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Capitol issues

The sculpture “Montana” atop the state Capitol in Helena towers over the life-size statue of Montana Territorial Gov. Thomas Francis Meagher astride his horse.

Montana’s leadership is faced with hard choices on how to keep our state operating. After learning that the state's ending fund balance for FY 2019 would be low enough to trigger further budget reductions, state leaders now have two choices: accept nearly 10 percent cuts to every general fund state agency, or have a special session and attempt to pass revenue-generating legislation to defray some of the cuts.

For the Department of Public Health and Human Services, these cuts, on top of the 2017 legislative session cuts, would be crippling. One of the proposals is to close 19 Offices of Public Assistance, more than half of our state’s 37 offices. OPAs serve as important community resources, providing in-person assistance for families and individuals applying for SNAP (formerly food stamps), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or Medicaid.

The 19 offices affected serve rural Montana where services are already scarce: Big Timber, Chinook, Choteau, Columbus, Conrad, Cut Bank, Deer Lodge, Dillon, Forsyth, Fort Benton, Glendive, Livingston, Malta, Plentywood, Red Lodge, Roundup, Shelby, Sidney, and Thompson Falls. There are nearly 19,500 SNAP participants in these counties.

We are gravely concerned by the proposed office closures, as this cut would drastically reduce SNAP access in our rural counties. Residents will lose the ability to apply in person or have direct contact with a caseworker. It would also overburden our remaining offices, where caseworkers already struggle to keep up with caseloads.

The option for in-person assistance is especially important in rural Montana and cannot be undervalued for our seniors and those without a computer or internet access. For example, a senior living in Crane, Montana, who wanted to go into an office to apply for SNAP would need to go 102 miles to Wolf Point or 115 miles to Miles City to visit an OPA, as the local Sidney office would be closing.

Montana has taken steps to reduce the need to visit local offices in recent years, yet they remain a critical access point. The state offers a Public Assistance Helpline where residents can call for information or receive help applying for programs. However, the assistance line is already overwhelmed, which often means long and frustrating wait times. Montana does offer an online application for SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid, which is an important resource for many families, but is not always practical for those without a computer or limited internet access or who are uncomfortable on the computer.

Montana Food Bank Network offers an additional SNAP assistance line. However, this line is staffed by just one outreach worker who is able to help people apply, but cannot fulfill the many other responsibilities of an OPA caseworker.

The services that our Offices of Public Assistance administer are invaluable to Montana seniors, low-income residents, and rural communities. Closing 19 of our state’s OPAs would severely affect the ability of rural Montanans to receive critical food, medical, and other assistance. DPPHS cannot withstand such drastic cuts and still meet the daily needs of ordinary Montanans. We urge Gov. Steve Bullock and the Legislature to come together in a special session, and work to find a balanced solution that does not leave rural Montana bearing the brunt of this budget crisis.

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Oscar Peña is public policy coordinator for the Montana Food Bank Network in Missoula.