Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Governor vetoes GOP plan to monitor stimulus

Calling it a "waste of taxpayer money," Gov. Brian Schweitzer has vetoed a Republican bill to create a commission to keep tabs on the nearly $800 million in federal stimulus dollars lawmakers have decided to spend over the next two years.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, also would have established a Web site for the public to monitor such spending. Schweitzer said his administration has already created such a site.

Other bills recently vetoed by the governor include:

Senate Bill 249: The act would require the Department of Justice to issue a limited-use driver's licence, under certain circumstances, to a person whose license has been suspended or revoked by another state.

Senate Bill 291: The act would establish a Montana Railroad Development Authority, replacing the existing Rail Service Competition Council, ostensibly to increase rail competition.

Senate Bill 349: The act would allow public officials to keep confidential certain information submitted as part of the public bidding or public contracting process for public highway and transportation projects.

House Bill 575: Among other things, the act would allow coal-bed methane producers to obtain permits to the use groundwater produced as a result of their drilling.

House Bill 629: The act would allow the deposit of any school trust land interest and income in excess of $1 million into the school flexibility account, broadening the uses for which the money could be spent.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Llamas and the Law: Here are some products of the session that may have flown under the radar

Community News Service
UM School of Journalism

In all, 1,316 bills were introduced in the 2009 Legislature, but not all of them made big headlines. Here are a few odds and ends, now signed into law, that you may have missed:

HB 90 adds llamas to the list of animals that are eligible for coverage for losses by wolves. Previously, the list included cattle, swine, horses, mules, sheep, goats and livestock guard animals. Any llamas killed by wolves will net the owner the fair market value.

HB 288 bans reproductive cloning in Montana, making any attempt to clone a person a felony offense. Any fines collected as a result will go into the state general fund.

HB 308 allows a sentencing court to make an offender donate food to a food bank to fulfill all or part of a sentence.

HB 372 allows an exemption for jury duty for nursing mothers or various primary caregivers who couldn’t find suitable substitute care. Previously, jury exemptions were allowed only if they caused undue hardship to the potential juror him or herself.

HB 534 requires an audio, visual, or audiovisual recording of any felony-level interrogations. The bill will hopefully prevent disputes about the treatment of a suspect, keep suspects from changing their stories and enhance public confidence in the criminal process.

HB 37 changes the wording in Montana Code Annotated to achieve gender neutrality by acknowledging that a governor is not necessarily a he, and replacing all other strictly male references with gender neutral alternatives. “Shall” changed to “must,” along with a variety of other adjustments, to make the language of the codes more comprehensive.

HB 203 requires the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to notify the public before transplanting wolves, bears, or mountain lions to either public or private property by posting the information on the FWP Web site. The bill also requires FWP to notify the landowner before releasing any of these animals on private property.

HB 546 protects an individual’s right to free political speech via the campaign sign. The bill says property owners’ associations may not forbid the placement of candidates yard signs, though they may still regulate size and placement.

HB 362 limits the liability for health care professional providing care during a disaster, be it natural or human caused.

SB 447 requires law enforcement agencies to preserve DNA obtained in connection with a felony for which a conviction is obtained for a minimum of three years.

SB 424 makes it illegal to sell or install a mercury-added thermostat in Montana after January 1, 2010. Manufacturers must also establish a program to collect and recycle mercury-added thermostats.

SB 388 establishes a training program for incumbent workers, called a “BEAR program” (business expansion and retention program) to train current employees of businesses employing 20 or fewer workers but no more than 50 statewide. The program also includes grants for employers to assist in the training of employees at state universities, community colleges or apprenticeship programs.

SB 325 clarifies the Medical Marijuana Act, specifically prohibiting a person who is a designated caregiver of an authorized medical marijuana user from using marijuana or using drug paraphernalia other than in limited circumstances. The law also specifies that patients may not operate a motor vehicle, aircraft or motorboat under the influence of marijuana or use marijuana on a school bus or other public transportation, on school grounds, in correctional facilities or at any public park, beach, recreation center or youth center.

SB 68 makes it illegal to place all or part of a dead animal in “a lake, river, creek, pond, reservoir, road, street, alley, lot or field” and to place part or all of a dead animal within one mile of a residence unless the dead animal is burned or buried at least two feet underground or put in a licensed animal composting facility.

And the list keeps growing ...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Legislature adjourns after passing key money bills

Senate President Bob Story brings the gavel down to adjourn the 2009 Legislature. (Photo by Molly Priddy)

Community News Service
UM School of Journalism

HELENA – With snow falling outside, the final gavel fell on Montana’s 61st Legislature Tuesday, as lawmakers gave final approval to the state budget, the federal stimulus plan and a bill that seeks to lessen the financial blow to taxpayers from the state’s recent property appraisal.

Republicans and Democrats fought this session over funding for children’s health care and K-12 schools, but legislative leadership said the level of civility this session allowed for more compromise than the last session.

“We did have a good working relationship between the Senate and the House and between the Republican and Democrat caucuses,” said Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City.

Both parties said they stuck to their priorities throughout the session, with Republicans pushing for less state spending and Democrats promoting more state funding of children’s health insurance and education.

“I think overall we have done the people’s business,” said Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula.

House Bill 2, the state budget, will fully fund the Healthy Montana Kids Plan, a voter-approved expansion of children’s health insurance funded by the state. The budget will also give K-12 education a 3 percent increase in funding with help next year from federal dollars.

Democrats demanded the full expansion for children’s health care and more school funding for most of the session, but Republicans argued the state did not have enough money to pay for a new program and still maintain state agencies.

In another effort to reduce state spending, Senate Republicans cut 2 percent from all state agency budgets, a move that left a bad taste in some Democratic mouths.

“This specifically targets jobs in state agencies,” said Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena.

The Senate voted 27-23 to approve the latest version of the budget, but several senators expressed reservations about overspending.

“I’m flabbergasted that this is what we call an austere budget,” said Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, after describing over $10 billion of spending, including federal stimulus dollars.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, said revenues will probably not bounce back as quickly as the budget suggests, and Montana will be in a hole. “This (budget) is a compromise, but it won’t work,” he said.

The Senate’s budget chairman, Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, stood behind the budget he and his committee crafted, but also expressed doubts about avoiding a special session.

“I don’t know that we could’ve crafted a budget in these uncertain times (in which) everybody could’ve gotten what they wanted,” Bales said.

Some Senate Democrats voted against the budget because it temporarily reroutes funding earmarked by voters for the Healthy Montana Kids Plan into the general fund. They also disagreed with removing an amendment that would allow the Children’s Health Insurance Program to pay for contraceptives.

“In 2009, to be standing here trying to beg and plead about having contraception being taken care of so children will have a healthy opportunities ahead of them instead of unplanned pregnancy is just beyond my recognition of where we are as a people,” said Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula.

Sen. John Brueggeman also favored CHIP-funded contraceptives as a means of avoiding future abortions.

“I wish that everyone was living biblically moral lives,” Brueggeman said. “I wish that was the case but it is not.” He told Republicans that more abortions would happen because women could not access birth control.

“We all have to be clear with that,” Brueggeman said. “We all have to sleep with that.”

The House voted 56-44 to pass the budget with little discussion. House Appropriations Chairman Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said he worked with Republicans to craft an austere and prudent budget that also pays for children’s health care and education.

“I’m proud of the package that we present to you today,” Sesso said. “It’s a budget (that) we can say without a doubt is fiscally responsible.”

But the House would not stay quiet for long. The bill that seeks to lessen the sting of higher property taxes after reappraisal, House Bill 658, was hotly debated as several Democrats split with their leadership to denounce the bill.

Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish, said the bill does not provide enough money to ease tax increases, saying some homeowners could be faced with 15 percent tax increases with little help for elderly or low-income residents. Rep. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, agreeing with Jopek, said the bill forces the poor to pay more of their wages toward property taxes than the wealthy.

But House Speaker Bob Bergren, D-Havre, said the bill needed to pass before the end of the day or a special session would have to be called.

“Right now, this is the best we can hammer out,” Bergren said. He said that if there were problems, the next session could adjust tax rates.

The bill passed with a 57-43 vote.

The 2007 session was plagued with bipartisan acrimony over spending a $1 billion surplus, which led to the Legislature’s failure to complete its one constitutional duty in a regular session: constructing a state budget.

Current lawmakers said they entered the 2009 session with that lesson learned. They said they were proud of the civility and openness between both houses and parties.

Before any of the work can officially be deemed complete, the bills have to be signed into law by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The governor said he has yet to look over the details in the budget and stimulus bills but hopes to avoid a special session to deal with any discrepancies.

“I’m pleased with the work of the Legislature,” he said. “This wasn’t an easy session for anyone. Let us hope that there isn’t something that we left behind.”

But Schweitzer also said he was not pleased with the work done on property-tax reappraisal mitigation because it gave too many breaks to subdivision owners and businesses.

The governor also said universities should be able to mitigate tuition increases despite cuts made to their budgets in HB 2.

“I would encourage the Board of Regents to cap tuition for another two years,” Schweitzer said.

Since fewer than 100 legislators voted in favor of the budget, Schweitzer retains the power to veto individual aspects of the bill. The governor would not say if this was a choreographed effort by Democrats, but did say there is always communication between his staff and Democratic legislators.

Bergren said there was talk about ensuring Schweitzer’s line-item veto power, but nothing official.

“There were some discussions in the hall, but there was no coordinated effort,” Bergren said.

Barring special session, the next Legislature will meet in 2011.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Legislature to tackle spending, tax bills Tuesday

Community News Service
UM School of Journalism

HELENA - Lawmakers trying to beat the clock this session are expected to pass the biggest bills of the session tomorrow: the state budget, a plan to spend federal stimulus money, and legislation to head off big tax increases due to last summer's statewide property reappraisal.

House Bill 2, the state budget bill, passed out of its conference committee unanimously Monday afternoon after lawmakers tacked on more than 60 amendments. Republicans and Democrats say the budget is a compromise and no one got everything they asked for.

“We have achieved the goals that both sides have set out for ourselves,” said Rep. Jon Sesso, D-Butte. Sesso said he and Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, worked hard to align their differing priorities, but in the end everyone had to bend to pass the bills out in time.

Bales said he wished the budget could have included less spending, but was confident it was the best solution.“I’m happy that hopefully we do a have a bill that is structurally sound and with a substantial ending fund balance,” Bales said.

The amendments included fully funding the Healthy Montana Kids Plan, the voter-approved expansion of state-funded health insurance for children. The program has been controversial, with Republicans saying the state could not afford to fully expand it to cover some 30,000 Montana children. Democrats said the Legislature could not buck the voters' will.

To get full expansion, Democrats compromised with Republicans and allowed half of the funding earmarked for the program to be rerouted to the state general fund. This move is not permanent, with a four-year expiration date.

Throughout the session, Republicans have pushed for "structural balance" in the budget, meaning the state should not spend more state tax dollars than it earns each year. To achieve this balance, the money that would have gone to children's health insurance will be spent to shore up state agencies that were trimmed earlier in the session.

Another major change was the removal of an amendment that would have allowed Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) funds to be used for contraceptives. Republicans and Democrats also agreed to gives school districts 3 percent increases in aid for each of the next two years. Federal stimulus dollars would be used to support that increase in the first year of the biennium.

The stimulus bill, House Bill 645, also passed out of committee unanimously. The bill was crafted to plug holes in the state budget and fund infrastructure projects throughout the state. It passed initial muster in the Senate Monday evening with a 37-13 vote.

The other major bill of the session, House Bill 658, seeks to lessen the blow of the recent property reappraisal in Montana. Though it passed out of its conference committee Monday, House Democrats did not immediately endorse the bill because they thought it did little to help low-income, disabled and elderly residents.

All the bills - HB 2, HB 645 and HB 658 - will be debated and voted on tomorrow, the 90th and last day of the regular session.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Legislative leaders announce deal on K-12, CHIP

Community News Service
UM School of Journalism

HELENA – After a long night of deliberation, the Legislature's Democratic and Republican leaders announced Saturday morning that they had reached a budget compromise that would increase spending on K-12 schools and fully fund the voter-approved Healthy Montana Kids Plan.

Both parties said they compromised their priorities to get a workable budget for the next two years.

“It’s not as much as I would have hoped, but apparently it’s more than what other people would have wanted,” said House Appropriations Chairman Jon Sesso, D-Butte.

His Senate counterpart, Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, said the compromise would keep the budget relatively stable, but less so than he would have liked.

“I don’t think anybody got exactly what they wanted, but it’s a budget we can all live with and I hope it’s a budget we can get through the biennium (with) without having to come back,” Bales said.

Throughout the session, Democrats demanded a full expansion of the voter-approved children’s health care program. But Senate Republicans reduced the eligibility threshold because they said the program was too expensive during a recession. But Democrats accused Republicans of bucking the voters' will.

Now, both Democrats and Republicans have agreed to begin implementing the full expansion by October. However, Republicans did get something out of the deal.

When voters approved the program in the November elections, a special bank account was set up to fund the expansion. Part of the initiative said that money could not be used for anything except health insurance for children of low- and moderate-income families. Republicans worked during the session to change that law, allowing some of money to be transferred to the state checkbook for general programs.

The latest budget compromise allows half of the money in the special revenue account to be switched to the general fund. On Friday, Sesso said the expansion could still happen with less money because the program won't be at full capacity for two years anyway. Leadership said the transfer will not be permanent, and the money will be returned in four years.

Sesso said the money that would have gone into the account to help pay for budget cuts in the Department of Health and Human Services and help build a $250 million cushion for the next two years in case the economy continues to tank.

The money would also ensure another Republican priority: ensuring that state will not spend more money than it earns in the next two years.

“We trust when we’re done (we would) leave our ending fund balance at the end of 2011 to be in excess of $250 (million), and to have structural balance near zero for the second year of the biennium,” Sesso said.

But Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, expressed her disappointment at the compromise on Healthy Montana Kids. Though she was “very happy” the committee decided to give health insurance coverage to 30,000 children, she said she was troubled by the change in the funding mechanism.

“It’s kind of bizarre,” Williams said. “It’s a weird way to end the weekend.”

Education funding, another contentious issue, would also received an increase from state funds. Sesso said the state would fund a 1 percent increase in K-12 base funding and a 1 percent increase in the payment per child, with 2 percent increases the next year funded by with federal stimulus money. The following year, the state would fund 3 percent increases in both categories.

Despite the announced compromise, the governor’s budget director, David Ewer, said the executive branch could not sign off on the deal because it had yet to be included in the discussion.

“The governor’s office has not digested the proposal,” Ewer said. “I hope that’s a helpful comment – it’s reality.”

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, a member of the budget conference committee that worked out the deal, commended Sesso and Bales on their ability to compromise in the final days of the session.

“You have both adequately displayed that you’re willing to make each other bleed for your philosophies,” Jones said. “I thank you for making each other bleed but nobody bled to death.”

The exact details of the compromise were still being hammered out Saturday and were not expected to be written up and vetted until Monday morning when the committee reconvenes to take final action on the changes.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lawmakers inch closer to session-ending deal

Community News Service
UM School of Journalism

HELENA – Shadowy negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on children’s health insurance and school funding came to light on Friday, hinting at a possible break in the state budget stalemate as the 61st Montana Legislature winds down.

Both parties said it was time to compromise, saying they completed more work in three or four hours than they had since Monday. Leaders said they were optimistic about the negotiations, despite a petition for special session requested by Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City.

“At least everybody is talking,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo. “That’s a good sign.”

At a meeting before noon Friday, both Republican and Democratic budget chairmen explained the deals they had been attempting to make with the other side over the highly contentious Healthy Montana Kids Plan and K-12 education.

Senate Finance and Claims Chairman Keith Bales, R-Otter, said the Senate had proposed raising state funding for education and allowing a gradual implementation of the voter-approved expansion of programs that offer health insurance for children from low- and moderate-income families.

Earlier this session, the House agreed to 3 percent increases in state funding for K-12 schools. Senate Republicans cut the state funding to 1 percent, backfilling the difference with one-time-only federal stimulus dollars.

Bales said the Senate GOP sent a proposal to House leaders Thursday night that would fund K-12 education at a 2 percent increase, using stimulus money to make up the final 1 percent. The proposal also contained a gradual implementation of the Healthy Montana Kids Plan, which would cover an estimated 30,000 uninsured children by July 1, 2010.

Bales said as state revenue estimates keep falling, expensive programs should be taken in stride. “If we’re going to err we need to err on the side of fiscal caution,” he said.

But House Democrats countered with a proposal of their own Friday morning, asking for a 2 percent raise for schools but demanding an immediate, full expansion of health coverage for uninsured children.

House Appropriations Chairman Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said a 2 percent increase for K-12 schools is a fiscal reality during a recession, backing off of previous statements that a 3 percent increase should be the minimum.

“(Schools have to be willing to also cut a little bit and prepare to cut in the future,” Sesso said.

Sesso also said the Healthy Montana Kids expansion would not require all the funds currently reserved in its bank account because it would just be starting up. So, Sesso said, there could be $10 million per year transferred to the state checkbook to balance out the 2 percent across the board cut Senate Republicans gave to all state agencies earlier in the session and bolster health programs for the poor.

But Bales said going full bore with the health insurance expansion could lead to fiscal potholes down the road.

“I don’t think anybody knows how fast it will ramp up or what the cost actually may be,” Bales said.

Republicans eventually responded with another proposal, which Democratic leaders said was headed in a positive direction but did not elaborate on details.

The House and Senate budgeting committees agreed to work through the weekend to hammer out the details on education and children’s health care in hopes of passing a budget before the final legislative day on Tuesday.

New laws include price break for student hunters

Community News Service
UM School of Journalism

Some hunters at Montana’s public universities will soon find it’s cheaper to bag an elk or deer than it used to be.

Senate Bill 185, sponsored by Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, will save hundreds of dollars for nonresident full-time students who want to hunt deer and elk.

Last year, it cost these students $643 to buy a combination license, which allows hunters to hunt deer, elk and upland game birds, and also includes a fishing license. SB 185, however, will reduce the cost to $70 for the same rights.

According to Ron Aasheim of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, FWP didn’t officially endorse the bill, but they’re happy it exists as a “good way to get kids in the field.”

He said the bill could cost FWP some money but it may increase revenues too, because not many college students could afford the previous price. The fiscal note attached to the bill actually projects an increase of as much as $42,000 in revenues due to the changes.

To qualify for the lower prices, students must be enrolled for 12 credits of classes. The bill also applies to anyone with a diploma from a Montana high school who is currently a full-time student at an out-of-state college, so long as a parent remains a Montana resident.

Here are some of the other hunting and fishing bills signed into law this year:

• House Bill 74 allows Fish, Wildlife and Parks to include mountain lion, bear and wolf among species with designated archery-only seasons. Previously, the species list included deer, antelope, elk, moose, sheep and goat.

• House Bill 317 guarantees that a member of the Armed Forces who forfeits a special hunting license due to an overseas deployment will receive the same license, without additional fee, the year the member returns.

• House Bill 366 allows Montana’s anglers to fish in bordering states within 10 miles of the border on any body of water that crosses that border - if the bordering state reciprocates

• House Bill 383 offers free big-game licenses to youths under 18 with life-threatening illnesses. This expands the old law, which gave licenses to youths under 17 with terminal illnesses.