Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Beast, a dress code and saving Scobey, Montana

| March 31, 2021 1:00 AM

The Beast is coming soon to the Montana Legislature. This is the nickname for the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), $2.7 billion in total appropriated through HB632, by Frank Garner, Kalispell. The money equals about one year of total expenditures (the state funded general budget, special accounts and federal matches), of the state’s total budget.

It’s a lot of money by any account, especially following a significant distribution by the CARES Act in 2020 and the safeguards built into the state’s budget including a good rainy-day fund, our fire suppression fund, and the budget stabilization fund. The multi-billion-dollar relief will be distributed to schools, extended unemployment benefits, rental assistance, counties, cities and tribal governments, social services and an abundance of one-time infrastructure projects including the installation of high-speed fiber (despite the pending shortage of the product), and many public works projects which will supplant expenditures and loans from the Coal Trust Fund. The coming of ARPA has caused the Appropriations Committee to go into overtime along with department heads trying to figure out legal uses (can’t be used to supplant tax cuts), and allocate funds within their departments.

Proper decorum was challenged on the floor of the House in reaction to a member who steadfastly did not wear a tie. If decorum was deemed to be everything except a tie, such as politeness, intelligence, poise and composure when speaking and just being a genuine nice guy, he’d be a gold star legislator even in the eyes of our clothing police. The protest was lodged by one miffed legislator protesting during a point of order on the floor and subsequently triggering two rules committee meetings to reach a solution.

In context to figuring out how to spend $2.7 billion, deal with a dwindling Trust Fund powered by Coal or a multibillion-dollar under-funded pension system, and a little distraction called COVID, a guy not wearing a tie seemed like a needed bit of comic relief. I was told that in the state of Iowa a violation of such decorum could lead to the removal of the legislator’s privilege of speaking or being recognized while on the floor.

School boards deal all the time with such issues. Policy over hair color and dreadlocks tested me like few other issues. I understand we are to adopt a partially failed code of dress from 2015 and make the Speaker implement it when he deems necessary.

Last week our tax committee heard a bill (SB355), to redistribute a small portion of bed tax money going for tourist promotions to backfill counties with a disproportionate amount of state lands. In particular Daniels County, and the county seat of Scobey contains about 20% state lands with no reimbursement such as PILT for federal lands within a county. Scobey is an aging, lower income community in far northeastern Montana, a demographic time bomb of sorts. As one can imagine, busting the fund for anything short of the intended purpose caused significant angst from many employees and owners of establishments within the state’s second largest industry including constituents in this house district.

Could we amend the bill to use some funds from the lodging tax that goes to the state? We had received correspondence from what seemed like all 1,700 residents of the far-flung county. Urbanites on the committee realize the need to retain the integrity of the fund, especially after plunging revenues in the industry. The title of the bill is so specific that a significant change may not be possible and there is not time for a new bill.

This was a bill that took over our meeting with very revealing and passionate testimony from proponents and opponents. It’s not always like this. My initial reaction was to try to fix the bill to meet the needs of both sides.

Rural eastern Montana is falling off the map while counties such as Flathead, Gallatin and Missoula can barely keep up with growth including a shortage of affordable housing. The story of increasing and decreasing tax bases, and vastly different demographics was the sub-theme of SB355, a bill with a precise title that may not get out of the House Tax Committee.

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