Representatives answer to constituents
RONAN – With the next legislative session on the horizon, three representatives to the Montana State legislature conversed with local residents on topics ranging from healthcare to aquatic invasive species.
Mission Valley Rises: Democracy Engaged! sponsored the forum. The local group works to promote community dialogue and problem solving about issues that impact people in the Mission Valley. According to a pamphlet distributed at the event, the forum was an effort to engage the momentum toward political activity that was established during the November midterm elections.
The Montana legislature meets to make laws for the state every other year. The next legislative session begins Jan. 7.
Three representatives attended the forum. Rep. Greg Hertz is the newly elected Speaker of the House and representative of House District 12. He represents residents of Polson and the southern half of Flathead Lake. Rep. Mark Noland represents House District 10, which includes Swan Lake, Condon and his hometown of Bigfork. Sen. Daniel Salomon represents Senate District 47, which includes Ronan, Pablo, St. Ignatius, Arlee, and the north end of Missoula. He was able to attend the event for 30 minutes before leaving for a prior engagement. According to an event organizer, Rep. Joe Read planned to attend the event but had a last minute scheduling conflict.
More than 40 community members attended the event. The forum was open to the public and held at the Ronan Community Center. At the start of the question portion of the event, one community member spoke about his son who has autism and requires support services. Budget cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services in the last legislative session reduced services for many Montana residents with disabilities. He urged the representatives to reinstate funding to support those living with disabilities. “These are our most vulnerable people,” the man said. “We have to find a way to look at this in a different light.”
Noland said, along with many other representatives, that he agreed that DPHHS funding should be restored. He said he wanted to make sure that funding went to local community services rather than supporting the DPHHS “bureaucracy.”
When Noland said that people should teach their children not to steal or do drugs at home, a man from the audience responded. He said he was a recovering drug addict who had been clean for ten years after growing up in an abusive home. He asked whether the legislature would increase funding to community addiction treatment services. “If it wasn’t for a community center that offered rehabilitation services, and if it wasn’t for American Indian Recovery, I wouldn’t have been able to understand that there was a different way to live,” he said.
An employee of the Polson drug court added that many Mission Valley residents are living with addiction but are unable to enter treatment because there are no local treatment facilities. He asked what the legislators would do to solve the “severe treatment shortage.”
Hertz said many representatives are working toward funding community treatment programs. “It’s not going to be done overnight, but we all understand the fact that we need more of these facilities,” Hertz said. He added that treating people for addiction in drug court and at treatment centers is more fiscally responsible than paying for people to stay in jail.
The representatives were asked whether the legislature would fund the prevention of aquatic invasive species in Flathead Lake. Noland said he was surprised during the last legislative session that there was not more support for funding the protection of waterways. Noland proposed seeking donations from local philanthropists to fund protection efforts. Hertz said it was important to establish a permanent funding structure to prevent the contamination of waterways. He said fishing and boating license fees should be used with the combination of general fund money.
Hertz also said he thought the state should add a “bed tax” to lodging for visitors to the area. “Why do tourist come to Montana, for our waterways. So let’s divert some of those bed tax dollars over to protect those waterways,” Hertz said.
Polson Schools Superintendent Rex Weltz asked the representatives how the state planned to increase revenue when all three representatives were opposed to raising taxes.
Hertz said the state should consider a sales tax though it is unpopular with many representatives from both parties. He said the state used to fund government through income tax because the state economy was based on natural resources, which translated to high incomes. According to Hertz, today the state’s economy is based on the tourism and service economy. This means there is less revenue from income tax, but a sales tax could bring significant funds to the state government, he said. Montana is one of just five states without sales tax.
One attendee asked whether the legislators would consider increasing taxes on wealthy Montana residents in order to fund programs to support vulnerable residents. He pointed out that the representatives had identified a lack of funds as the reason that services are lacking for those with disabilities and addictions. He also asked a question concerning tax breaks: “I’m just wondering why you’re not looking at reinstating tax breaks that were given to the very wealthy in the 2003 legislature,” he asked. His comment drew applause from the crowd. In 2003, the legislature approved tax cuts, primarily to high-earning residents. According to the Montana Department of Revenue the tax cuts resulted in a $100 million decrease in tax revenue for the state in 2005, which was the year they were enacted.
Hertz said that there was “a lot of misinformation” about the tax cuts and that income tax revenue had increased substantially since 2005. He said eliminating tax credits, which are often earned by high-income individuals, could contribute to more tax revenue.
“To be frankly honest with you Montanans have put Republicans in the majority in the legislature for the majority of the last 20-25 years,” Hertz said. “You’re not going to get the tax increase through the Republican legislature. The appetite is just not there.”
The crowd also applauded when a woman asked how the legislators planned to react to climate change. “We need to look at the studies,” Noland said. According to NASA, 97 percent or more of climate scientists agree that climate is changing due to human activity. Hertz said he has observed changes in the climate in Montana during his lifetime. He said that Montana is providing incentives for alternative energy like wind, solar and hydropower. He added that while coal is not “the best solution” it is a source of tax revenue for the state.
“We need to depend on fossil fuels whether you like it or not,” Hertz said.
The event concluded with discussion about the Medicaid expansion, which Salomon called “the elephant in the room,” at the start of the forum. The expansion allows some Montana residents to qualify for Medicaid if they make above the Medicaid qualifying limit but are still considered low-income.
The federal government has funded the expansion through June 2019, but after that date, the state of Montana must take on a portion of the cost or end the program. Nearly 25 percent of Montana residents are insured through Medicaid now that the expansion is in effect.
“Most legislators don’t want to delete the expansion,” Hertz said. He said he supported adding a job requirement and limiting the amount of savings a person could have while enrolled in Medicaid.
After the forum, Hertz said he spoke at the forum for a simple reason: “I love to engage with the constituents of Lake County.” He said the comments on behalf of vulnerable populations, in particular, the first-hand story from a person recovering from addiction, were powerful.
“I like engaging with people who are on the ground doing work,” he said.
Caleb Deming attended the forum “to learn about the process and see where the legislators stand on what we say.” Deming is an employee of Mission Mountain Enterprises, which provides support to people with intellectual disabilities. He said he hopes that this legislative session yields funding that will help his organization provide higher pay for direct support professionals.
Deming considers speaking to legislators his duty as a resident of the state. “Our job is to provide the motivation for the decisions they make,” he said.