Legislature looks at infrastructure, housing

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The Montana Legislature is on a transmittal break during the first week of March. This is the 45-day mark of the session where general bills (nonrevenue), must get to the other chamber. Most of us in the House will be off this week. Several unlucky members of the Appropriations Committee will be back in Helena on Thursday for committee work. House Bill 2, the funding bill for the general budget will pass through the careful scrutiny of Appropriations. This committee is broken into six sections of government services. The sections subsequently convene as a whole to guide the body towards an attainable budget. Appropriations members often can be seen with several trees worth of binders. Within such binders are spreadsheets galore, everything done within Montana government. Assignment to this committee equates to the special forces of our legislature. They are the worker bees, their tasks much appreciated by the remaining plebian legislators.

How will I measure a successful legislative session?

We are on track to address several significant issues facing our citizens. We are likely to create a long term systematic infrastructure funding mechanism based upon a combination of bonding and cash held back from the general budget, resulting in an annual legislative appropriation process. In the short term, I expect to see a modest bonding package to take care of some immediate needs. At present Montana is one of the nations leaders in bond-free debt. This is admirable but has resulted in aging infrastructure and buildings.

I expect to see legislation that will reauthorize Medicaid for low wage earners. At present there are two competing bills. One bill from Rep. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, best reflects the moderate coalition of the Republican party. Expect to see some sort of work requirement for a sector of the 95,000 recipients. The other bill from Rep. Mary Caferro, a Democrat from Helena, envisions no work requirement but an expansion of vocational counseling, to those best suited to improve their workplace skill set. The hearings are set for mid-March.

Affordable housing legislation is also working its way through the legislation. I presented HB16, a low-interest loan program of $15 million to the Senate Tax Committee. I’m hopeful it will pass the committee, the Senate and be signed by the governor. The bill to create a tax credit program at the state level for affordable housing is awaiting executive action by the Senate Tax Committee.

I expect to see a restoration of a good portion of cuts to Human Services following the special session. There will be a trade-off with unfilled positions for the past 12-18 months being eliminated. I also anticipate some adjustments in the sentencing reform package from 2017 to address child sex crimes, minimum sentencing and the statute of limitations.

With regard to K-16 education, the basic school funding bill has been signed by the governor. There will likely be modest initiatives to provide funding for innovative programming within K-12, another funding stream that would assist students with costs associated with personal advanced studies, testing, and duel credits. Likely we’ll see a freeze on tuition for the university system.

Lastly, there is desire to better match our tax collections to reflect our economy. I am hopeful that a task force can be created to look at this significant issue. A constitutional initiative to limit two out of three categories of taxation was resoundingly defeated. Property tax fatigue remains a significant issue. Visitors recreate in the state with expectations of contributing more to the welfare of our budget. Minus our resort communities, their willingness to assist fall on deaf ears.

Democrat Dave Fern represents House District 5 in the Montana Legislature.

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