Saturday, February 27, 2021

COVID modifying Legislature, but work still being accomplished

| February 10, 2021 1:00 AM

January is usually a month of after hour dinners, sponsored by associations and businesses, profit and not for profit, introducing legislators to a long list of needs and aspirations. At noon, the rotunda was a dining area, again sponsored by businesses and organizations hoping to make their presence and associated issues known by way of food. We legislators expect a free lunch. Our compensation reflects that of a citizen legislator; more than the 400 members of the New Hampshire House (you can look it up), who work for free with mileage provided, but still at about $12 per hour for Montana legislators.

Social life is scant, with COVID changing the customary rules of engagement and merriment. Our staff members, the brains behind we legislators, are mostly participating through Zoom. Our beloved staffer of the House Tax Committee, has been operating from Missoula.

Legislative Services has invested about $650,000 into technology and staffing to allow staff, legislators and the public to participate from any location. Some of this technology is here for good. Consider the ease of testifying rather than a winter weather trip to Helena.

There are some members of my Democrat caucus I have yet to see. There are advantages though. I have yet to see my seat mate, allowing me social distancing and an extra desk to extend my legislative footprint of disorganization. I’ve stubbornly attended each floor session and most committee meetings. My mask is on with exception to drinking coffee, a needed elixir to defend off excess passions from either political orientation.

I am vice chairman of the House Taxation Committee. The leadership team of two Republicans and myself, the lone Democrat, are in our third terms in the House. To date, we work well together, with a goal of a high functioning committee, while recognizing political differences.

In the next two weeks we will take up several bills from the governor’s office, including a reduction off the top bracket of state income tax from 6.9% to 6.75%, reduction of business equipment taxes, and a reduction in corporate capital gains for job creation.

A Revenue Interim Committee Bill, with just one Republican in support, will look at a statewide circuit breaker to reduce property taxes of those whose income has not been able to keep up with statewide appraisals resulting in a high taxable value.

I believe the cost of a .15% reduction with minimal savings to most Montanan’s at a cost of about $24 million, would better be allocated to a property tax relief bill that mitigates market driven, and often irrational, property appraisals.

As a member of Local Government I have been hearing bills regarding county health departments and their decision making authority. In my opinion, the middle of a pandemic is not the time to change course. Let us wait until we have reached a more significant milestone, more of the populace vaccinated and a return to normalcy before we defang health departments.

Last week inclusionary zoning came before the committee. There are two communities, Bozeman and Whitefish that are implementing zoning to include affordable and deed restricted homes within a development. Home builders seem to hate it. I believe the state should not dictate local zoning. I voted against a bill that would have dictated duplexes and triplexes in all single family zoning of cities greater than 50,000. This zone may not work as envisioned and if so, should be adjusted from the local level.

Republicans have been waiting for 16 years for regaining the governor’s office. With a significant majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate you should expect pent up energy regarding gun rights, abortion restrictions and limits to health departments and the role of executive during declared emergencies. There is a change of the guard and with it comes changes that will affect the lives of many Montanans.

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