By Amy R. Sisk University of Montana Community News Service
HELENA – A panel of lawmakers is set to vote on the state’s budget this week after three days of public testimony on the best way to spend more than $9 billion over the next two years.
“I think that we’ve made great progress,” Dan Villa, the governor’s budget director, told the House Appropriations Committee last week. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an executive and legislative branch be this close this quickly in the process.”
At the moment, the governor’s requested budget and House Bill 2, the Republican-led appropriation subcommittees’ proposal, differ by about 1 percent.
The money in HB 2 comes from many sources, including $3.6 billion from the state’s discretionary cashbox: the general fund. It does not include all spending, though. Such things as potential raises for state employees or money to fund construction projects at colleges across Montana are contained in other bills.
There’s still plenty of opportunity to make changes, and the budget isn’t likely to be adopted until the session’s end. Meanwhile, expect debates over restoring federal money to family planning programs and additional funding for a universal enrollment system and improved veterans’ services on college campuses.
After clearing the appropriations committee, HB 2 goes to the House floor. The budget must then pass the Senate – and any differences nailed out in a conference committee – before reaching the governor’s desk for his signature.
Here’s a look back at other highlights from the ninth week of the Legislature:
Fees and taxes in the Bakken
Lawmakers have one more proposal to consider as they juggle a number of bills aimed at addressing infrastructure needs in cities affected by the oil boom.
House Bill 452, sponsored by Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, would allow cities to impose a $5-per-night fee on lodging, to be used to deal with impacts of the boom.
Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison said his city plans to spend more than $33 million over the next few years on sewage treatment and upgrades to a water plant. He added that other community services have also felt the effects of an ever-increasing population, including the courts, which have seen a 45 percent jump in cases over the past two years.
He urged legislators to pass several of the Bakken-related bills, not just HB 452.
“It’s not the final solution by any means,” Jimison said. “This would be one step forward of many that we would have to take in order to provide all of the services and infrastructure that is needed.”
Members of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association opposed the bill, saying it fails to consider that travelers spend most of their money in retail, gas and restaurants.
“You can call it a fee, you can call it an assessment, but you are imposing a new tax on the small business lodging properties of this state,” said Sandra Johnson Thares, who heads the group’s board of directors.
In other Bakken news, the Senate Taxation Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 295. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, would end the 12- to 18-month tax holiday on oil production. Half the new revenue would support communities affected by the boom, and the remainder would go to a renewable resources trust fund.
Petroleum industry lobbyists opposed the bill, arguing that it would discourage drilling in Montana and isolate oil exploration efforts to North Dakota.
A bill to create a health care database has passed an initial vote in the House.
The House last week endorsed House Bill 489, sponsored by House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, on a 54-46 vote. The measure was referred to a committee for further study before returning to the floor for a final vote.
Hunter said his bill would provide transparency regarding health care costs and could even result in lower prices. The database would collect claims information and other data determined by a board of directors.
Legislators who voted against the measure cited privacy concerns over data collection and suggested that private businesses are best equipped to create the database, not the government.
Lawmakers in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee also heard testimony on another health care measure. House Bill 280, sponsored by Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, would allow out-of-state health insurance providers to offer coverage in Montana.
Smith argued that the bill would reduce health care costs and give individuals greater flexibility in choosing insurance plans that meet their needs. He said the state requires that insurance policies cover a number of services like certain cancer screenings or autism treatments, which might not apply to everyone with that plan. Those people should have other options, he said.
Opponents from the Montana Nurses Association argued that by allowing people to choose plans without those state-imposed mandates, the Legislature would effectively be removing provisions it had already deemed necessary for quality care. The Montana Women’s Lobby said that could open the floodgates to unequal coverage of men and women.
Parks and rec
The state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission oversees Montana’s parks and recreation areas, but that could change under a bill before the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
House Bill 24, sponsored by Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, would establish a separate five-person state parks and recreation board. Ankney said bison and wolf management take up most of the commission’s time, and a separate board could better address parks and recreation issues.
One person spoke in opposition to the bill, citing concern over the availability of money to fund a separate board.
Small dairy farmers from around the state drove to the Capitol last week to support a bill that would allow small farmers to sell raw milk.
House Bill 574, sponsored by Rep. Champ Edmunds, would allow members of the public to reap health benefits from raw milk, argued the measure’s supporters. Under current law, farmers can consume raw milk from their own cows but they cannot sell it to others.
Opponents said raw milk could lead to food-borne illnesses, and the state’s entire dairy industry could suffer should an outbreak occur.
Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.