By Michael Siebert UM Community News Service

HELENA – As Republicans and Democrats grapple with how to fund statewide infrastructure projects at the Montana Legislature, one bill in the House aims to put that decision in the hands of local voters.

House Bill 577, introduced by Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, would allow cities and towns to adopt an infrastructure tax on luxury goods and services at a maximum rate of 4 percent. However, the tax would have to be approved by local voters.

“House Bill 577 empowers our cities, towns and counties to solve their infrastructure problems,” Fern said.

The bill would allow taxes on goods and services like restaurants and rental cars. In this way, it acts as an expansion of the resort tax allowed in cities like Whitefish, said Darryl James, executive director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition. The coalition is a non-partisan interest group consisting of local government and business members that researches funding methods for infrastructure.

“You’re just giving them another tool to decide how they want to fund critical infrastructure,” James said.

If approved, the bill would expire after seven to 10 years or sooner if critical infrastructure projects are funded. It also provides for a property tax rebate of 25 percent or more of the total revenue collected on the infrastructure tax during the previous year.

The bill had 18 supporters at its first hearing last Tuesday, many of whom were city managers or representatives of Montana’s larger cities.

Chuck Stearns, the former city manager of Whitefish, said the city has collected $30 million in the 20 years the city has used its resort tax.

The bill also attracted 11 opponents, most of whom represented industries that would be taxed.

“It’s a huge competitive disadvantage,” said Bruce Longcake, representing the Convenience Store Association.

Several representatives from utility companies also said the bill does not adequately guard against local governments from taxing those industries.

No immediate action was taken on the bill.

Bill would outlaw abortions at 20 weeks

The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee advanced a bill last week that would outlaw abortions at 20 weeks.

Senate Bill 329, introduced by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is also known as the “Montana Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” It justifies the ban at 20 weeks on the grounds of, “increased scientific evidence that abortion is painful for the unborn,” according to Regier.

“We all have heard stories of babies delivered between 20-30 weeks of development, and they survive,” Regier said. “They survive because they have all of the body parts needed.”

A similar bill, Senate Bill 282, would prohibit abortion after 24 weeks, or at whatever point a fetus can survive with artificial aid outside of the mother’s womb—whichever comes first. That bill passed third reading in the Senate on a 32-18 vote.

SB 329 had five supporters at the hearing, including religious leaders and two doctors.

“I just can’t believe there’s anybody in this room who would intentionally inflict pain on a child and feel that’s OK,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation.

The bill also attracted five opponents, many of whom argued the decision to have an abortion should be left to the mother and her doctor.

“Montana has a very strong right to privacy,” said SK Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the Montana American Civil Liberties Union. “That translates to a woman’s ability to make a private medical decision all on her own about whether she will terminate a pregnancy.”

Others said the bill does not adequately protect the safety of mothers. Robin Turner, public policy and legal director for the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said 25 percent of mothers surveyed by the National Domestic Violence Hotline experienced “reproductive coercion.” This can mean being forced into pregnancy in order to stay in an abusive relationship, Turner said.

Laura Terrill, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Montana, also noted that the bill does not provide exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

“The bill threatens doctors for exercising their best medical judgment and providing the best care that they can for women,” Terrill said.

The committee passed the bill on a 6-3 vote. It now goes to the full Senate for debate.

Bill would allow misdemeanors to be expunged

The Senate Judiciary committee heard a bill last week that would allow for the expungement of criminal records for misdemeanors.

House Bill 168, introduced by Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, is also known as the “Montana Clean Slate Act.” It allows for offenders to petition for the erasing of their records if they are not considered a threat to public safety.

“It provides folks a clean slate in society, erasing a lingering shadow of prior mistakes,” Brown said. “Our friends and neighbors deserve an opportunity at a fresh start.”

The bill also allows for expungement if the offender was denied application for military services due to a prior offense. It prohibits individuals convicted of stalking, driving under the influence or violating a protective order from pursuing expungement.

Co-sponsor Rep. Dale Mortensen, R-Billings, said he supports the bill because misdemeanors can prohibit convicted individuals from getting professional licenses. Mortensen said he was denied a private investigator’s license because of a fine he received for transporting dirt over the weight limit.

“I believe that somebody should have the ability to have their record expunged,” Mortensen said.

Robin Turner, public policy and legal director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said she initially opposed the bill due to a lack of language regarding stalking and restraining order misdemeanors, but spoke in support at the committee hearing last week because that language was included in subsequent drafts.

Turner said the bill’s language gives the court the ability to decide against erasing a defendant’s records.

The bill had no opponents. No action was taken on the bill in committee.

Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.