By Amy R. Sisk University of Montana Community News Service
HELENA – Montana’s 2013 Legislature had barely adjourned when state leaders from both major parties began chalking up successes and failures.
“The Democrats were able to work with commonsense Main Street Republicans, and we got a lot of great things accomplished,” said Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock at a press conference. “They never let a letter after their name come before their constituents and come before Main Street, Montana.”
A coalition of Republicans defied conservative leaders, siding with Democrats on a number of big-ticket items, and the Legislature approved bills to shore up the state’s pension shortfall, increase education funding and provide state workers with a pay raise.
“We did not raise income taxes, [we] fulfilled our obligations, paid our debts, dealt with our liabilities, made new investments,” Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, told his colleagues on the Senate floor.
Lawmakers met their one constitutional obligation: passing a balanced budget. They also approved $10 billion to fund agencies and programs over the next two years.
Republicans, however, lamented taxpayers will see little, if any, relief. When the session began in January, members of both parties suggested sending part of a $500 million budget surplus back to property and business owners.
“I think the people who like to spend a lot of government money were winners,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman. “The losers were the taxpayers and people hoping for reform.”
Republicans blocked Medicaid expansion, but Democrats have vowed to fight to expand the low-income health care program and aren’t ruling out a special session or a voter initiative to extend coverage to 70,000 low-income Montanans.
Here’s a look back at the 2013 Legislature:
State employee pay
Thousands of government employees across Montana will see a pay raise for the first time in more than four years.
Although the original plan to provide across-the-board 5 percent salary increases over both of the next two years didn’t pan out, lawmakers approved an additional $114 million for state workers. The executive branch must now divvy up that money, focusing on employees with the lowest incomes and those who didn’t receive any raise over the past two years.
Some of the most heated debates came over a proposal to expand Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care to low-income Montanans. The Legislature rejected billions of federal dollars under the national Affordable Care Act to extend coverage to uninsured Montanans.
Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the federal health overhaul, each state was left to decide whether to accept money that would cover people up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Beginning in 2017, states will have to pick up some of the tab until they pay 10 percent in 2021.
Most attempts to cut taxes died this session, but a proposal to reduce the business equipment tax and simplify the state’s income tax code await the governor’s signature.
Senate Bill 96 would exempt businesses from paying taxes on the first $100,000 of equipment. Companies with equipment valued up to $6 million will pay a 1.5 percent tax rate. Senate Bill 282 would reduce the number of income tax brackets from seven to two and eliminates tax credits. Montanans will either pay a 4 percent or 6 percent rate.
Two of the governor’s proposals to shore up a projected $4 billion shortfall in the state’s pension systems over the next 30 years passed both chambers. The plans address the teachers’ and public employees’ retirement systems by increasing contributions from employers and employees and drawing from state funds.
A historic education funding reform bill, Senate Bill 175, will send an additional $50.5 million to public schools. The bill drew support from Republicans and Democrats after a Llew Jones, R-Conrad, worked with education officials across the state for two years on the comprehensive proposal.
The bill freezes some school property taxes for the next two years and increases the state entitlement districts receive and sends additional money to schools with significant enrollment increases. It allows schools in oil- and gas-producing areas to keep up to 130 percent of their maximum budgets in production-tax revenue.
The Legislature and Montana University System agreed to freeze in-state tuition over the next two years and implement a performance-based funding system to divvy up an additional $7.5 million between the state’s colleges. Lawmakers approved campus building projects, including $29 million for a new Missoula College.
Eastern Montana towns feeling the effects of the oil boom might soon see relief. Lawmakers approved a new oil and gas impact program, which would provide grants to Bakken-area towns in need of new infrastructure. The program, administered through the Department of Commerce, would draw money from the state’s share of federal mineral royalties to the tune of $10 million per year.
Gay rights activists waited 16 years after a state Supreme Court decision to see a law removed from the books that criminalized gay sex. That day came during this session when all Democrats and a number of Republicans voted to eliminate the law, which the court previously deemed unconstitutional.
The Legislature approved several gun rights measures, though not all have made it past the Gov. Bullock’s desk. One, House Bill 240 would allow students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. Another, already signed by the Governor, will keep the names of concealed carry holders confidential.
The governor’s major campaign finance reform bill, known as the TRACE Act, never made it to his desk. The bill aimed to defeat dark money organizations that don’t disclose their donors yet often spend money to attack candidates.
Another measure, this one waiting for Bullock’s signature, would require a disclaimer on election materials funded by anonymous sources. Disclaimers will read, “This communication is funded by anonymous sources. The voter should determine the veracity of its content.”
Republicans passed a bill that increases contribution limits and is headed to the governor.
Two Republican-backed referendums regarding voting are headed to the 2014 ballot. Dodging likely vetoes from Gov. Bullock, Republican lawmakers instead asked voters to end same-day voter registration and establish a “top-two” primary system.
If approved, the referendum to end same-day voter registration would make the Friday before Election Day the last possible day to register to vote. Republicans say it would help reduce long lines at the polls and ease the burden on election officials. Democrats say the bill disenfranchises groups of voters and leaves zero room to correct registration errors.
The other referendum would establish a primary system where voters would receive a single ballot and could vote for candidates from any party rather than have to choose which party’s ballot to fill out. The two candidates who receive the most votes, regardless of party affiliation, would advance to the general election. Democrats argue the bill would kill third parties.
The Legislature passed a measure that criminalizes assaults on pregnant women and result in the death of a fetus. The bill went into law without Bullock’s signature.
Bullock also took no action on a proposal to require parental consent for a minor to have an abortion. Pro-choice groups urged him to allow the bill to become law to avoid an identical referendum in 2014. They plan to challenge the law in court.
The Legislature approved a measure to provide an income-tax credit of $500 to people who allow access through their property to previously inaccessible state land. The bill awaits the governor’s signature. Other land access proposals fell short, including bills to permit corner crossing, increase funding to procure new easements and add money to the block management program.
Montana’s first effort to regulate drone use is headed to the governor’s desk. Senate Bill 196 prohibits authorities from using information collected by drones in criminal proceedings unless it was obtained with a search warrant or through the monitoring of public lands or international borders.
Attempts to change Montana’s medical marijuana laws failed this session, but the Legislature established new restrictions on drugged driving to designate a limit that legally constitutes impairment. The new law sets the maximum amount of tetrahydrocannabinol – the active ingredient in cannabis – that drivers can have in their blood at 5 nanograms per milliliter.
Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.