Democrat state Rep. Dave Fern is heading back to Helena this month, with some of the biggest issues facing Whitefish on his mind.
Fern, 65, won re-election in the fall to his second term representing House District 5 in the Montana Legislature. Overall, Fern said he’s happy with how his first term went in the Montana Legislature.
“I didn’t think there were too many surprises,” Fern said. “I really got along well with legislators from both sides of the aisle. I tried to really consider their sensitivities to issues and their issues geographically-speaking, where they’re coming from, and respect their viewpoints. There’s a lot of diversity of thought there.”
“I keep saying, what an honor to be sitting in that chair in the House of Representatives,” he added.
Fern will again sit on tax, transportation and local government committees in the upcoming session, serving as vice chair in the latter committee. The state Legislature convenes on Jan. 7 for the 2019 session.
Affordable housing tops his list of priorities, he said.
Fern said he’s looking at a variety of bills to help provide affordable housing and make housing more accessible.
One bill looks at expanding low interest loans for affordable housing applicants using money from the coal tax trust fund, he said.
Another looks at a local option tax bill that could afford municipalities and counties the ability to have a select sales tax for infrastructure needs. The tax would be applied through a voter initiative, he said, and look similar to a resort tax but wouldn’t be limited to resort communities.
“There will be a bill that looks to establish a statewide tax credit system that is similar to the federal tax credit system that allows us to pursue the recent project on Edgewood,” he said. “A statewide tax credit would then have federal matches to it to increase the inventory statewide of affordability, looking at folks who, for example, make 60 to 70 percent of the average county wage. I think that for the area that’s really important.”
Fern added he’s met with residents who are frustrated with high-density development in Whitefish, especially when infrastructure upgrades are needed in the same areas.
“What comes first, the development or infrastructure upgrades? And when you do infrastructure upgrades then you’re dealing with not just with the road but with what’s underneath the road and power poles and that sort of thing, and it’s a matter of how do you allocate a set amount of dollars to so many communities with needs,” Fern said.
He’s also working on a bill that would add a tax to firework distributors and help fund local emergency services and volunteer fire departments that don’t have worker’s compensation programs.
He mentioned a bill that could help microbreweries extend their hours past the 8 p.m. curfew in peak seasons.
“We were looking at extending the hours, which are pretty unrealistic when you look at the length of the day in the summer and people’s activities,” he said. “At least extending it to 10 p.m. on a seasonal level, so we’ll see.”
Fern also said he’s interested in looking at raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21, as six states have done.
“Generally speaking, I would like to think that when you’re 18, you make adult decisions and you can be treated like an adult. I think tobacco is an exception, because so many resources by industry have been put into, in this case now the whole vaping and the flavors — I think it’s looking at a younger audience. I’ve also learned a bit about brain development and that if it can be held off a few years it would be beneficial to the individual,” he said.
Another focus for the upcoming session is restoring money to programs cut during last year’s special session, which reallocated funds in the budget to cover lower-than-expected revenues.
Among other programs, the cuts included funding for mental health programs across the state.
“Having lost services for mental health like Western Mental Health I think is a real concern,” Fern said. “When you talk to people, it’s not unusual that they have loved ones who are touched by mental health issues and drug issues as well. I don’t have a magic elixir, but I’m certainly paying attention.”
Fern also returned to chat with the Whitefish School Board on Dec. 11. Prior to running for the House, Fern served eight terms on the board.
Providing an update to the board and other district staff members, Fern said he expects the Legislature to renew Medicaid in the upcoming session, and he’s working on ways to ensure school districts get funding to help lower insurance costs for their teachers.
However, funding for different projects is limited and often many good ideas have to compete against one another, he said.
“How about giving schools more money so that they can have help meeting insurance bills? How about giving state employees a 1 or 2 percent raise? How about hiring more public attorneys for our public defender system?” Fern said. “The point I’m making is there’s lots of good ideas, but I think that it’s very possible that our fiscal capacity may not get us much past the Medicaid, depending on what the final price tag for that is.”
School board Trustee Katie Clarke asked Fern about his thoughts on charter schools, focused on specific career or industry fields, and how they could be implemented in Montana.
Fern said he’s more open to a similar idea concerning magnet schools.
“I would feel more comfortable with what’s called magnet schools, so they would be run through local school boards,” he said. “I think the opportunity we have in this valley is to do more collaboration, meaning that we have five high schools and how much of the same thing are we doing and what opportunities are we missing by some specialization that might allow immersion into passions students have? I’m not saying we’re not doing it here, but I think it could be done at a higher level.”