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The Session Week 2: Taxes, missing persons and child welfare

Bills to reform Montana tax policy, support missing persons search efforts and overhaul Child Protective Services move through the Legislature. Host Mara Silvers and reporters Ellis Juhlin and Shaylee Ragar discuss the legislation they're watching this week — along with the schisms between and within the parties that are starting to form.

Shaylee Rager: So Gianforte has gotten some pushback on this point, in particular, Mara, because Montana's tax system applies uniformly for all earners. So that means that when income tax is cut at a percentage, that'll make a nominal difference for low income families and middle income families, but it will make a much larger impact for high wage earners. The Montana Budget and Policy Center is an organization that often advocates for low income Montanans, and they did an analysis that shows 80% of the 2021 income tax cut went to the wealthiest 20% of Montanans. But this session, Governor Gianforte and Senator Beard are tacking on a second piece to this income tax cut, which is a proposal to expand a tax credit that goes directly to low income families, and that's the earned income tax credit. So Montana currently offers the lowest earned income tax credit of the 28 states that offer it in addition to the federal earned income tax credit. And that's at 3% in Montana. Senator Beard's bill would expand that to 10%. She says now is the time to get this done, regardless of the budget surplus. Given that there are new wealthy residents in Montana and Montana families are experiencing hardship due to inflation.

Mara Silvers: It's week two of The Session.

Mara Silvers: This week, we're watching bills to reform Child Protective Services. Missing persons legislation and tax policy.

Mara Silvers: This is The Session, a look at the policy and politics inside the Montana State House. I'm Mara Silvers. I cover the State House for Montana Free Press.

Shaylee Rager: I'm Shaylee Rager. I cover the State House for Montana Public Radio.

Ellis Juhlin: And I'm Ellis Juhlin, and I also cover the State House for Montana Public Radio.

Mara Silvers: Shaylee, how about you kick us off? Tell us about the tax policy that's being discussed right now.

Shaylee Rager: Tax policy is definitely a big conversation at the session this year like it was in 2021. And I think both Democrats and Republicans are motivated to lower taxes given the $2 billion surplus we're seeing in the state budget. Governor Gianforte has said he wants to return a lot of this money to taxpayers' pockets through a variety of different proposals. And we'll be seeing two of those policies up for consideration this week, wrapped into one bill. That's Senate Bill 121, and it'll be up for a hearing in the Senate Taxation Committee on Tuesday at 8 a.m. and this bill proposed by Governor Gianforte will be carried by Republican Senator Becky Beard from Elliston. It would cut the top marginal income tax rate and if you make more than $18,000 a year, you fall into this bracket. It would cut that from 6.5% to 5.9%, and this would build on an income tax cut lawmakers passed last session in 2021.

Mara Silvers: What does this look like for average Montanans?

Shaylee Rager: So Gianforte has gotten some pushback on this point, in particular, Mara, because Montana's tax system applies uniformly for all earners. So that means that when income tax is cut at a percentage, that'll make a nominal difference for low income families and middle income families, but it will make a much larger impact for high wage earners. The Montana Budget and Policy Center is an organization that often advocates for low income Montanans, and they did an analysis that shows 80% of the 2021 income tax cut went to the wealthiest 20% of Montanans. But this session, Governor Gianforte and Senator Beard are tacking on a second piece to this income tax cut, which is a proposal to expand a tax credit that goes directly to low income families, and that's the earned income tax credit. So Montana currently offers the lowest earned income tax credit of the 28 states that offer it in addition to the federal earned income tax credit. And that's at 3% in Montana. Senator Beard's bill would expand that to 10%. She says now is the time to get this done, regardless of the budget surplus. Given that there are new wealthy residents in Montana and Montana families are experiencing hardship due to inflation.

Sen. Becky Beard: We might see some folks come in who are concerned that we're going to benefit the top earners in the state. And I think that's why the Governor's office has been looking at both ends of the spectrum.

Mara Silvers: What kind of support do you expect to see for expanding the state's earned income tax credit.

Shaylee Rager: Given that the Governor is behind it this session? That likely means Republicans are ready to push this through. That likely means that that they are behind this proposal. But it's worth noting that Democrats have been pushing for this very same proposal to expand the earned income tax credit for years. And last session, Representative Emma Kerr-Carpenter, a Democrat from Billings, proposed two different times expanding the earned income tax credit to 10% of the federal level. And it was pretty immediately dead in the water. Representative Kerr-Carpenter plans to bring her own bill again to expand the state's earned income tax credit this session. But she would have the credit expand to 60% of the federal level. Democrats have argued that low and middle income Montanans should see a proportionate state investment to what wealthy residents get with the marginal income rate cut. So that's why they're pushing for an expansion of the credit to 60% of the federal level. As of Friday, a draft of the bill text wasn't public yet, but the title on the draft says the credit would have to keep pace with the rate of inflation.

Mara Silvers: Are there any other tax proposals we should be aware of?

Shaylee Rager: There's one more I'm going to mention, Mara, but I'm going to try to stay out of the weeds with this one. Representative Bill Mercer is a Republican from Billings and he brought a bill last week in committee to give one time only property tax and income tax rebates to Montanans. And that's based on the huge surplus the state budget is seeing. The fiscal note isn't ready yet, but it would allocate $650 million for income tax rebates and $250 million for property tax rebates. And that bill is separate from what Governor Gianforte has proposed. And I think it's just interesting to see two different proposals from the Republican Governor and a Republican lawmaker. It's not clear yet if they'll be able to come together on that and where that bill will go. But it's definitely something we'll be watching.

Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Ellis Juhlin: The Department of Justice also found that 80% of Montana's missing persons are under the age of 18, although it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why. So Representative Lola Sheldon-Galloway from Great Falls, sponsored a resolution calling for an interim study of missing youth, and that passed in the House last week. On the Senate side of things, Senator Bob Brown from Trout Creek also introduced a joint resolution last week that calls on the U.S. Congress to fully fund law enforcement and public safety agencies on reservations. This is more specifically targeted at missing and murdered indigenous persons, but it echoes Running Wolf's bill, recognizing that a lack of resources can slow responses to missing persons, especially when those reports are first filed. They're going to be a few more bills coming from that committee, but they haven't been introduced yet, and I'll be keeping an eye out for them when they do.

Mara Silvers: Ellis, you've been keeping tabs on some of the legislation about the issue of missing persons in Montana, which is such a big and multifaceted problem. So how are lawmakers trying to address it?

Ellis Juhlin: Well, Mara, like you said, this is an ongoing problem and it's an issue that's got a lot of components to it. Just this past year, there were almost 2,000 reports of missing persons in Montana. After the 2021 session, the bipartisan interim committee that oversees the relationship between state government and tribal nations collaborated with the Department of Justice and the Missing Persons Task Force to request a series of bills for this session related to this issue. Last week, I followed three pieces of legislation that came out of that committee. One is a bill sponsored by Representative Tyson Running Wolf from Browning that would establish a grant program to fund training for response teams. Adequate training for response teams was one of the things that committee identified as a challenge in responding to missing persons reports, especially in the critical first 24 hours of when someone goes missing. Here's Running Wolf speaking about that bill in committee.

Rep. Tyson Running Wolf:  Response teams that are community based, search and rescue or other groups that are not having the adequate training, especially when it comes to that critical moment.

Shaylee Rager: Mara, you cover Health and Human Services. I really want to pick your brain about some of the bills that would change the process for child abuse and neglect cases and child removals. What's that landscape looking like?

Mara Silvers: Yeah, it's a big topic this session. And one of the things I find most interesting about CPS and foster care reform is that it brings together some interesting bipartisan coalitions and it can also cause schisms within Democratic and Republican caucuses. So one example of that and a bill that I kind of see as a bellwether this session in terms of what the appetite is like for changing these systems is House Bill 37, sponsored by Republican Representative Jennifer Carlson. So it's a bill that came out of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee, like some of the other bills we just talked about. And one of its other supporters is former Democratic lawmaker Danny Tenenbaum from Missoula, who came to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee last week. He basically said this bill will put necessary guardrails on Montana's child removals, which are higher than the national average.

Rep. Danny Tenenbaum: You may hear opponents later tell you that Montana does not have a problem. They may ask you to study the issue more or to make symbolic changes that ultimately preserve the status quo. It's time to stop kicking the can down the road. We can no longer operate a child removal system that wrongfully splits up families.

Shaylee Rager: So what would House Bill 37 actually do?

Mara Silvers: In its current form the bill would do a long list of things. It would require a judicial warrant for child removals unless a child is in immediate danger of serious bodily injury or sexual abuse. And it would require that law enforcement be present during a home removal. It would also require kids in abuse and neglect cases to be represented by an attorney, which is not currently the case in Montana. It would limit the role of CASA workers or court appointed special advocates for children. And the bill would make it so that children cannot be removed solely because of parental substance use disorder, living conditions, a child's obesity, or, as the bill says, other factors closely related to economic status. So I should say the Department of Public Health and Human Services is opposing this bill because they say it's burdensome and unnecessary. And it also estimates it would cost the department over $1,000,000 annually over the next four years just so it can retrain its staff and actually comply with the warrant requirement.

Shaylee Rager: That's a lot. Where do you think the members of the House Judiciary Committee stand on it?

Mara Silvers: So that's one of the most interesting things about this. The committee members are all over the place, regardless of party. Since the bill was heard last week Democrats have proposed some amendments, including one that would strike the part about law enforcement being present during a removal. Representative Carlson has listened to some feedback and proposed an amendment herself. And the lawmakers I've talked to from both parties say this is just a tough issue that doesn't have a lot of easy decisions. And it's not clear how the votes are going to break down this week. That's probably enough for this week. Shaylee, Ellis, thank you so much for joining me.

Shaylee Rager: Thanks.

Ellis Juhlin: Thanks.

This has been The Session, a preview of the policy and politics inside the Montana State House. The Session is produced by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. Join us next week for a new episode or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Get a recap of this week's action at the Montana Legislature with news and analysis from Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels. Online Friday afternoons. On air Saturdays at 9:44 a.m.