Uncommon Beauty, Unparalleled Opportunity

Montana is a great place to live, work, and play. Visitors from every corner of the planet come to explore our rivers, mountain valleys, and world class skiing. How can Montana transform these eco-tourists into place-loving residents?

On Friday, March 21st, I was honored to join the Montana Ambassadors on a panel to address this question and more at their annual conference in beautiful Big Sky, Montana. The Ambassadors include business leaders, government officials, and community partners in their effort to promote and protect what we most love about the Big Sky state.

Here’s my theory: Montana’s unbelievable public lands attract new business and are the underpinning of Montana’s strong economy. Our public lands, rivers, and lakes shape and define us.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in this public land love. These ideas are deeply ingrained in Montanans. publiclands

Here’s a typical summer scene from my childhood. Can you identify with this scenario?

Picture a lanky 9 year-old-girl wearing third generation, hand-me-down jeans and an old ball cap trying to keep up with her dad on a rocky mountain trail. Keeping up was no easy task, considering Dad was a 6’2 timber-worker. Together, father and daughter searched weekly for another unexplored alpine lake, a waterfall, a mountain view in their little corner of Northwestern Montana. Regardless of the day’s itinerary, he’d say “Sarah, look around. All of this – these trees, this trail, this wildlife – this belongs to us. We’re not rich, but we are special. We’re Montanans.”

Later in life I understood how Montana’s Constitution and laws set us apart. Ever visit Texas? No offense to the Lone Star State, but not a lot of back roads for a weary traveler to (legally) set up camp for the night. Go to California for an untrammeled glance of the sea? It might take you hours to drive to public land, and twice as long to find a campsite. Colorado might be better for those who love to hike and ski, but private landowners largely control access to the best trout streams.

Montanans, on the other hand, have a constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment,” and all of us are charged by that constitution to protect our public land, air and water. Our stream access law gives us room to roam and the right to fish, float or even stroll along the banks of our navigable water ways up to the high water mark. In return, anglers flock to our blue ribbon trout streams year round, from the Stillwater to the North Fork of the Flathead.

Numerous studies highlight the sheer economic benefit of public lands, and in particular, wild places to the west. In January 2013, our friends at Headwaters Economics recently demonstrated that protected, federal lands increase per capita income.

At the Montana Ambassadors’ conference, business leaders, government officials and community partners explored how to keep visitors exploring, and how to capture their best ideas and make them our own. For those of us who love to hike and explore our state parks, remember that our tax dollars pay for the state agencies maintain and protect them. Think about the roads that lead to your favorite trailhead, and the ranger who manages your most treasured wilderness area or national park. Public land and water are part of the public infrastructure, a worthy investment managed and paid for by all of us.

We are charged by those who came before us to protect what we most love about our special place – the clean air and water, the uncommon beauty, and the amazing access to public land and water. As stewards of this place, we must maintain the infrastructure –the trails, roads and river access points, and the public employees who do this critical work. And in return, our abundant land and water will continue to set us apart from our neighbors, providing the time and space to connect to family or ourselves, and bringing new entrepreneurs and their investment and jobs.

The Earned Income Tax Credit: Strengthening Working Families

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the nation’s most effective tool for reducing child poverty and supporting working families, would be strengthened for workers without children in President Obama’s 2015 budget.  Congress should take a serious look at this proposal. Furthermore, working Montana families would benefit from a state credit tied to the federal EITC

In 2011, 86,646 Montana households received the federal EITC, pumping over $169 million back into the pockets of working Montanans earning low wages.  

 However, the current EITC provides little to no help for working adults without children.  The President’s budget proposes to double the maximum credit for childless workers to $1000 and lower the age limit to 21.  Under this proposal, 52,000 Montana workers without children would either become newly eligible for the EITC or receive a larger EITC, and see the taxes they pay reduced. 


 We’ve written before about the benefits of investing in Montana’s working families, by building upon the federal EITC at a state level.  Montana is one of only a few states to impose income taxes on working families living in poverty.  Over 33,000 Montana families are working, but remain below or near the poverty line. 

So what would a state EITC mean for Montana’s working families?  A state tax credit set at 20% of the federal EITC could provide Montana low-income working families with a boost in income of up to $1,178.  For a single mother in Great Falls, that income boost could pay for over a month of her child care and transportation costs, so that she can keep working.  A state credit in Montana would build on the federal credit to lift more Montanans from poverty and improve the future for Montana’s children

The federal EITC has been a success in lifting working Montana families out of poverty. A state credit could work with the federal credit to do even more.  Both Congress and state lawmakers should think seriously about expanding EITC and investing in hard-working Montanans. 

One million dollars – gone.

Montana lost out on a million dollars this month. And last month, and the month before that.

And we’ll keep on losing that money because last November Congress allowed a temporary increase in Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) benefits to expire and these dollars left our state. They flew off the dinner tables of Montana families. They disappeared from the cash registers of local grocery stores. They went missing from the fields of our farmers and ranchers.

When these dollars left Montana, a large number of families were still struggling to recover from the recession, and relying on SNAP benefits to help put food on their tables. After the cuts, households had an average of $22 less a month to spend on groceries.

$22 a month might not sound like a lot. But for a low-wage family on a tight budget, it is.

This cut means three fewer chuck roasts to put on the table at the end of a long day’s work. It means six fewer gallons of milk for kids to pour over their breakfast cereal. It’s seven fewer loaves of bread for a mom to make sandwiches for school lunches this month.

Milk bought in Montana grocery stores, and wheat grown in Montana fields. SNAP dollars flow through our local grocery stores, our farms, and our ranches. They strengthen not only families who need help putting food on the table, but our entire state.

The effect of this cut is still rippling through our state. Food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters are bearing the burden as families who can’t afford enough to eat must rely on other options.

SNAP provides vital help for Montana families. We can’t let Congress take food off the tables of hungry Montanans again. 

The Impact of the Government Shutdown on the National Parks

For my family, and many across the country, as the snow melts and the first signs of spring are coming to Montana, we are starting to plan trips to visit our national parks. For some, spring can’t come too soon, as chances to visit the parks were cut short last fall due to the shutdown of the federal government in October.


Photo courtesy of Glacier National Park Service

A new study by the National Park Service (NPS) demonstrates the damage the shutdown inflicted on communities that are the gateways to these natural treasures, offering visitors lodging, meals, outdoor gear, and other amenities. Glacier National Park was one of 45 parks whose neighboring communities saw a drop in visitor spending of over $2 million in October 2013. Compared to October averages, visitor spending decreased by $2.6 million, significantly less than the normal $4.7 million. The number of visitors was down by 55%.

Unlike Montana, six states used state funds to keep national parks in their borders open.  These states saw visitor spending in gateway communities ten times greater than the amount states’ spent to keep the parks open during the month of October.

Montanans are proud to share our state’s remarkable natural beauty with the rest of the country, and tourism is a vital industry in many of our communities. Federal funds greatly benefit our state, helping to generate even more revenue for our local communities. As we saw this past October, the absence of these federal dollars can create a loss even deeper than the face value. Because of their importance to communities in Montana, Congress should not jeopardize these federal funds again.

Not only is keeping the parks open to families like mine wanting to experience Montana’s natural beauty, it’s important to the families and communities who depend on them for their livelihood.

Which costs more: A year in college, or a year in preschool?

Parents of a college student in Montana can expect to shell out between $6,350 – $6,750 a year in college tuition, depending if you’re a Griz or a Bobcat. But parents with a four year old in full-time preschool might be less prepared for the price tag – $7,518 a year, according to a new study from Child Care Aware.

Despite the numerous benefits of pre-kindergarten for both children and the state, Montana is one of only ten states without any state funding for pre-k. Out of these ten states, paying for child care places one of the highest burdens on Montana parents.


With costs higher than that of a year at college, many parents find themselves spending an unrealistic portion of their income on childcare. Those parents that can’t afford it often are forced to leave the workforce or place their children in substandard care. Parents who want or need to work should be able to afford to do so, and children deserve safe and quality childcare.

Early childhood is a critical time in a child’s life. By supporting state-funded pre-k, Montana could improve the lives of not only children, but working parents as well.

If you are interested in learning more about how state funded pre-k could benefit Montana’s budget, economy, and our children, read our report here.

Farm Bill Includes Provisions for Indian Country

On February 4, 2014 Congress passed the “Farm Bill” which authorizes funding for federal agricultural and nutrition programs for the next five years.  Although it was disappointing that the SNAP program was cut by $8.6 billion dollars, hurting millions of families that struggle to put food on the table, there were other parts of the bill that will help Indian Country.  Here is a highlight of some of those changes shared by the National Congress of American Indians:

Feasibility Study, Report, and Demonstration Project for Tribal Administration of Federal Food Assistance Programs-Section 4004

With tribal consultation, the Department of Agriculture will study the potential for tribes to administer federal food assistance programs for their respective communities, which are currently administered by the states.  The study and a written report will be completed within 18 months.

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations Traditional Foods Demonstration Project (FDPIR)-Section 4004

This project will allow the FDPIR program to include foods produced locally by American Indian farmers, ranchers, and producers, rather than solely relying on USDA food purchased outside of reservation economies that is shipped to tribal communities for distribution.

 These are just some of the provisions for Indian Country included in the Farm Bill.  You can read the full NCAI alert here

Top Five Reasons Montana Should Expand Health Coverage Through Medicaid

Montana has the chance to provide 70,000 people with high-quality health coverage by accepting federal funding to expand Medicaid to those whose incomes are less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level.  For a single person, this means earning less than $15,857, and for a family a three, less than $26,951.

Here’s why it’s such a good idea:

1. It will support our economy and help create jobs.

Offering more people health coverage through Medicaid would bring in nearly $6 billion in federal funds to Montana between now and 2021. This will help strengthen our economy, by providing insurance to workers in Montana’s key industries, such as tourism, construction, and ranching. Additionally, expansion will help bring 12,000 jobs to our state annually.

 2. It will benefit Indian Country.

Over half of Montana’s American Indians between the ages of 18-64 lack health coverage. But with expansion, nearly 20,000 American Indians in Montana will be eligible to enroll in Medicaid. Expansion will also provide a much needed economic boost to tribal communities. Additionally, it will help to improve services at Indian Health Services (IHS) facilities by freeing up funds for essential services such as mammograms that had been previously spent on the uninsured.

3. Veterans and their families will have better access to health care.

Montana has the highest percentage of uninsured veterans (17.3 percent) in the country.  Even for those with coverage through Veterans Affairs, Montana VA facilities are few and far between, making it difficult for many veterans to get the care they need. With expansion, approximately 9,500 veterans and their families will gain access to health care.

4. Medicaid is quality health care.

Medicaid is an effective and efficient program. Not only does it improve access to health care and the health of those who use it, it also delivers high-quality insurance with significantly lower administrative costs than private insurance.

5. It will improve the lives and health of tens of thousands of Montanans.

Most importantly, expanding Medicaid would improve the lives and the health of 70,000 Montanans, helping to build healthy communities and a stronger state. It’s time for Montana to act.

Welcome to “Charted Territory”

MT road sign

Welcome to Charted Territory, the new blog from the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

Montana is at a crossroads. We face many challenges – reducing poverty, growing our economy, creating jobs, and ensuring access to health care. There are so many possible directions we could turn that sometimes it feels like we are lost in uncharted territory.

We aim to give Montanans a map to these crucial issues, using accurate information and clear, non-partisan analysis to provide timely commentary. Here, you will find straightforward talk about events and decisions that impact the lives of Montanans, and our nation as a whole. We’ll discuss trends in the Montana economy, the role that state and local taxes play in building strong communities and a vibrant economy, the difference that safety net programs make in helping families meet basic needs and giving them opportunities to move up the economic ladder, and much more. Of course, we’ll throw in a few charts along the way.

Any journey is more pleasant with companions, and we want you to share your thoughts and comments with us along the way. Check back often. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter, and get regular updates through e-mail.

We hope you will enjoy the journey with us as we venture into Charted Territory.

State Funding for Pre-K

“State Funding for Pre-K,” KULR8, December 13, 2013.

“Children are one of Montana’s best investments, and universal pre-school would be an excellent way to not only improve the lives of children in our state, but to secure a strong future for our state,” said Montana Budget and Policy Center Analyst, Jackie Semmens.

Report Shows State-Funded Preschool Helps Economy

“Report Shows State-Funded Preschool Helps Economy,” ABC FOX Montana, December 11, 2013.

A new report shows if all children went to preschool, children would not only get a head start on their education, but it would save the state money.

The study, released on Wednesday by the Montana Budget and Policy Center, a non-profit research institute, shows Montana is one of only ten states with no state-funded preschool system.

With all of the activities offered at Discovery Preschool in Missoula, preschoolers have something to look forward every day.