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Legislators provide update during transmittal break

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RONAN — Funding of Public Law 280, protecting the interests of a community at odds with a corporation, and the purpose of a law that erodes parental rights were concerns Lake County citizens brought to their legislators during a March 6 meeting.

The legislative update, hosted by Northwest Counties Farm Bureau in conjunction with the Lake County Commissioners and the Lake County Democrat and Republican Central committees was attended by approximately 60 people at the Ronan Community Center.

Senator Greg Hertz of Polson, Senate District 6, spoke first. “My forte is tax issues,” he said. “I’m also spending a lot of time on judiciary and tort reform this session along with a few housing bills and some healthcare related bills.” 

Of the state’s $2.5 billion budget surplus, he said $1 million will go back to taxpayers through one income and two property tax rebates. He anticipates the income tax rebate, up to $1,250 for a single individual and $2,500 for married family, will roll out late spring / early summer.

The property tax rebates on a taxpayer’s personal residence will be available via application this fall and next fall.

A bill called “debt free in ’23” allocates $150 million to pay down some of the state’s debt – which he said will save an estimated $25 million a year in ongoing interest – money which can then be used elsewhere. 

Another bill introduced will lower the top tax rate from 6.5% to 5.9%, and increase the earned income credit threefold for low income working families. HB212, which raises the threshold for paying business equipment tax from $300,000 to $1 million “will really help small businesses across the state, farmers and ranchers,” he said.

Hertz has also proposed a bill to tax corporations differently. Multi-state corporations, such as Amazon, he said, would be required to pay more income taxes in the state of Montana while other in-state-only businesses would be incentivized to expand through lower income taxes.

Lastly, Hertz said a bill to create a safer roads and bridges fund will help Montana better capture matching federal funds that are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Representative Linda Reksten, House District 12, shared with meeting goers her work on education and election security. 

Reksten, who serves as vice chair of the education committee, said the state’s test scores are quite low with students testing at 44% proficient in reading and for math about 34% proficient.

“This is not just a response from Covid,” she said, “These scores have slid ever since 2013. So the education interim committee worked very, very hard to figure out how could we address these issues and set in motion an improvement cycle.”

There are many bills, she added, that have been introduced to tackle the issue of student achievement. An open enrollment bill will allow students to move from one district to another if their needs aren’t being met. She noted that this particular bill hasn’t been popular with school superintendents. 

Reksten said another education bill provides for targeted intervention for children as young as 4 years old in order to get them reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Two charter school bills that passed in the house would offer public school students new education opportunities, she added. A charter school’s focus she explained can range from agriculture to medical careers where students are allowed to earn credits for technical training and apprenticeships.

Regarding election security, Reksten said her committee looked at absentee ballot procedures (revised laws regarding voters on the inactive list), codified that illegal aliens cannot vote in Montana and created a bill to allow county election officials access to Department of Motor Vehicle records. She added that a law prohibiting ranked voting (ranking choices by number) was also passed.

Reksten said she’s also a part of a local government committee that is working on zoning issues. “I’ve been working with Ed Meece, and also I’ve been working with Bill and Steve and Gayle (county commissioners) on some of these bills to make sure these bills aren’t going to hurt our county but help our county,” she said. “So they have been giving me a lot of input on those.”

Halfway through the session, Reksten said the house has been through about 800 bills. “We’re only halfway through and some of these bills that we’ve turned over to the senate may not go the full distance,” she noted. 

Next, Senator Dan Salomon, Senate District 47, talked about the finance and education committees he serves on. Regarding education funding, a bill accounting for inflationary increase was passed so that Montana schools will know what they’re getting for funding next year. “That’s always a good thing to get done early,” Salomon said. He added that a new certification process for college graduates who decide they want to become a teacher is underway. The company that’s created the step-by-step, proficiency-based system, he continued, has certified some 15,000 teachers.

“These people are already in their communities,” he said, noting that this alleviates housing issues that schools face when bringing in teachers from outside their area. “Here’s the deal. Of those 15,000 people, after 3 years, 97% of those people are still teaching in that school … That is a stunning statistic and we’re trying to see if we can get some more teachers in Montana by doing that.”

A healthcare trust for schools that would allow schools the opportunity to have a better healthcare product for a lower cost is also in the works.

Expanding Montana’s Digital Academy – a way for high school kids to earn credits and take classes they have no other way of getting because they aren’t offered within their school – is also something “we’re working on,” Salomon noted.

At this point the meeting was opened to questions from the audience.

The first question asked was what kind of information is being taken from the DMV for voting purposes.

“Basically, any information you provide the DMV would be shared with the Secretary of State’s office as a cross reference,” Rep. Reksten answered. 

The next question centered on the state’s large budget surplus.

Arlee resident Mary Stranahan noted that she doesn’t think the state has ever had a $2.5 billion budget surplus before. Where is the long-term thinking, she asked, on statewide issues with affordable housing, childcare, rural health, rural hospitals and nursing homes.

“There’s all kinds of ways to spend that money,” Sen. Salmon said. “Everyone has an idea of what is the most important thing … I feel, and this is my personal feeling, that this is a golden opportunity for us to deal with some issues that we need to deal with.”

Getting consensus on what to do with the surplus is going to be “the entertaining part of the second half of the session,” he added.

Wes Irwin, of Arlee, asked if legislators could intervene with the DEQ or in any other capacity in regards to a new open cut gravel operation that’s opening in town. In addition to impacting air quality, Irwin noted the potential for disruption to the river, water and that the noise pollution and light pollution from 24-7 operation will “completely transform the Jocko Valley.”

“We can’t put the profits of a single contracting company ahead of an entire community” he said.

Sen. Salomon said he’d talk to Rep. Steve Gunderson of Libby, whose HB599 (now law) hamstrings the Department of Environmental Quality’s ability to protect Montanans from noise or visual blight or surface and groundwater impacts from open cut gravel operations. The fact that the bill, passed in a previous session, is now law makes the issue more difficult to tackle Salomon noted.

When a community member suggested Rep. Reksten take a second look at rank-choice voting, Sen. Hertz said that to enact it would require changing Montana’s constitution.

When asked what a charter school is, Reksten explained that it’s a school created within a school district that typically has a specific focus. 

One audience member asked Sen. Hertz about that status of a bill that addresses funding of Public Law 280. 

Sen. Hertz replied that the bill has passed out of the Senate and moved to the House. Bringing the county, state and tribe together to keep PL280 going in Lake County is the purpose of the bill he added. “That’s the process. Still a work in process. We’re still going forward,” he said. “We’re very hopeful that we can all sit down and come to an agreement.” As funding for PL280 absorbs about 40% of property taxes collected in Lake County annually, “the county needs some help with that,” he said.

When asked about judicial review, Sen. Hertz responded that he and Sen. Fitzpatrick have done quite a bit of work on judiciary issues. One bill introduced moves Montana’s one harm standard to Federal standards for putting a stay on a bill. Another bill addresses restraining orders that put injunctions on bills that can last weeks, months or years. The bill would require a temporary stay on a bill be revisited after 10 days, as is done in federal courts. 

“Right now we’ve got some bills that are tied up in the courts that have been sitting there for five, six, seven years. The judge just isn’t acting,” Hertz said.

Another bill will open up the process of judicial complaints to be more public. Holding judges accountable to state ethics laws and limiting campaign contributions made by lawyers to judges are also being addressed.

The need for SB99, which prohibits gender affirming care for minors, was questioned by meeting attendee Shirley Azzopardi.

“I don’t know the purpose of that bill,” Azzopardi said. “Minors right now cannot get any health care without parent permission … That’s too much government and it’s a waste of our time. What’s the purpose of that bill when we already have laws that covers parental rights in all medical areas?”

“The purpose of the bill is to protect our children,” Sen. Hertz said. “It’s unfortunate that we have to go there and do that.”

He said legislators heard emotional testimony from both people seeking gender affirming care as well as from those who regretted decisions they’d made.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you wait until you’re at least 18 or older to make these decisions,” Hertz said.

Azzopardi maintained that the bill takes away parental rights.

Sen. Salomon said, “It’s a tough, tough issue,” adding that he voted against the bill. “I had more issues with some of the mental health things for these children. We’re talking about some suicides and some things like that. And those issues need to be addressed. Nobody’s completely right, nobody’s completely wrong. It’s one of those areas that’s just tough.”

The update concluded shortly after with Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron thanking everyone for attending and for their civility.

“These meetings are important,” Barron said. “You go outside of Montana and I don’t think you’d see this many Democrats and Republicans sitting together without some kind of fist fight or something … We don’t agree on a lot of stuff in this state but we have the courtesy to sit down and talk about it and listen to everybody else and I appreciate that more than you know.”

The 68th session of the legislature resumed March 9 and wraps up Friday, May 5.

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