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Montana legislature looks to raid local government revenues

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News from Lake County Commissioners  Gale Decker, Dave Stipe and  William D. Barron

An Amendment attached to House Bill 2 (the State’s budget bill) provides the Legislature the opportunity to reduce local government revenues and divert them to Office of Public Defender (OPD). OPD is a state agency that has nearly doubled in size since the Legislature assumed the program from Montana counties. The Legislative Fiscal Division (LFD) reports that the public defender system appropriations in 2007 were $18.6 million. The budget request, including supplemental appropriations for the current biennium, are nearly $40 million for the upcoming biennium.

Members of the Part D Joint Appropriations Subcommittee (on judicial branch, law enforcement, and justice) heard testimony from OPD that local ordinances are driving up the cost of counsel in Montana. While that testimony was refuted by elected representatives of cities/towns and county commissioners, (39 people testified as referenced in the minutes), the subcommittee moved forward with a plan to reduce payments to cities and counties and direct the funds to OPD.

The erroneous testimony was repeated by OPD in the General Appropriations Committee on March 8, and the numbers don’t add up. LFD reports that lower court cases (misdemeanor cases in city/municipal and justice courts) with assigned counsel are at a 5-year low.

The LFD 2021 Biennium Report tracked “lower court” caseload statistics from FY 2014 to FY 2018 (page D-115) and found the following:

Criminal Justice costs have risen all throughout the State. Local property tax payers are keenly aware of the increased costs of law enforcement, jails, courts, prosecutors, mental health, chemical dependency, and abuse and neglect cases funded by local government. A legislative attempt to reduce local government revenues and divert them to the State Public Defender System is unacceptable.

MACo President Jim Hart states, “Local governments in Montana are forced to make difficult funding decisions each day. With our limited resources, we need to hold our departments accountable to stay within appropriation limits and manage the public’s resources effectively and efficiently. We think the Legislature should do the same and focus on living within their means instead of relying on local property tax payers to pay for State services. We urge you to contact your legislators and let them know that this cost shift from the state to the local taxpayers is unacceptable.”

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