HELENA – State budget cuts to higher education in Montana are noted in a new report.
The study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities outlines the tough time states have had in funding colleges and universities since the recession.
Montana’s spending per student is down about 17 percent since 2008, according to the report. Even though the state’s cuts are less than those in many other states, said report author Phil Oliff, it’s still a big reason why tuition and fees have been outpacing inflation.
“Keep in mind,” he said, “this spike in college costs comes even as the recession and slow recovery have diminished students’ and their families’ financial resources.”
Every state has cut higher-education funding except Wyoming and North Dakota, according to the report. Arizona and New Hampshire leveled the biggest cuts.
Last Updated on Thursday, 28 March 2013 00:05
HELENA – After four years of pay freezes, state employees are still waiting to hear whether they will receive an across-the-board 5 percent raise over each of the next two years.
Roughly two dozen people supported House Bill 13 at a January hearing before the House Appropriations Committee. That measure finally surfaced for a vote last Wednesday when Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, made the motion.
But he was the only Republican who joined Democrats on the GOP-controlled committee. The measure failed, but that didn’t stop the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kathy Swanson, D-Anaconda, from trying to revive it on the House floor the next day.
“Since 4:08 yesterday afternoon, my phone has been blowing up,” she told House members. “I have visited with a single mother of three who sobbed in despair wondering if she should start looking to move, to disrupt her children and try to find work out of Montana.”
Swanson tried to blast the bill out of committee and onto the floor, a procedural move that requires a supermajority. But Republicans said they weren’t ready to vote. Many, including the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, argued that the “freeze” didn’t apply to all state workers.
Last Updated on Thursday, 21 March 2013 14:53
HELENA – A panel of lawmakers is set to vote on the state’s budget this week after three days of public testimony on the best way to spend more than $9 billion over the next two years.
“I think that we’ve made great progress,” Dan Villa, the governor’s budget director, told the House Appropriations Committee last week. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an executive and legislative branch be this close this quickly in the process.”
At the moment, the governor’s requested budget and House Bill 2, the Republican-led appropriation subcommittees’ proposal, differ by about 1 percent.
The money in HB 2 comes from many sources, including $3.6 billion from the state’s discretionary cashbox: the general fund. It does not include all spending, though. Such things as potential raises for state employees or money to fund construction projects at colleges across Montana are contained in other bills.
There’s still plenty of opportunity to make changes, and the budget isn’t likely to be adopted until the session’s end. Meanwhile, expect debates over restoring federal money to family planning programs and additional funding for a universal enrollment system and improved veterans’ services on college campuses.
Last Updated on Thursday, 14 March 2013 15:49
HELENA – The halls of Congress are more than 2,000 miles away, but when it comes to the debate over guns, the two capitals seem poles apart.
In Washington, the argument is over President Barack Obama’s push to ban military-style weapons and to better investigate those who buy guns.
In Helena, the focus is on bills allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons in more places and defying any new federal laws restricting the kinds of guns Montanans can buy.
To veteran political observers, that’s no surprise.
“Generally speaking, gun control is unpopular in Montana among both political parties,” said Jim Lopach, a political science professor at the University of Montana. “In the Montana Legislature, I’d expect a move more to expand gun rights as opposed to controlling those rights.”
Last Updated on Thursday, 21 February 2013 11:34
HELENA – In the half-hour before Steve Bullock delivered his first major speech as governor of Montana, chatter filled the House chamber as legislators, state officials and members of the media speculated about what he would say.
Bullock spent much of his first State of the State address discussing education. He promised to focus on job training in Montana schools, which coincides with his plan to put 2,500 people to work on construction projects at colleges and universities around the state.
He again called on the Legislature to accept federal money to expand Medicaid to serve nearly 70,000 low-income Montanans currently without health insurance. He also advocated for a $400 one-time property tax rebate, the elimination of an equipment tax on 11,000 Montana businesses, and the end of dark money in elections.
Although he had already publicly addressed many of the priorities outlined in his speech, Bullock made a surprise announcement about a new website to view the state’s checkbook.
“We’ll have a searchable database so that anyone in Montana – or anybody across the world, for that matter – can look at how we spend the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do and it’ll lead to a more effective government.”
Last Updated on Thursday, 07 February 2013 20:10
By DEBORAH COURSON SMITH - Big Sky Connection
HELENA – Wild critters large and small in Montana are featured in a report released this week by the National Wildlife Federation. The research examines how species such as grizzly bears, sage grouse and butterflies are being impacted by a changing climate.
Report author Amanda Staudt, a senior scientist at the federation, says many animals have shifted their ranges – mostly north, as springs arrive sooner.
“We are seeing and feeling the effects of climate change in our own backyards – on our farms, in our forests – right now,” Staudt says. “And for wildlife, it’s about the impacts that we’re seeing now, not something far away.”
She says animals and insects move to food sources, so if plants flower sooner they’ll follow that change. Staudt points out that most critters have the ability to adapt, but they’re often hindered by fences, roads or other development.
Last Updated on Thursday, 07 February 2013 20:01
HELENA – Three weeks into the legislative session, a number of bills have finally reached the Montana House or Senate for a vote.
Two of those bills drew significant debate last week on the House floor.
A proposal to criminalize assaults on unborn children passed 59-40, with proponents saying they want to appropriately punish people who hurt pregnant women by charging them with homicide when their actions kill a fetus. Opponents to House Bill 104 argued the measure creates a legal definition for “unborn child” in the state code, thus opening the floodgates to anti-abortion measures.
Supporters of another bill said they want to prevent problems related to illegal immigration in Montana. House Bill 50, which passed 61-37, prohibits municipal governments from establishing “sanctuary” policies that do not enforce immigration laws. Legislators who opposed the bill asserted that it is not necessary because Montana does not have an illegal immigration problem.
Those bills must next pass the Senate and receive the governor’s signature before they can become law.
Last Updated on Thursday, 31 January 2013 12:57
HELENA – Small businesses across Montana are contacting the Montana Department of Labor and Industry complaining of aggressive marketing companies trying to sell labor law posters.
“This is an ongoing problem in our state. Every time there is an update to the five-in-one poster, these aggressive marketing companies try to take advantage of Montana’s small businesses and charge them for something that we provide to them at no cost,” said Labor Commissioner Pam Bucy.
The Five in One posters, which are available from the Department’s Job Service Division, encompass Equal Employment Opportunity, Family and Medical Leave Act with Military Family Leave (employers with 50 or more employees), Federal Minimum Wage, and the Polygraph Protection Act.
Federal regulations also require posting the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. All posters are available at the Job Service offices.
Posters also required by Montana State Law include: Proof of Unemployment Insurance coverage (provided by the Department of Labor and Industry, Unemployment Insurance Contributions Bureau) and Proof of Workers’ Compensation coverage, provided by Workers’ Compensation Insurance carrier. Employers are not required to post the state minimum wage.
Last Updated on Thursday, 31 January 2013 12:49
HELENA – Emotions ran high during the Montana Legislature’s second week, bringing an end to the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration and first-week honeymoon.
The buzz was palpable Monday morning as people crowded a House State Administration Committee hearing, with some members of the public taking to seats in the hall where they could better-observe the proceedings on closed-circuit TV. That hearing focused on a bill to eliminate same-day voter registration and drew 20 opponents. Another measure later in the week limiting the forms of acceptable voter IDs resulted in a similar outcry.
Mid-week, talk in the Capitol revolved around stories of a rift between factions of the Senate GOP. A Great Falls Tribune article exposed leaked emails that revealed a plan among conservatives to oust more moderate members of the Republican Party from leadership positions.
Senate Republicans met later in the week to clarify priorities and encourage cooperation through the remainder of the session.
At the caucus, Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, reminded colleagues of a principle he gleaned from President Ronald Reagan.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 January 2013 10:40
GREAT FALLS – Health insurance coverage is tied to geography in Montana.
A new report from the Center for Rural Affairs finds that people in the most rural counties are least likely to have coverage. In 28 of the state’s 46 rural counties, one in four residents don’t have a policy.
Steph Larsen, Montana assistant director of the Center for Rural Affairs, says it’s clear that rural residents face more barriers to coverage - mainly due to lower incomes since the businesses are often smaller or the people are self-employed.
“It’s not a fair thing to say that because of the way that you are employed, because of your occupation, you don’t have access to affordable health care.”
The report says it makes economic sense for Montana to sign on to the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act - something the Legislature will decide.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 January 2013 10:39