The overall severity of the COVID-19 virus outbreak is not yet clear. But prudence dictates that we act decisively to contain the virus’ spread. It is time to follow the lead of our president and Montana’s governor by complying with guidance being provided by federal and state public health officials. The risk is too great to do otherwise. It can wait until later to argue about whether this has been an overreaction.
But the negative economic impact of COVID-19 is already clear. Many businesses across the state are reducing their operations or being forced to shut down. This in turn threatens the livelihood of many Montana workers, while those still working face childcare challenges due to school closures.
There is some good news. Due to actions taken by the legislature over the past three sessions, the state’s fiscal position is sound. The Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund has a balance of about $115 million, the Fire Fund stands at $55 million, the General Fund balance is nearly $300 million, and the state’s unemployment insurance fund has $360 million in reserves. What this means is that resources are available for crafting short-term policies that can help Montana’s businesses and their employees weather this storm. Appropriations Committee chairman Nancy Ballance and the legislature’s other key fiscal leaders from the House and the Senate are working with legislative staff, other legislators from both parties, and Governor Bullock to find ways to mitigate COVID-19’s impact on Montana’s economy.
Another bright spot is that the passage of Republican-sponsored healthcare reform bills during the 2019 legislative session is helping hospitals across the state remain open as well as provide needed medical care to low-income workers and primary caregivers. Had these reforms not been put in place, hospitals would have to devote scarce funds to providing uncompensated “charity care,” which they are morally and legally obligated to do. The net effect in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak would have been a reduction in resources available to treat all patients. Thankfully, this is not the case.
We fully support Attorney General Fox’s proactive leadership in the realm of public safety. In addition, Legislative Finance-Education Subcommittee chairman David Bedey is closely coordinating with Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen as she leads in mitigating the effects of school closures. Among the options under consideration or in the process of being implemented are one-time cancellation of annual testing requirements and temporary relaxation of some accreditation standards. We also are encouraged by the fact that recent legislation promoting proficiency-based learning may ease the challenge our school districts are facing as they strive to educate Montana’s students under these trying circumstances.
During any election season, but particularly in today’s hyper-polarized political environment, it is difficult for politicians to come together on anything. But it is time to put partisanship aside. While not abandoning one’s principles, it is possible to display the statesmanship necessary to respond to the COVID-19 challenge. We intend to do just that. This is neither the first, nor will it be the last, crisis Montanans will face. The state has resources to deal with this issue, and your legislators are engaged. Working together, we shall prevail.
— Representative David Bedey, HD 86 , Representative Nancy Ballance, HD 87, Representative Sharon Greef, HD 88
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