 2015. So as we write, agencies are busy reminding staff to turn in receipts and invoices so the state can close the chapter on one year and begin FY15.

So happy fiscal year everyone! We included a cartoon just for you. And remember, be safe and always find a designated driver for your fiscal new year celebrations.  

Check back each Wednesday for more wonky words. If you have suggestions, email me at or post something to our Facebook page.


Paid Leave Critical to Working Families

Yesterday, President Obama convened a group of big thinkers to discuss the state of working families in the U.S.  Did you know that 63 percent of children in the U.S. live in families where all parents work? A report released this week shows that of workers with the lowest wages only half are provided some form of paid leave time. This compares to 83 percent of higher income workers.  This means that when a child gets sick or an emergency comes up, many families are forced with a difficult choice of losing much-needed income (or even risk losing their job) or sacrificing the health of their loved ones. 

 Those without access to paid leave are also often the same families that are least able to afford reliable, quality child care.  (Check out our report on this issue too.) Often these parents are forced to give up pay to stay home with a sick child.  In a recent poll in conjunction with the Shriver Report, 96 percent of single mothers said that paid leave at their workplace would help the most.Paid Leave Graphic

The lack of paid leave time for working families hurts our economy.  About 30 percent of private-sector employees taking unpaid leave will incur new debt as a result of this leave. More debt means families have less money to spend in the local economy.

As the new study shows, there is growing evidence that implementing paid leave policies benefit families without imposing a cost on business. A survey of over 250 businesses with paid leave “found the vast majority – over ninety percent – reported either positive or no noticeable effect on profitability, turnover, and morale.” 

Policies that support working families, including paid leave and expanding access to quality, affordable pre-K programs, is a win-win for our children and families and Montana’s economy.  

Initiative 172: Statement in Response to Settlement Agreement

June 20, 2014 | Montana Budget and Policy Center

In response to the announcement of a settlement agreement between the Montana Department of Revenue and Charter Communications, Inc.

“The Montana Budget and Policy Center is glad that I-172 will not be on the November ballot, and Charter Communications will continue to pay its fair share as a centrally assessed telecommunications company going forward. The citizen’s ballot initiative should not be used by corporations to lower their taxes and shift responsibility onto local property tax payers. We are encouraged that millions in protested taxes held hostage by Charter’s tactics will now be released and can be put to good use by local governments and schools,” said Sarah Cobler Leow, Executive Director of Montana Budget and Policy Center. 

Read our full report on I-172 here. 

Medicaid Expansion: The Clock Ran Out

Today, I am writing you to deliver some disappointing news. 

As you know, for nearly two years, the Montana Budget and Policy Center has been working to expand Medicaid to provide health care for 70,000 of our friends and neighbors. For the past few months, we were heavily involved in an incredible grassroots effort to qualify the Healthy Montana Initiative (1-170) for the November ballot. Unfortunately, we now know that we will not have enough signatures to qualify before the deadline of 5:00 pm tomorrow. 

This effort began with little more than $2,000 in the bank, six organizations on a campaign steering committee, supporting groups through the Partnership for Montana’s Future, and a few dozen incredible volunteers. 

We recognized that in order to compete with enormous, dark, outside money, we would have to run a special kind of campaign. It would have to be a grassroots effort that trained volunteers and developed a ground game made up of ordinary Montanans. We acknowledged that the work would not stop in November because the 2015 Legislature would have to fund the initiative.  

We are so grateful to the thousands of supporters in Montana and beyond. As a result of this extraordinary effort, our movement to provide health care for our neighbors has grown. We are proud that the 25,000 signatures gathered for the Healthy Montana Initiative were gathered by more than 300 Montana volunteers, from Rexford to Red Lodge, and represent honest, neighbor-to-neighbor conversations. Hospitals, doctors, and nurses pitched in; they gave money, time, and spoke up for their patients. Our Governor Steve Bullock signed the petition fresh off the presses, and our own Senator Jon Tester helped gather signatures. 

We are sorry this issue won’t appear on the November 2014 ballot. But the momentum and spirit of this movement will continue to grow. What we built together is incredible and important, and that work will prove its value as we move forward. We are 25,000 people stronger than when we started. 

We won’t stop working until 70,000 of our friends and neighbors across our state receive the healthcare they need and deserve. 

Thank you for your support of the Center and this incredible effort.


Sarah Cobler Leow, Executive Director and the team at the Montana Budget and Policy Center

Wonky Words Wednesdays: Reappraisal

This week I was struggling to come up with a good wonky word and then I read this article. Reappraisal is a great wonky word! It is timely, it is about taxes and budgets, and it is complicated. Perfect!

What is reappraisal?

Essentially, an appraisal is an estimate of value, used for sale, assessment, or taxation. A reappraisal is the assessment or estimation again of the worth, value, or quality of a person or thing. Montana’s reappraisal story starts with our Constitution. Article 8 states:

Section 3. PROPERTY TAX ADMINISTRATION. The state shall appraise, assess, and equalize the valuation of all property which is to be taxed in the manner provided by law.

Section 4. EQUAL VALUATION. All taxing jurisdictions shall use the assessed valuation of property established by the state.

Basically in Montana, the state needs to reevaluate the value of property periodically because the housing market changes. It wants to ensure that property is taxed properly according to its current value.

How often does reappraisal happen?

If you feel like you have heard about property tax reappraisal before it is because you have – in 2003 and in 2009. The state legislature has mandated that periodic statewide reassessment of property values occur every 6 years. So get ready for the next round of reappraisal to come up again next year.

Where are things right now?

The Montana Department of Revenue is responsible for conducting the reappraisal and will present its preliminary values to the Legislature’s Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee in November. The 2015 Legislature then has the opportunity to review the changes and address any issues that may come up.

Next summer homeowners will be notified of their new assessments and have 30 days to file appeals. In November of 2016, each county will mail out new property bills.

What will happen to property values during this upcoming reappraisal?

In 2009, the housing market had been booming for some time, so values changed quite a bit in many parts of Montana. Since we are still recovering from the recession, values are not estimated to increase too much for most of the state this time around. Keep in mind that values can vary dramatically from county to county. Richland County – the Sidney area – will probably see the most significant changes to certain properties because of the incredible oil production in the area.

Still have questions about the reappraisal process? Don’t worry. This is a topic we will continue to cover as the reassessment process continues.

If you have suggestions for next week, email me at or post something to our Facebook page.

State-funding for Pre-K in Montana Gains Momentum

Pre-K is an excellent opportunity for Montana to improve the lives of children, families, and strengthen our communities, and press and policymakers are starting to take note.

Montana Budget and Policy Center’s work on the benefits of pre-Kindergarten has been cited in several newspapers around the state lately, as evidence to why state-funded pre-K would benefit Montana’s children.

Bozeman Daily Chronicle Editorial: Lawmakers urged to do right thing for Montana’s children, June 10, 2014.

The Montana Budget & Policy Center recently issued a report that concluded that pre-kindergarten schooling raises IQs, enhances math and reading schools in later grades, lowers dropout rates and decreases the likelihood that students will abuse alcohol or drugs and end up in trouble with the law later in life.

Dropouts, drug abuse and crime are all societal ills that come with heavy costs to our justice system and publicly funded rehabilitation programs. Spending a little money providing preschool to all the state’s children now could save a lot of money down the road.

Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Bozeman educators learn about governor’s plan to expand preschool, May 29, 2014.

[Superintendent] Watson shared copies of a report by the Montana Budget & Policy Center, which made the case that pre-kindergarten education can help Montana children, particularly the 20 percent who live in poverty.

Benefits include raising children’s IQs and improving reading and math skills, the report said. Children are less likely to drop out, become delinquent, be arrested and get into drugs. Pre-kindergarten schools help working parents and help businesses keep their employees.

Missoulian: Business Leaders’ Summit on Early Childhood Education meets in Missoula, May 28, 2014.

A report by the Montana Budget and Policy Center found that a universal program would begin paying for itself in nine years and cost $88 million a year to run once fully phased in. By 2050, the costs are estimated at $212 million, far less than the $1.7 billion in anticipated benefits.

Missoulian Editorial: Investment in early education will pay off exponentially, June 1, 2014.

A comprehensive look at the economics of early childhood education in Montana can be found in the Montana Budget and Policy Center’s 10-page report “Pre-Kindergarten: An Investment in Montana’s Future” (Fall 2013).

With solid research backing up the push for universal pre-kindergarten education in Montana, the initiative is being embraced by local, state and government officials, social welfare agencies, nonprofits, churches and charities and a host of others.

For more information about pre-K in Montana, be sure to read our reports: Pre-Kindergarten: An Investment in Montana’s Future and The High Cost of Child Care: State Funding for Pre-K Would Benefit Montana Families.


Wonky Word Wednesdays: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

As the summer kicks off and we start planning picnics and BBQs, I think of the many families in Montana who struggle to put food on the table. Budgets are stretched even more in the summer because of increased child care costs when kids are out of school. What do these families do without school lunch programs? How do families survive?

One program to help is SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program –this week’s wonky word.

SNAP doesn’t ring a bell?  It’s the new name for the federal program formally known as the Food Stamp Program. The original Food Stamp Program ran from 1939-1943, and yes, it did use orange and blue stamps to purchase food. The Food Stamp Act passed in 1964 making food stamps a permanent program, but it wasn’t nationwide until 1974.

SNAP is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program. It provides a monthly benefit to qualified persons according to need – the poorer you are, the more you receive. The vast majority of SNAP recipients in Montana live below the poverty line, and nearly 40% live in “deep poverty” – the equivalent of having an income of less than $12,000 for a family of four. snap

In 2013, SNAP helped an average of 129,000 Montanans each month – that is 1 in 8 people.  Of these, nearly three-fifths were children, elderly, or disabled adults. The average benefit per person was $125 per month. In 2009, the Recovery Act increased benefits. Unfortunately this increase expired this past November, which resulted in all Montana SNAP recipients receiving a cut in monthly allotments, despite the fact many families were still struggling to recover from the recession.

SNAP does more than feed the hungry. For every dollar spent on SNAP, it generates $1.70 in economic activity. This means that not only are families able to put food on the table, but they are spending more at grocery stores and farmers markets, which means more money being pumped into our communities that stimulates the economy.

Well, I think this wonky word was a bit easier than some of our past words, but it’s no less important for us to understand. Each year, $192 million dollars comes into our state from just this one program.  That’s significant to our state and a lifeline to the people who need it.

 If you have suggestions for next week, email me at or post something to our Facebook page.

Wonky Word Wednesdays: Coverage Gap

Yesterday, petition gatherers across the state asked voters to sign petitions on a variety of issues. One of these issues – especially important to us at MBPC – is the Healthy Montana Initiative I-170 to expand health care coverage to people caught in the “Coverage Gap,” also known as the Medicaid gap.

When I first started working at MBPC, Medicaid expansion was the first meeting I had and I felt painfully out of touch with what was happening. I knew that 70,000 Montanans were without access to affordable health care, but I wasn’t sure exactly why. This is the reason I wanted to write about the Coverage Gap today. I think most of us could have a better understanding of this issue.

Under current Montana law, an individual qualifies for Medicaid if he or she is a low-income child, parent of a Medicaid eligible kid, former foster child, a pregnant woman, a woman with breast or cervical cancer, or a disabled adult. Otherwise healthy childless adults, no matter how small their income, currently can’t receive Medicaid in Montana.

When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in 2009, it required all states to expand Medicaid to include people with household income up to 133% of the federal poverty level — about $16,000 for a single person, about $27,000 for a family of three. The federal government would pay the bill entirely for the first three years and then gradually phased back to a 90% contribution.

Then the ACA was challenged in the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to require the states to expand Medicaid. It had to be optional. Since then, 26 states expanded Medicaid and 24, including Montana, haven’t yet.

This created a problem. As the ACA was written, people who make above 100% of the FPL qualify for a variety of cost reductions to buy private health insurance on the marketplace/exchange. This is how people are getting health insurance for $25 a month in some situations. Those below 138% would qualify for Medicaid, and everyone would be covered. But when Montana and other states didn’t expand, we ended up with this Coverage Gap.

There are 70,000 people in Montana who would qualify for Medicaid under expansion – veterans, home health care workers, child care workers, and others. Of those, 50,000 are in the gap – Montanans with the lowest income who are receiving no help to buy insurance. The other 20,000 are just over the poverty line — from 100 to 133 percent of poverty. They can go into the new exchanges and get a subsidized health insurance policy. But the poorest, whom Congress thought they had covered with Medicaid, have nothing.

Simply put, they make too much to qualify for Medicaid under current law and too little to qualify for reductions in health care premiums. And don’t forget “too much” isn’t much at all –   these are people making less than $16,000 per year.

No Montanan should be left in the gap. We’ll keep you updated as Montana looks for ways to expand Medicaid and ensure all Montanans have access to quality, affordable health care coverage.

I hope you will check back each Wednesday for more wonky words. If you have suggestions, email me at or post something to our Facebook page.