School bill passes Senate test as session heads toward halftime

By Amy R. Sisk University of Montana Community News Service

HELENA – After clearing the Senate last week with bipartisan support, a major school funding bill that increases money for K-12 schools while providing property tax relief is headed to the House.

Senate Bill 175, sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, passed the Senate 32-17 Friday with 12 Republicans joining Democrats.

Jones called his sweeping piece of legislation “evenly balanced,” and colleagues on both sides of the aisle praised its carefully crafted provisions.

“It puts student achievement first, it respects a whole lot of hard work, and it unites a lot of people,” Jones said.

The Republican senator spent the past 18 months developing the bill with the help of schools and education groups around the state. The measure draws upon natural resource revenue to provide an additional $120 million to schools over the next two years.

Some in Jones’ party worried about the funding increase. Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, said while he wants to support education, other issues also need money.

“I don’t know how we can expect to spend that kind of money when we are trying to cut government in other areas,” he said.

Despite 10 attempts to amend the bill on the Senate floor, Jones managed to garner enough support from more moderate members of his party to pass the bill.

The bill filters oil and gas tax revenue through districts impacted by oil activity in eastern Montana. Districts there can currently keep oil revenue up to 130 percent of their general fund budget. Jones’ bill ensures when one school reaches that cap, the remaining revenue cycles through other Bakken schools before landing in the state treasury.

Jones said under his plan, schools in neighboring communities with little to no oil production bu increased enrollment will be adequately funded.

Other lawmakers are pushing bills through committee and onto the House or Senate floor as the session’s halfway point draws near. Here’s a look back at other highlights from the seventh week of the session.

Business equipment tax

The House Taxation Committee voted down Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposal to eliminate the property tax on businesses with less than $100,000 in equipment.

Eleven Republicans voted against the measure, although one member of the GOP voted alongside Democrats to support House Bill 332.

Republicans have proposed several of their own measures to reduce the business equipment tax. The committee also heard testimony last week on House Bill 472, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Bennett, R-Libby, which would create an exemption on equipment valued under $250,000.

Bennett argued his bill would eliminate the tax for 14,000 businesses. Under his plan, businesses with more than $250,000 in equipment would still pay a 1.5 percent tax, but would be exempt from paying any tax on the first $250,000. Companies with more than $3 million in equipment would pay a 3 percent tax.

The governor’s plan would have required that businesses over the $100,000 threshold pay tax on the total value of equipment, including the first $100,000.

“If we only offer a threshold as a break, where is the incentive to buy more equipment and hire more employees?” asked Bennett.

Another tax proposal, Senate Bill 96, sponsored by Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, has passed the Senate and awaits action by the House. Tutvedt’s bill reduces the tax rate to 1.5 percent on equipment valued up to $10 million. Equipment above that amount would be taxed at 3 percent.

Gay rights

A bill decriminalizing sex between two people of the same gender cleared the Senate last week with bipartisan support.

Senate Bill 107, sponsored by Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, aims to strike a provision from the Montana law books that the state Supreme Court had already thrown out in 1997. The Senate voted 38-11 to pass the measure. A similar bill cleared the Senate during the 2011 Legislature but died in a House committee.

Marijuana

A measure to allow people with post-traumatic stress disorder to use medical marijuana received support from veterans and the medical marijuana community last week in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Bill 310, sponsored by Sen. David Wanzenried, D-Missoula, adds PTSD to the list of conditions for which a doctor can prescribe the drug. Those conditions include intractable nausea, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, peripheral neuropathy, muscle spasms and admittance into a hospice program.

Vietnam veteran David Paul Dube said he’s lived with PTSD for more than 25 years and cannot go bed without worrying he might accidentally hurt his wife with the pool cue he keeps nearby, if she wakes him during the night. Like others who spoke before him, he believes medical marijuana helps.

An opponent from the Rimrock Foundation asked lawmakers to reject the measure, citing marijuana as a gateway drug and its potential to lead to further substance abuse.

Wanzenried presented another measure, Senate Bill 311, which would automatically make state law comply with federal law should the federal government ever reclassify marijuana.

Native American language

Native Americans want to ensure their native tongues live on as the number of people who speak them dwindles. Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, brought forward legislation last week to continue that tradition.

Senate Bill 342 would establish a Native American language pilot program with Montana’s eight tribal governments. It would be contingent upon an appropriation in the state budget, and supporters, including the governor, are asking for $2 million to fund it.

Physician-assisted suicide

After the Sen¬ate Judiciary Committee rejected a bill to ensure the legality of physician-assisted suicide earlier, its House counterpart passed a bill that would make the practice illegal. House Bill 505, sponsored by Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, heads to the House floor.

Several physician-assisted suicide bills have come before the Legislature in recent years in response to a 2009 state Supreme Court decision that left many confused about the issue’s legality.

Proponents of ending the practice argue assisted suicide can lead to elder abuse and may deprive people who receive incorrect prognoses of a long life. Those who support it say people who will suffer greatly near the end of their lives should have the right to choose how they die.

Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at (425) 466-6633 or amy.sisk@umontana.edu. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.