By AMY R. SISK
Community News Service
UM School of Journalism
HELENA – With the first half of the Legislature out of the way, lawmakers returned to Helena knowing they had plenty of work ahead of them.
“So far the real discussion has not taken place,” House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said at a press conference last week. “We have offered and will continue to offer to sit down at the table to make real progress on those issues.”
The halfway point of the 90-day session marks the transmittal deadline, meaning that bills must have passed either the House or Senate to stay alive for further consideration. The deadline, however, does not apply to bills that would affect the state’s revenue.
Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, said the governor needs to provide lawmakers with specifics on some of the major policy objectives that will make headlines during the remainder of the session.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock announced legislation last week to accept federal money to expand Medicaid coverage to 70,000 low-income Montanans, and Wittich said lawmakers must begin studying its details.
“We need to make sure the language passes legal muster, we need to get it assigned to a committee, we need to have a hearing,” Wittich said. “It’s time to go beyond draft proposals.”
At a press conference last week, Democrats, who hold the minority position in both chambers, gave Republicans a less-than-stellar performance review.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said that while Democrats supported the major education funding bill that passed the Senate, other measures on the table could undermine the current tax system that funds K-12 schools.
He added that the Legislature has little to show for Democrats’ number one priority: jobs. He said Republican proposals on fiscal matters are leading to structural instability.
“There has been a troubling trend of legislation that again seeks to give money to the wealthiest among us and the corporations while sticking it to hard-working Montanans and the middle class,” Sesso said.
Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, said a number of good tax relief proposals are in the works.
“I think the differences between the two parties show,” he said. “We think bills that help free enterprise and private companies are the way to go.”
As the second half of the session kicks into gear, expect debates on big-ticket items such as reforming the state’s pension system, increasing state employee pay and accepting federal money to expand Medicaid.
Here’s a look at what’s passed, what’s failed and what ideas continue to generate buzz in the statehouse:
Education measures will continue to pit advocates of funding public schools against those who prefer “school choice” measures to establish charter schools and provide tax breaks to families whose kids attend private schools.
A sweeping measure to change the way Montana funds public schools is headed to the House where it’s likely to see lengthy debates over the $120 million in additional funding it proposes. Senate Bill 175 draws upon natural resource revenue while providing tax relief to property owners in its effort to finance schools. It also funnels oil and gas tax revenue through districts struggling to cope with the effects of Bakken oil activity before sending the rest of that money to the state treasury.
Although an initial effort to establish charter schools failed in the House, several other school choice measures are still alive, including bills to provide tax credits to fund private school tuition.
House Bill 213 would provide a $550 tax credit to families whose children attend private schools. Senate Bill 81 would provide tax credits to individuals and corporations who donate to organizations that award scholarships to private school students or make grants for innovative public school programs.
A bill to fund nearly $100 million in construction projects at college campuses and public facilities awaits a hearing in the powerful House Appropriations Committee. House Bill 14 would allow the state to sell bonds to pay for the renovations and new buildings. It also authorizes campuses to raise additional money to fund the projects.
Key votes are still to come on a proposed $28 million budget increase for the university system over the next two years, provided that higher education officials freeze tuition. Part of that money would be tied to performance standards like the amount of time it takes for students to graduate.
Bakken infrastructure, education
As water and sewer systems reach capacity in eastern Montana, lawmakers will consider ways to direct more money to the region to deal with impacts from the oil boom.
The House will continue to look at House Bill 218, which would send 25 percent of the state’s share of federal mineral royalties to cities and towns in the Bakken region through a grant program.
Another measure, House Bill 452, is scheduled for an initial hearing this week in the House Appropriations Committee. The proposal would establish a tax on beds in motels or man camps that would be used to fund infrastructure projects.
In the Senate, the Taxation Committee will consider Senate Bill 295 this week on ending the 12-18-month tax holiday for oil companies. The revenue gained from the elimination of the tax holiday would be used to fund municipal infrastructure projects.
Lawmakers will consider several other measures to send money to schools struggling to keep up with an influx of new students whose families move to the area for work in the oil patch.
After passing the House, a number of measures that seek to expand gun rights are headed to the Senate, including House Bill 302, which seeks to prohibit Montana’s enforcement of any future federal ban on military style rifles.
The House also passed several measures related to concealed carry, including House Bill 240, which would allow students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. It also passed House Bill 304, which would eliminate the need for a concealed weapons permit within city limits.
A third concealed carry measure, House Bill 358, died on the House floor. It would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons in bars, banks and public facilities.
The House also killed House Bill 384, which would have allowed students in public schools to leave guns in their locked cars.
Lawmakers will continue to look at several ways to combat the so-called “dark money” groups responsible for negative ad campaigns attacking candidates during the 2012 election.
The Senate will soon consider House Bill 254, which requires a disclaimer on election materials funded by anonymous donors. Another measure, House Bill 255, would require political action committees to provide a summary report of expenditures to a donor upon request.
Two different measures now in front of the Senate aim to increase limits on contributions to better counter ads by dark money groups. House Bills 229 and 265 both raise those limits, and HB 229 also eliminates restrictions on donations from political parties.
Several proposals to reduce the business equipment tax remain on the table after Republicans voted down the governor’s plan to eliminate the tax on companies with less than $100,000 in equipment.
Lawmakers must decide the best way to move forward between a plan to provide companies with a tax exemption on the first $250,000 in equipment under House Bill 472 and another plan that would reduce the tax to 1.5 percent on equipment valued up to $10 million under Senate Bill 96.
House Republicans have also endorsed House Bill 230 to reduce property taxes by more than $50 million a year by lowering the statewide school equalization mill levy from 40 mills to 19.6. Meanwhile, the governor’s proposed $400-rebate to every property owner in Montana remains stalled in the House.
A House committee blocked an attempt to legalize corner-crossing to access public land, but several other proposals to increase access are advancing.
The Senate will soon consider House Bills 404 and 440, which would temporarily shift money that currently funds wildlife habitat to the block management program and another account to procure easements that connect parcels of public land.
House Bill 444, which would provide tax credits to landowners who allow the public to cross their property to access state land, is scheduled for a hearing in the House Appropriations Committee this week.
After contentious debates in the House, the Senate will now hear from the public on House Bill 505, which seeks to ban physician-assisted suicide. A Senate committee voted down another bill intended to clarify the legality of the practice after a 2009 Montana Supreme Court decision left many with questions as to whether a doctor could legally aid a terminally ill patient in dying.
Voters in November approved a ballot measure requiring doctors to notify parents 48 hours before daughters under 16 had an abortion. Last week, the House approved a plan to take that law one step further. House Bill 391 would require that parents grant permission for daughters under 18 to have an abortion.
Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.