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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bill Diverts Coal Trust Taxes To Fund Infrastructure Projects

Montana Coal Council

The Montana Senate gave final approval to a pair of bills seeking to make long-term infrastructure investments using coal severance tax money. To do that, voters would be asked to approve a constitutional amendment.

The effort faces an uphill battle to get the necessary votes in the House to put the issue before voters.

That’s because the bar it set high for this legislative referendum. In order to be placed on the ballot it will need at least 100 of the 150 possible “yes” votes combined from the Senate and House.

Thursday, one Democrat, Gene Vuckovich of Anaconda, joined all 29 Republicans in voting yes.  So when it goes over to the House, all 59 Republicans and 11 Democrats will have to support it to get it on the ballot.

Senator Rick Ripley is the sponsor of the two companion bills, Senate Bills 353 and 354. He expects the bills will undergo tweaks in order to get the necessary votes.

"So this bill is going to have to change," Ripley says. "It’s going to have to grow into what this body and the House wants to come out of here."

Basically what this bill is asking voters to do is approve that when coal tax trust hits $1 billion, money that would have gone into the trust would be diverted into a fund to cover current bonds; most of the remaining money would go into what Ripley calls the Build Montana fund.

"I don’t want to cap the Coal Trust. If we have to change the 10 percent staying in the corpus to 20 percent to 25 percent to whatever it takes it’s something that we can agree on to come out of here. And it takes our Minority leader on board.

Democratic Minority Leader Jon Sesso isn’t on board.

"Thank you to the sponsor of 354. I’m a reluctant opponent today," Sesso said. "I rise because I really cannot disagree with the intent."

Sesso says investing in infrastructure is a good idea and he doesn’t want that discussion to get lost in the debate over capping the constitutionally protected Permanent Coal Tax Trust, but he fears it will.

The permanent Coal Tax Trust is sometimes referred to as a sacred cow. That’s because in order to tap the trust three-fourths of both the House and Senate would have to say yes. That’s proved nearly impossible to achieve.

And while this bill doesn’t touch the corpus of the trust or affect the revenue earmarked for the state’s general fund or the projects that get coal severance tax funding, talk of capping the trust is still a touchy subject.

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