It’s a shame that a minority within the Montana House of Representatives killed Senate Bill 416, the infrastructure bill. I think it’s important for folks to know how and why this happened.
At the start of the 2015 legislative session, Gov. Steve Bullock proposed an ambitious $400 million infrastructure program that used both cash and bonds to build and maintain projects across the entire state. This was killed because some representatives were reluctant to borrow low-interest money while eastern Montana felt that their needs were not being prioritized.
Nobody doubts that Eastern Montana has a need to build and improve its infrastructure. Roads are crumbling due to heavy traffic truck traffic while water and sewer works must be updated in order to handle the population increase that has come as a result of the oil boom. That being the case, there are some valid concerns about sending more money to these communities.
To put things in perspective, there are more people living in Gallatin County than all of the counties east of Billings combined. Although our county is the fastest growing in the state (with a 33 percent increase over the last 15 years) we have expanded our infrastructure through a combination of bonding, impact fees, levies and property taxes. We didn’t go to the state coffers for these expenses.
Why can’t Eastern Montana do the same thing? Well, it’s more challenging because those counties still have low population density, yet there is valid concern that these communities should shoulder a larger portion of infrastructure costs than they were initially proposing. What is much more frustrating is that many legislators like me feel that energy companies are not paying a fair share for what they take and what they break.
The prime example of this is that petroleum companies currently do not pay taxes on their first 18 months of production. This is a sweetheart deal that is costing our state millions of dollars. All attempts at amending or repealing these tax breaks were fiercely resisted by Eastern Montana representatives.
The speaker of the House, a representative from eastern Montana, proposed HB 402, which would have used much of the state’s cash reserves for infrastructure needs in Eastern Montana. Many legislators felt that sending all the available cash to the east would be unfair. Additionally, there is a possibility that our boom will soon turn to bust. The question arose: Should we put state funds into projects communities may not need in the near future and that local governments won’t be able to maintain?
In response to what was becoming an impasse, during the last month of the session a group of representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle crafted a compromise bill: SB 416. This $150 million bill combined both cash and low-interest bonding to fund projects needed all over the state including many projects in Eastern Montana. In addition to capital building projects, SB 416 created a water project grant program that prioritized communities that have shown a desire to tax themselves for some of their expenses. That’s compromise on many levels, so why did this bill fail?
After SB 416 sailed through the Senate on a 47-3 vote, the wheels came off when the bill arrived at the House of Representatives. The rhetoric focused mostly on politics, not policy and was summarized by Rep. Art Wittich, R-Belgrade, who reminded the Republican caucus that the Tea Party faction had “lost” on three main issues leading up to that point: Medicaid expansion, The Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes water compact and campaign finance reform. By killing the infrastructure bill, the ultra conservative faction would go home with a “win.”
Apparently, “winning” was enough reason to cause some folks to pull their support from the bill and SB 416 failed by one vote.
The question is now, Who has won and who has lost?
Rep. Tom Woods
Last Updated on Thursday, 14 May 2015 15:05
In 1997 when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in west Billings was proposed, various representations were made to the citizens of Billings. Among the promises to the community was an assurance that the land around the temple would be developed for single-family residential use to serve as a buffer for the neighborhood residents. The land in Rim Point Subdivision was zoned and platted to reflect this promise.
After building only one home in the subdivision, the church is now back requesting a zoning exemption to the residential zoning. The church is asking to build a second megachurch in the neighborhood, a meetinghouse of approximately 20,000 square feet together with a two-acre asphalt parking lot.
If this project is approved, the Rim Point Subdivision neighborhood will no longer be primarily residential but will become a campus of megachurches. The church needs to be held to their promise and the zoning exemption denied.
Last Updated on Thursday, 14 May 2015 15:04
Dear friends and volunteers who came forward to make the Great American Cleanup 2015 something we can all be proud of:
What a Great Cleanup! We had some rain, yes, but it didn’t stop those groups that were determined or those that postponed a day or so. The following Saturday, May 2, had a little more sunshine. All in all, what actually began before April 25 was a very rewarding experience. Seems as though many more of our citizens are taking notice of the litter and want to do something about it, and actually are doing it. And a big thank you goes to our national sponsors that continue to answer our call for supplies.
It is all behind us for now but we all know that a little clean up during the summer and come fall before the snow flies we need to take notice again of how and where we can get Yellowstone County ready for the Holidays. Thank you seems so little to say to everyone. But please know that Bright n’ Beautiful says it from the heart. Bless you all.
Bright n’ Beautiful
Last Updated on Thursday, 14 May 2015 15:03
Coal country politics made a dramatic showing in the Montana State Legislature last week with a bill that would heavily penalize an out-of-state owner of two Colstrip power generation units if the owner were to suddenly shut down the plants in the next decade.
The poison pill legislation, Senate Bill 402, would create an impact fee for Puget Sound Energy in the staggering amount of nearly $100 million from the date of plant shutdown. Bill authors Sen. Duane Ankeny, R-Colstrip, and Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, claim the multi-million price tag – unprecedented in Montana legislative history, if enacted – would help communities in Eastern Montana cope with the economic fallout of a plant retirement.
But a November 2025 sunset clause in SB402 makes it highly unlikely that Puget Sound will ever pay a dime to Montana communities. Instead, the bill seems solely purposed to send a harsh message to legislators in Washington state, who recently introduced bills to shut down the Colstrip units due to the high price of Colstrip’s power compared to cleaner energy sources, and an apparent growing dislike of coal-generated power among Puget Sound utility customers.
SB402 is in fact a paper tiger, part of a ginned-up interstate spat on the future of coal energy production.While perhaps temporarily satisfying legislative vanities, the bill’s real impact is to send a chilling message to the business community that Montana lawmakers are willing to reach deep into the marketplace to bias and interfere with business decision-making – in this case, the difficult decision of when to retire aging power plants.
If one thing is certain, it is that our Colstrip plants will one day be decommissioned – as is now under way at the Corette plant in Billings. If we as a state want to protect jobs and community economics, the proper response is to begin now with a real plan to replace the Colstrip plants with new, clean power technology.
We need more leadership than SB402 provides when it comes to future energy policy for the Treasure State. If we play our cards right, Montana can lead the country as a net power producer by creating a business-friendly environment for new energy technology development.
Rep. Chris Pope
Last Updated on Thursday, 23 April 2015 15:21
Other states have found their initiatives to expand Medicaid similar to Montana’s SB 405, the Montana Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership (HELP) Act, have produced significant budget savings. Providing health insurance for low-income, working Montanans will result in state budget savings and economic growth.
Kentucky estimates their expanded Medicaid program will result in net state budget savings of $820 million from state fiscal year 2014 to state fiscal year 2021. And Arkansas estimates savings of $370 million during that time.
The savings Kentucky and Arkansas realized are available to all states. Providing health insurance coverage in SB 405 through private premiums and federal contributions will result in less need for state-funded mental and behavioral health programs. Other current specialized Medicaid programs would be to initiatives where the federal government is providing a greater contribution. Montana’s corrections program would achieve savings from released inmates receiving needed mental health and substance abuse treatment resulting in fewer re-offenders.
Research found that Connecticut, New Mexico and Washington also realized budget savings in the first year of expanded Medicaid programs. SB 405 is not a budget buster, and will result in economic growth to Montana.
Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2015 10:19
Over the past 65 days, there have been numerous proposals presented to the Legislature that can aptly be described as “take-it-or-leave-it.” But one proposal tops all others when it comes to the audacity of a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer—Senate Bill 405.
Just a few short weeks ago, a new concept for Medicaid expansion was brought before the Legislature that some claim is a “collaborative effort” exemplifying statesmanship. The bill, SB 405, has been lauded as a “compromise” that will benefit tens of thousands of Montanans if enacted. But while policymakers get caught up in the emotional cloud that dominates the debate surrounding Medicaid expansion, it’s important to keep things in perspective—particularly the long-term sustainability of any plan that the Legislature chooses to adopt.
First, it’s important to recognize that SB 405 is not a compromise. When numerous amendments were offered to improve the proposal, the sponsor, after acknowledging that the amendments were good, asked the Senate to reject each and every one of them. Does that sound like “compromise” to you? Does that sound like a “Montana Solution” to you?
Second, regardless of the proponents’ claim that SB 405 is a “Republican solution,” it is the implementation of Obamacare, plain and simple — something few Montanans are eager to support. SB 405 accepts hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds offered through the Affordable Care Act to create a new entitlement program. And, in addition to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand entitlements, SB 405 also creates a massive new state bureaucracy that will cost the state millions of dollars every year. Simply put, SB 405 is uniquely this country’s most enhanced Medicaid expansion proposal yet. But, can we really rely on federal money to be there?
The federal funds that cover a portion of the costs of Medicaid expansion have proven to be laden with restrictions. We already know that these particular funds will be reduced after the first few years, and the program is expected to cost the state of Montana almost $40 million by the year 2020, with that number increasing exponentially every year.
Even though many members of the Legislature will not vote for full expansion of Medicaid, it’s important to remember that real Republican alternatives are currently still in play in the last weeks of Montana’s 64th legislative session.
HB 455, introduced by Rep. Nancy Ballance, would cover nearly 10,000 low-income Montanans currently unable to receive coverage under Medicaid. That bill would expand coverage eligibility to the blind, disabled, young parents and veterans. Unfortunately, those legislators rushing to get their hands on the federal dollars cannot see the benefit of a proposal that targets public resources to help the most vulnerable in our communities.
We must be cautious when formulating our public policies. Creating a massive program that throws money at the problem is not responsible policymaking, and will almost certainly put our state’s financial health in jeopardy. SB 405 is not an example of a Republican solution, and to claim otherwise is insulting. It’s time that proponents of full Medicaid expansion drop their “take-it-or-leave-it” mentality and consider for the first time a true compromise — because that is the only way we can ensure protection of Montana’s most vulnerable without jeopardizing our state’s financial health.
Sen. Debby Barrett
Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2015 10:18