The Montana Legislature is working this week on plans to appropriate the $3 billion American Rescue Plan Act funding package that Montana will receive from the federal government. Unfortunately, the Legislature is entertaining a controversial amendment in the bill to cut federal aid funds by 20% to local government entities that have imposed public health directives more stringent than those set by the state. Since the state now has no public health directives, any local directive would be deemed more stringent than the state.
In Teton County, the county commissioners and the city councils of Choteau, Fairfield and Dutton have not chosen to impose any local restrictions. But each of the public school districts in our county do have restrictions, based on federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as well as input from the Teton County Health Department and legal advice from the Montana School Boards Association.
If this amendment is approved, the school districts in this county could receive 20% less in aid than the federal government intended for them to receive. The Legislature with this amendment is putting Teton County school districts in a lose-lose position. If they throw all their COVID-19 precautions to the wind, they risk spiking COVID-19 illness rates and could have to close down schools, return to distance learning and cancel spring sports. If they don’t remove their restrictions, they face the loss of 20% of much-needed funding, funding which could help lessen the burden on local taxpayers.
That is folly.
We strongly oppose this amendment. The Legislature should serve as the pass-through entity for the federal funding and has no business substituting its judgment for the judgment of the elected county commissioners, city council members and school board members across the state. What does a state legislator from Billings know about the Bynum Elementary School’s operation? What does a legislator from Kalispell know about the Dutton Town Council and which legislators are up-to-date on all the current infrastructure needs of Teton County?
State Rep. Llew Jones, who is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says that the idea behind the amendment is that units of local government that are still imposing restrictions are drawing on more state aid for welfare, food stamps and unemployment benefits. He says, “Thus, these communities will not have the workforce available to use the full amount of dollars directed to them in the timeframe required by the ARP.” Really? How does requiring students to wear masks while they are passing in the hallways in any way impact the unemployment rate and use of food stamps in Teton County? What empirical data supports Jones’ assertion? This amendment sounds ideologically driven — a way for anti-mask legislators to punish local officials for taking steps to protect their communities from the worst of this viral illness.
This seems even odder considering that Republicans (who proposed this amendment) have historically been the party that most respects local control and opposes tying funding to mandates.
Indeed, the local elected officials — people voted on by county residents and taxpayers — know best what their crucial needs in the areas of education, health care, infrastructure, communications and economic stabilization are. Also, they know what the current level of COVID-19 is in their communities, how many people have been vaccinated, how many deaths there have been, and what needs to be done to continue to keep the COVID-19 numbers trending down. If these local elected officials don’t reflect the views of their constituents, they get voted out. State legislators simply do not know, intimately, what the needs and conditions are in each of the units of local government across this state. Since they don’t and can’t know this, they should leave decisions of local governance in the hands of those local elected men and women.
The Legislature should provide this funding to units of local and state government with as few strings attached as possible, trusting that local elected officials like Choteau Mayor Chris Hindoien, Teton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Joe Dellwo and Choteau School Board Chairman Lane Yeager know what is best in their spheres of influence. Every unit of local government in the state deserves its full, fair share of the American Rescue Plan funding free of over-reaching strings attached by a Legislature that apparently does not trust local elected officials to reflect local values and priorities.