By Amy R. Sisk UM Community News Service

HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock’s bill to construct new buildings and make renovations at college campuses and other public facilities passed its first test last week and continues to make its way through the legislative process.

House Bill 14, also known as the Jobs and Opportunities by Building Schools bill, made it out of an appropriations subcommittee with a 4-2 vote. It now moves to the House Appropriations Committee, and then must pass the full House and Senate with a two-thirds vote in each chamber before the governor can sign it into law.

Bullock estimates the building projects would create 2,500 jobs. The state would fund the new facilities with nearly $100 million in state bonds, and the institutions would need to raise $56.5 million in private money.

Mick Robinson, deputy commissioner of higher education for administrative and fiscal affairs, said he’s optimistic the bill will make it through the session.

“The campuses will be looking forward to getting the fundraising kicked into gear,” he said.

A similar bonding measure failed to pass the 2011 Legislature.

In another appropriations subcommittee last week, legislators and higher education officials discussed a new idea to make some of the funds schools receive dependent on student performance.

Under the plan, the university system would develop standards over the next year to measure student achievement, including metrics such as graduation rates and the time it takes for students to earn a degree. The university system would decide how to allocate $7.5 million among its institutions in 2015.

“I think this is very encouraging,” said Clayton Christian, commissioner of higher education. “It’s a voice from not only the (regents), but also the executive branch and the governor and now, potentially, the Legislature to look where we can function as a team to move that ultimate goal of more Montanans with a degree forward.”

Here’s a look at other highlights from the session’s fifth week:

Business equipment tax

Small business leaders support Bullock’s plan to eliminate the property tax on businesses with less than $100,000 in equipment.

Rep. Mary McNally, D-Billings, brought the governor’s proposal to the House Taxation Committee last week. House Bill 332 would exempt more than 10,000 small businesses from the tax.

Currently, only businesses with less than $20,000 in equipment do not pay the tax. Businesses above that amount pay a 2 percent tax on the value of their equipment.

“I receive a substantial tax bill every year,” said Anna Doran, who owns Big Dipper Ice Cream in Helena and supports the bill. “These are dollars I would like to put toward expanding my wholesale business or paying my seniors who are starting college next fall at UM or MSU.”

Although no one spoke against the bill, several proponents and legislators expressed concern that the bill provides no relief for businesses over the $100,000 threshold. That means that a business with $101,000 in equipment would pay tax on the entire value of its equipment, not merely on the $1,000 exceeding the threshold.

A competing proposal, sponsored by Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, passed the Senate last week. Senate Bill 96 would reduce the tax rate to 1.5 percent for companies with less than $10 million in equipment and continue to exempt businesses with less than $20,000. Companies with equipment valued at more than $10 million would pay a 3 percent rate.

Drones

The debate surrounding the non-military use of unmanned aircraft, or drones, has reached the Montana Legislature where lawmakers are seeking to restrict their potential use by individuals or governments.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last week endorsed Senate Bill 196, sponsored by Sen. Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive. The bill would prohibit individuals from using drones to collect information on their neighbors, and law enforcement could not use the devices without a search warrant. Government agencies could still use them to monitor public lands and international borders.

During a hearing, Rosendale and supporters from the American Civil Liberties Union and Montana County Attorneys Association cited an individual’s right to privacy as reason to restrict the use of drones. They worry the devices could fly over a person’s property, recording data or taking photographs without the property owner’s knowledge.

Another drone-related measure, Senate Bill 150, passed the Senate last week. That bill would prevent information collected by drones from being used in court proceedings. It would also prohibit governments in Montana from using drones armed with weapons.

Campaign finance

A Republican lawmaker from Conrad wants to make sure people know when anonymous sources pay for campaign ads.

House Bill 254, sponsored by Rep. Rob Cook, would require that campaign materials like television ads and fliers contain a disclaimer when funded by anonymous sources.

“I think that the voter has the right to know that these groups are out there and that they prey on voters and that we should do something about it,” he said last week during a hearing in front of the House State Administration Committee.

He also presented another measure, House Bill 255, which would require political action committees to submit a summary of expenditures to donors upon request.

Guns in school

Under a proposal before the House Judiciary Committee, students would be able to keep firearms locked in their cars on school property.

Rep. Jerry O’Neil, R-Columbia Falls, said House Bill 384 would put state law in compliance with the federal Gun Free School Act, which creates an exemption for school districts to decide whether to expel students who bring guns to school on a case-by-case basis.

“It also allows a student in rural Montana to take a gun in the trunk of their car and maybe do some hunting on the way to school or hunt on the way back home,” he said.

Opponents from the Montana School Boards Association and MEA-MFT teachers union argued that guns have no place in school. They said it’s unlikely any school board would support the measure, adding that students facing disciplinary action for bringing a weapon to campus already have the right to a hearing.

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.