The Billings Outpost

Mixed bag in Helena

By AMY R. SISK - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

HELENA – Montana’s 2013 Legislature had barely adjourned last week when state leaders from both major parties began chalking up the session’s successes and failures.

“The Democrats were able to work with commonsense Main Street Republicans, and we got a lot of great things accomplished,” said Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock at a press conference. “They never let a letter after their name come before their constituents and come before Main Street Montana.”

A coalition of Republicans defied their conservative leaders to side with Democrats on a number of the session’s big-ticket items. Not all of those bills passed, but the Legislature approved bills to shore up the state’s pension shortfall, increase education funding and provide state workers with a pay raise for the first time in more than four years.

“We did not raise income taxes, (we) fulfilled our obligations, paid our debts, dealt with our liabilities, made new investments,” Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, told his colleagues on the Senate floor.

Lawmakers met their one constitutional obligation: passing a balanced budget. They approved $10 billion to fund agencies and programs over the next two years.

Republicans, however, lamented that taxpayers will see little – if any – relief. When the session began in January, members of both parties suggested sending part of a $500 million budget surplus back to property and business owners.

“I think the people who like to spend a lot of government money were winners,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman. “The losers were the taxpayers and people hoping for reform.”

Republican leadership applauded their party’s ability to block the expansion of Medicaid. Democrats vowed to keep fighting to expand the low-income health care program and are not ruling out a special session or a voter initiative to extend coverage to 70,000 low-income Montanans.

Here’s a look back at the results of the 2013 Legislature:

State employee pay

Thousands of government employees across Montana will see a pay raise for the first time in more than four years.

Although the original plan to provide across-the-board 5 percent salary increases over each of the next two years did not pan out, lawmakers approved an additional $114 million for state workers. It’s now up to the executive branch to divvy up that money by paying particular attention to employees with the lowest incomes and those who did not receive any raise over the past two years.

Health care

Some of the longest hearings and most heated debates this session came over a proposal to expand Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care to low-income Montanans. In the end, the Legislature rejected accepting billions of federal dollars under the national Affordable Care Act to extend coverage to uninsured Montanans.

Following a U. S. Supreme Court ruling on the federal health overhaul, each state was left to decide whether to accept money to provide coverage to people up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Beginning in 2017, states will have to pick up some of the tab until they pay 10 percent in 2021. The proposal is popular among Democrats, though a handful of Republican governors have also endorsed it.

In Montana, Republican legislators blocked several attempts to expand health care, including a plan to expand Medicaid and another to accept the federal money for low-income people to purchase private insurance on the federal insurance exchange.

Taxes

Most attempts to cut taxes died this session, but a proposal to reduce the business equipment tax and simplify the state’s income tax code await the governor’s signature.

Senate Bill 96 would exempt businesses from paying taxes on the first $100,000 of equipment. Companies with equipment valued up to $6 million will pay a 1.5 percent tax rate.

Senate Bill 282 would reduce the number of income tax brackets from seven to two and eliminates numerous tax credits. Montanans will either pay a 4 percent or 6 percent rate.

Pensions

Lawmakers crafted several proposals to shore up a projected $4 billion shortfall in the state’s pension systems over the next 30 years. But in the end, two of the governor’s proposals passed both chambers.

Legislators voted down a Republican-backed plan to implement a 401(k) system for new state workers, opting instead to maintain a defined benefit plan where state employees receive guaranteed monthly checks based on their salary and duration of government employment.

The plans address the teachers’ and public employees’ retirement systems by increasing contributions from employers and employees and drawing from state funds.

K-12 education

The education community came together to back a historic education funding reform bill that sends an additional $50.5 million to Montana’s public schools.

Although Senate Bill 175 offers schools less than originally proposed, it drew support from Republicans and Democrats after a Republican senator worked with education officials across the state for two years to craft a comprehensive proposal.

The bill freezes some school property taxes for the next two years. It also increases the basic state entitlement districts receive and sends additional money to schools that see significant enrollment increases. It allows schools in oil- and gas-producing areas to keep up to 130 percent of their maximum budgets in production-tax revenue.

School choice

Democrats and a coalition of Republicans voted down several attempts to establish charter schools in Montana.

They also rejected establishing a tax credit for families whose children attend private schools.

One measure, Senate Bill 81, awaits the governor’s signature. If signed, individuals and corporations would receive tax credits for donating to organizations that provide scholarships to private school students or grants to public schools for new, innovative programs.

Higher education

The Legislature and Montana University System have agreed to freeze in-state tuition over the next two years and implement a performance-based funding system to divvy up an additional $7.5 million between the state’s colleges.

Lawmakers also approved a number of building projects on college campuses, including $29 million to fund a new Missoula College.

Bakken

Eastern Montana towns feeling the effects of the oil boom might soon see some relief.

Lawmakers approved a new oil and gas impact program, which would provide grants to Bakken-area towns in need of new infrastructure. The grant program, administered through the Department of Commerce, would draw money from the state’s share of federal mineral royalties to the tune of $10 million per year.

Gay rights

Gay rights activists waited 16 years after a state Supreme Court decision to see a law removed from the books that criminalized gay sex. That day finally came during this legislative session when all Democrats and a number of Republicans voted to eliminate the law, which the court had previously deemed unconstitutional.

Guns

The Legislature approved a number of gun rights measures, though not all have made it past the governor’s desk.

If signed, House Bill 240 would allow students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. House Bill 205 also awaits his signature and would allow people to use sound suppressors while hunting. Bullock has already vetoed a similar bill.

The governor also vetoed a bill that would prohibit local law enforcement from enforcing a potential federal ban on semi-automatic firearms.

The Legislature voted down a bill to allow concealed carry in public buildings, bars and banks.

Bullock signed a bill to keep the names of concealed carry holders confidential.

Campaign finance

The governor’s major campaign finance reform bill, known as the TRACE Act, never made it to his desk. The bill aimed to defeat dark money organizations that do not disclose their donors yet often spend money to attack candidates.

Another measure is waiting for Bullock’s signature and would require a disclaimer on election materials funded by anonymous sources. Disclaimers will read, “This communication is funded by anonymous sources. The voter should determine the veracity of its content.”

Elections

Two Republican-backed referendums regarding voting are headed to the 2014 ballot. Dodging likely vetoes from Gov. Bullock, Republican lawmakers opted instead to ask voters to end same-day voter registration and establish a “top-two” primary system.

If approved, the referendum to end same-day voter registration would make the Friday before Election Day the last possible day to register to vote. Republicans say it would help reduce long lines at the polls. Democrats say the bill disenfranchises groups of voters.

and leaves zero room to correct registration errors.

The other referendum would establish a primary system where voters would receive a single ballot and could vote for candidates from any party rather than have to choose which party’s ballot to fill out. The two candidates who receive the most votes, regardless of party affiliation, would advance to the general election. Republicans say the new system ensures that the winning candidate receives most of a district’s overall vote. Democrats argue the bill would kill third parties.

Reproductive health

Attempts to regulate reproductive health this session were met with varying levels of success.

The Legislature passed a measure that criminalizes assaults on pregnant women that result in the death of a fetus. The bill went into law without Bullock’s signature.

Bullock also took no action on a proposal to require parental consent for a minor to have an abortion. Pro-choice groups urged the governor to allow the bill to become law to avoid an identical referendum on the ballot in 2014. They plan to challenge the law in court.

The governor vetoed a bill that would have required parental consent for children to take sex education in school. Lawmakers voted down an identical referendum measure.

Land access

The Legislature approved a measure to provide an income-tax credit of $500 to people who allow access through their property to previously inaccessible state land. The bill awaits the governor’s signature.

Other land access proposals fell short, including bills to permit corner crossing, increase funding to procure new easements and add money to the block management program.

Drones

Montana’s first effort to regulate drone use is headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 196 prohibits authorities from using information collected by drones in criminal proceedings unless it was obtained with a search warrant or through the monitoring of public lands or international borders.

Marijuana

Attempts to change Montana’s medical marijuana laws failed this session, but the Legislature established new restrictions on drugged driving to designate a limit that legally constitutes impairment.

The new law sets the maximum amount of tetrahydrocannabinol – the active ingredient in cannabis – that drivers can have in their blood at 5 nanograms per milliliter.

Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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