News Roundup: Week Five At The Montana Legislature
Juneau calls for early education, tax cuts pass, lawmakers consider drones on public lands and Fox supports bill to combat human trafficking.
In her address to a joint session of the Montana Legislature last week, Superintendent Denise Juneau praised Montana’s schools and called for more investment in them.
“We have a lot to be proud of in this state,” she said.
Juneau listed accomplishments like the highest graduation rates in the state’s history and growth in organizations like the Future Farmers of America.
She also called for investment in Gov. Bullock’s so-called Early Edge preschool plan, which would offer voluntary preschool to Montana’s four-year-olds.
“It’s time for us to provide our earliest learners with an early edge,” Juneau said.
Juneau also spoke about bills she supports aimed at increasing graduation rates, and said she was proud to be a top advocate for public schools.
The Friday before Juneau spoke, House Bill 322 entered the House Education committee. The bill would create an education savings account for special needs students, the first state funded school choice bill to be introduced this session.
Juneau’s office opposes that bill, and other efforts to divert funding from the public schools.
“Public education proves that America is still the land of opportunity,” Juneau said.
In other news last week:
Attorney General launches bill to end human trafficking
Incidents of trafficking have become common in South and North Dakota, where girls are forced into prostitution and sold on the internet, Fox said. But, he added, the crime has happened across Montana as well.
“We must open our eyes to what’s happening in plain sight,” Fox said at the bill's hearing last week.
House Bill 89 is a long, comprehensive bill that would allocate money for education on the issue and aid for victims.
Victim’s rights organizations, a church group and a member of the Missoula Police Department backed the bill. No opponents spoke.
Tax cut bills endorsed in House, Senate
The Montana House last week endorsed a cut in the school equalization mills collected in property tax.
House Bill 201 would reduce the number of state school equalization mills a county collects in property tax by five, from 40 to 35. A mill is a unit for property taxation.
The bill would reduce property tax revenue by about $12 million next year. It would also mean that some school funding would have to come from other state sources to make up for the loss.
Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, compared property tax to a mortgage that never ends, and said the budget surplus the state has gained over the last few years means the state could afford to take in less in taxes.
Rep. Kathleen Williams, D-Bozeman, said the bill would benefit large companies and not the average person, saying the average homeowner would see a break of around $11.
“We should be thoughtful when we look at these kinds of proposals,” Williams said, adding that cuts like this create inconsistency in the general fund.
The bill passed on a 58-42 vote.
The bill joins two other tax cut bills the House sent to the Senate this week, House Bill 166 and House Bill 169, which would cut tax revenue by a little less than $120 million over the next two years.
Also this week, the Senate saw its own tax cut bill.
Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, is sponsoring Senate Bill 200, which would cut income taxes by more than $50 million a year by lowering the rates in each tax bracket.
Ankney’s bill simplifies tax brackets, having them stair step in $3,000 intervals with two exceptions, and cuts the rates on the lowest bracket by .1 percent. The other brackets would be cut by .2 percent.
Ankney said that because of the budget surplus, it was time the state gave money back to taxpayers, especially the “working man.”
“The state has no money,” he said. “They have your money.”
Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, said the bill sacrifices revenue and would create a problem in the future of where to find money. He also said there are too many tax bills.
Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, the chair of the Senate Taxation Committee, said tax cut bills would help the legislature negotiate the budget with the governor later on in the session. He added that SB 200 was the only tax cut bill that would pass out of his committee.
“This will be the best tax cut bill,” Tutvedt said.
Guns on campus bill makes a return
A bill to allow guns on college campuses narrowly passed the Senate this week.
Senate Bill 143 would prohibit the Montana Board of Regents from regulating gun possession on college campuses, asserting that any regulation the board imposed would be a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights.
Supporters said guns would help prevent campus shootings and other tragedies. Opponents said guns and college students don’t mix.
The bill was sent to the House on a 26-23 vote, with three Republicans voting with the Democrats.
It’s not the first session the Montana Legislature has had this debate. One legislator compared the proposal to a common cold that keeps coming back.
Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a similar bill in 2013, and other bills to allow guns on campus have died in the process in sessions before that.
Bill to limit drone use gets hearing
Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings is carrying a bill to limit drone activity related to outdoor recreation.
In a committee hearing, Todd Eames told a story about fishing the Boulder River south of Big Timber, Mont., when he noticed a drone flying 10 feet above him.
“It was just a very very uncomfortable situation,” Eames said, adding that he didn’t know who was using it or why.
Wildlife groups, angler and outfitter groups all backed the bill, saying the use of the devices would lead to harassment.
The only opponent was John MacDonald of the Montana Newspaper Association, who took issue with language in the bill that prohibited using the devices to photograph someone on public land.
MacDonald said on public property, a person doesn’t have an expectation of privacy.
(Note: The Montana Newspaper Association helps fund the UM Community News Service, which produced this report.)
States’ convention resolutions pop up
Resolutions urging a Constitutional Convention to amend the U.S. Constitution are popping up in the Legislature.
Calling a convention requires 35 states to apply to Congress. Ratifying an amendment to the Constitution requires the support of 38 states.
House Joint Resolution 4, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Monforton, R-Bozeman, seeks to add a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“This will fix the problem we have in this country of fiscal bankruptcy,” Monforton said.
Monforton’s resolution is part of a national movement to pass a balanced budget amendment, and 24 states have already passed similar resolutions.
Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula is sponsoring House Joint Resolution 3, which calls for a convention to address the issue of “free and fair elections” by proposing amendments related to the Citizens United decision.
Opponents of both resolutions said calling a convention is an untested and dangerous way to amend the Constitution. Both resolutions seek to limit the conventions they call for, but opponents say there’s no way to guarantee the limits will be followed.
“There is no way to assure a convention would obey,” said Ed Regan of Townsend, a self-described lifelong Republican, speaking against Monforton’s HJ 4. “Personally, I don’t believe all the special interests in America are going to sit on the sidelines.”
- Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.