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Legislature should fund school lunches, not tourism ads

| April 27, 2023 12:00 AM

I previously served in the Legislature, but these days I teach preschool. Every educator I’ve met can tell you the difference between a child who’s well-fed, and one who’s hungry. This is a big issue that rarely makes the news. These days, one in four Montana kids are battling hunger.

Our Republican-controlled legislature, however, has shown no interest in solving this problem.

For example, this year their budget sends millions of taxpayer dollars to a little-known office within the Department of Commerce dedicated to tourism promotion. How is this money spent? A large chunk goes to magazine and online video ads in national publications. Recently that included a million-dollar campaign targeting pandemic tourists in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

What's currently not getting funded in the budget? School lunches. Last month, Rep. Connie Keogh, a Democrat from Missoula introduced a measure to expand school meals for Montana kids. It would've cost $300,000, less than a third of what we recently spent wooing Dallas tourists to Montana. Every single Republican legislator voted no.

A week later Rep. Melissa Romano, a Democrat from Helena (and Montana’s 2018 Teacher of the Year) tried again. She introduced HB 863, which would've ensured no Montana kid goes hungry at school. The bill won support from farmers, teachers, tribal nations, and rural school superintendents from across the state. There wasn’t a single opponent. Every single Republican on the Education Committee voted to table the bill, however, effectively killing it.

Spending taxpayer money on tourism ads instead of school lunches is wasteful and wrong. Even if Montana needed more tourists, there is no evidence state-funded tourism ads have any effect when shows like Yellowstone and Big Sky already saturate national media.

Funding school lunches, on the other hand, is proven to improve student achievement. You don't need a fancy degree to know it's damn near impossible to pay attention on an empty stomach.

Every election season we hear from countless politicians claiming to promote Montana values. As voters, it's up to us to elect community-minded leaders like Rep. Romano and Rep. Keogh who put those values into action. If we keep electing Republicans, however, we'll keep on getting budgets that prioritize tourists over Montana kids.

Danny Tenenbaum

Former State Representative, House District 95

Missoula