The Billings Outpost

Paper tiger lacks energy plan

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

D-Bozeman

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 April 2015 15:21

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Medicaid plan helps state

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.

Steph Larsen

Lyons, Neb.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2015 10:19

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SB 405 a bad idea

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

R-Dillon

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2015 10:18

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End oil, gas tax break

In Montana, we believe in fairness and a level playing field. But right now, oil and gas companies extracting Montana resources are not paying their fair share. From 2008 to 2014, these companies received a tax break of more than $126 million, costing local communities and the state critical revenue to meet infrastructure, social service, and public safety needs.

In 1999, the Legislature created a huge tax break for oil and gas companies. It lowers the taxation of oil and gas production to almost nothing during the most profitable period of extraction – the first 12 to 18 months. At the time, proponents of the tax break claimed that it would encourage development. Studies show, however, that oil companies do not base their decisions on state taxes. Quite simply, these out-of-state corporations operate where there is oil, period. We know now that this tax policy has cost Montana hundreds of millions in lost revenue, but the costs have been especially high to the communities who feel the strain on their public services and infrastructure.

Let’s compare. In North Dakota, during times when oil prices are high, a typical Bakken well producer is taxed at an average rate of 10.6 percent. However, Montana taxes these companies at less than 1 percent during the first 12 to 18 months.

The money Montana hands over to oil and gas companies as a tax break should instead be invested in our communities, on maintaining critical public services like education, water systems, housing, and roads. Increasing population in oil- and gas-impacted counties has overwhelmed local police, firefighters, domestic violence shelters, and child abuse officials.

We can fix this. I am proposing Senate Bill 374 to ensure oil companies pay their fair share. The bill will place a “trigger” on the tax holiday. When oil prices are high, the state and communities are ensured a revenue stream. North Dakota, experiencing a similar oil boom, has had a similar tax structure in place for several years.

My bill will also ensure that the majority of this revenue goes to where it is needed most – the communities in Eastern Montana. A fund will be set up to address the ongoing infrastructure, safety, and social service needs of the communities hit the hardest by the production.

The oil and gas tax holiday is costing Montana millions in revenue for public services and infrastructure. It’s time to fix it and put those dollars to better use.

Sen. Christine Kaufmann

D-Helena.

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 March 2015 13:01

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Beware of e-cigarettes

Data drives public health policy since it informs how we respond to community issues. The National Institute of Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future survey recently questioned 50,000 middle school and high school students about drug and cigarette use. The figures show that tobacco prevention programs are effective. In 1997, one-quarter of 12th graders smoked cigarettes daily. Just under 7 percent do today. 

But the figures show a disturbing trend toward electronic cigarette use.  E-cigarettes are clearly gaining a foothold in youth culture. More than 8 percent of eighth-graders had used e-cigarettes in the past month; 16 percent of 10th graders, and 17 percent of seniors.

Equally alarming, just over 14 percent of 12th graders in the survey perceived e-cigarettes as harmful. 

More than 85 percent of those seniors did not perceive regular use of electronic cigarettes as harmful, which may be a testament to the powerful effect that the use of celebrity “role models,” advertising and marketing plays in youth perception. In Montana, the tobacco industry spends $27 million a year to promote tobacco products with the intent of recruiting new users and retaining current ones.

The survey also found that 23 percent of 12th graders had used “hookah” in the past year.

Unfortunately, hookah pipes are often perceived as less harmful than traditional tobacco cigarettes since the specially made and flavored tobacco is smoked through a water filtering pipe. But a 45-minute hookah session delivers about 100 to 200 times the smoke of a single cigarette, containing 36 times more tar and 15 times more carbon monoxide.

We must not let up on prevention efforts to warn students of the highly addictive nature of nicotine and the chronic disease burden imposed by tobacco in all forms.

For more information, call the Montana Quit Line 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

Claire R. Oakley

RiverStone Health

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 12:11

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End gas, oil tax holiday

When it comes to helping Montana communities pay for the impacts caused by oil and gas development, the Legislature has ignored the obvious solution for years.

Taxes on mineral extraction are intended in large part to help deal with the impacts caused by such development. But the Legislature has refused to tax the majority of new oil and gas extraction in Montana.

The tax-free holiday on oil and gas production was enacted in the 1990s. The Legislature at that time made that foolish decision not to tax oil companies on most of their production, Of course, lobbyists for the oil and gas industry had a hand in the 18-month oil and gas tax holiday. After 18 months the production from an oil and gas well naturally is dramatically less than when the well started producing.

And with that decision to let the oil and gas companies avoid paying their fair share the Legislature also made the decision not to pay for impacts to Montana communities. Because of that, we are now left arguing over how to come up with the money to address those impacts.

Legislators, the solution is simple and clear. End the oil and gas tax holiday. Support SB 374. As a taxpayer and a Montanan wanting to invest in Montana, not the oil and gas company fat cats, I thank you.

David Lehnherr

Red Lodge

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 12:09

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