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Surplus should go to housing, lowering taxes, child care and mental-health services

by Kim Abbott, Pat Flowers, Shannon O’Brien and Mary Caferro
| July 31, 2022 12:00 AM

When Montana legislators meet in January for the 2023 session, we’ll be walking in the door with well over a billion dollars in the bank. Not from new taxes or debt — this is money that hardworking Montanans have already paid in taxes but is just sitting idle. As the costs of basic necessities rise, it’s critical that we put that money to work to lower costs for working Montanans. There is plenty of grain in the grain bin, and it’s time to give that grain back to the people who put it there in the first place.

And we have a plan to do just that. We can put $1 billion to work right away to address the biggest crises that are hitting us in our wallets: the high cost of finding a home, rising property taxes, the lack of affordable child care, and the scarcity of mental health services. These are daunting challenges, but with bold solutions, we can overcome them.

In Missoula and Bozeman, working Montanans are living out of cars and RVs because they can’t find an affordable place to live. In Kalispell, Helena, Billings, and many other communities across our state, rising housing costs are locking young Montanans out of homeownership and making it nearly impossible to find a place to rent. We know that the heart of this crisis is that demand for housing outpaces our housing supply. In 2019, Democrats passed a bill to put $15 million into building over 250 new apartments guaranteed to be affordable for working folks. We want to turbocharge this successful model by putting $500 million more into it and dramatically increase the supply of housing that Montanans looking to rent or own can afford.

But for many Montanans who are already lucky enough to own their home, skyrocketing property values are driving property taxes through the roof. We can tackle this problem with immediate relief through a one-time property tax refund targeted to working families, not millionaires. For the long run, we can protect Montanans from rising property taxes through a measure that keeps property taxes from exceeding a certain portion of folks’ income. In total, we can put $250 million back in Montanans’ pockets through property tax relief.

As housing takes up a bigger portion of our paychecks, child care is eating up another chunk of families’ budgets. Child care is a necessity, not a luxury, for working families, but it costs as much to put a kid in daycare as it does to send a kid to college. Meanwhile, child care spots are so scarce that we’re meeting less than half of the demand in our state. That means there are communities where families cannot even find providers, even if they could afford them. We want to invest $125 million in getting new providers up and running in child care deserts, helping child care workers earn a living wage, and reducing out-of-pocket costs for families by expanding existing child care scholarships.

Unfortunately, almost all Montanans have been touched by the impacts of our state’s mental health crisis. Montana has the third-highest suicide rate in the country, and one in five of our kids has seriously considered suicide. We took an ax to our community-based mental health infrastructure in 2017 and never built it back. We want to put $125 million towards rebuilding community- and school-based mental health treatment, including substance use treatment for those who need it. Folks need to be able to access care close to home where their friends and family are nearby to help them through their struggles.

Every Montanan should be able to afford to live where they work, but that’s becoming harder and harder for folks to do. Montanans have already sent an extra billion dollars to Helena in the form of taxes, and we think it makes sense to put that money back in their pockets so they can live – and thrive – in their own communities.

Make no mistake–this money won’t be coming out of your paychecks; this money won’t dip into our rainy day fund or our wildfire fund. The money to pay for these critical cost-cutting policies is sitting in a bank account in Helena. You’ve already put it there. Now, it’s about time you got some of it back.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, and Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena.

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