Flathead Issues to be Heard in Helena

By Beacon Staff

By nearly all accounts, state lawmakers do not anticipate the 2009 Legislature will have the high drama or tackle the big issues of sessions past. A national recession and declining state revenue forecasts preclude ambitious legislation on the part of lawmakers. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said he does not plan to introduce any major new projects in his second term, instead focusing on guiding Montana through uncertain economic times.

And yet, on the state Legislature’s Web site, nearly 2,000 bills are in the process of being drafted as of this writing. While only a tiny fraction of these are likely to make it through the hazardous, painstakingly deliberative and tediously democratic process by which a bill becomes law, a few will squeak through. Here in the Flathead, local lawmakers hope some of those successful bills will be their own, and they have been working to craft their policy ideas into something that could become state statute.

What follows is a list of the major legislation and issues Flathead lawmakers will be focused on in the upcoming session, with one disclaimer: Just because a legislator’s bill may fail doesn’t mean they didn’t accomplish what he or she intended. Supporting a stronger bill by a fellow lawmaker or amending the contents of a bill to another popular bill are among the methods savvy lawmakers use to forward their agenda, and undoubtedly, some of the policy ideas contained in the proposed bills below will follow such routes.

Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell

Jackson has two bills he believes could help Flathead County manage its problems with dust and unpaved roads, and assist other counties with similar problems. One bill would appropriate $100 million to the Montana Department of Transportation for distributing to counties to maintain their roads, based on their population and miles of roads. The other bill would allow county governments to establish tax increment finance districts (TIFs), for road maintenance and upgrades.

He also has six bills aimed at challenging the water rights of hydroelectric power companies, which Jackson believes often exceed the logical needs of the power companies and make it unnecessarily difficult for upstream residential users to obtain a water right.

Concerned about the zebra mussel, an invasive species that has yet to turn up in Montana, Jackson has a bill to set up a council to intercept and prevent this mussel and other invasive species from entering the state.

Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish

With roughly 50 bill drafts, Jopek is planning a busy session, though he is quick to point out that many of these potential bills are “placeholders,” to be used in the event they are needed after the deadline for requesting new bills has passed – a common practice.

Jopek has one of many bill drafts to change Montana’s business equipment tax, a perennial issue. Jopek’s bill would raise the exemption on equipment from $20,000 to $250,000, which he believes would exempt about 90 percent of Montana’s small businesses. After a tough election season in Whitefish, Jopek may introduce a bill that curtails or prevents the ability of political action committees (PACs) to give to other PACs, which can lead to the circulation of difficult-to-track special interest money. Another bill would require lobbyists to disclose their expenditures every month during the legislative session, rather than at the end.

Jopek also has several bills set aside he can use to lessen the impacts of property tax reappraisal on Flathead County residents if necessary, and he said he believes some type of economic stimulus package will emerge from this session.

Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish

Freshman Zinke’s take on the business equipment tax would raise the exemption to $200,000 and phase in the tax up to $400,000. He also has a bill to increase the penalties for the willful starvation and abandonment of horses, an increasingly common practice in the current economy. Another bill would offer zero-interest student loans up to $10,000 so long as the student remains in Montana.

Employers would receive a reduction in workers’ compensation rates for establishing a safety plan and practicing it under one of Zinke’s bills. And another bill would establish a review process for changes in land use on properties greater than 20 acres, exempting any changes in line with the land’s current use.

Rep. Cheryl Steenson, D-Kalispell

Steenson, another freshman lawmaker, plans to bring a bill that would offer those receiving state disability benefits, under age 65, the option of buying into medicare gap insurance coverage to avoid getting hit with some of the out-of-pocket costs they currently pay.

Steenson is also wary of the money allocated for community colleges contained in the governor’s proposed budget that could end up with Flathead Valley Community College seeing a funding cut of about $300,000. She plans to use her seat on the House Appropriations Committee and Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education to ensure that funding for FVCC is maintained at current levels.

Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell

Barkus plans to introduce a three-part bill that would overhaul Montana’s license plate program. Under his bill, vehicles would no longer be required to have a front plate. Another change would be to do away with so-called “support plates,” the different plates that advertise different charities or interests, and are issued by counties. Instead, space would remain on the plate for decals those organizations could issue themselves, taking the work out of the hands of county governments. Third, a decal would have to be on the license plate displaying proof of insurance.

Another bill would create a civil offense for adults who serve alcohol to minors, and Barkus will introduce a bill creating criminal penalties for damage by tenants to rental properties that exceeds ten times the amount of the monthly rent.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell

Taking on one of the biggest issues in the state, Tutvedt has drafted a joint resolution to support delisting of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies, and to bring management of the predator under state control. The bill would also give the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks a mandate to “vigorously defend” the Legislature’s decision, should it pass.

Another bill would require cities that annex part of a rural fire district to take on the debt for new equipment as well as the bonded debt. And a bill defining property rights in state statute could also prove controversial for Tutvedt.

Rep. Dee Brown, R-Columbia Falls

Brown is carrying a bill to more clearly specify, for purposes of workers’ compensation, what types of injuries are and aren’t work-related. She has also drafted what she calls the Montana Recreation Safety Act, which would let participants in guided activities, like fishing or horseback riding, assume more risk for those activities, thus lowering liability premiums for those small recreation-based businesses. Another bill would make the $4 fee on license plates for state parks one citizens would opt to pay, instead of the current arrangement, where citizens must voluntarily opt out of paying the fee.

OTHERS

Republican Reps. Mark Blasdel of Somers and Jon Sonju of Kalispell may not carry major legislation, but plan to focus on ensuring property tax reappraisal doesn’t unduly burden Flathead County residents. Sonju opposes Schweitzer’s plans to beef up staffing at the Department of Revenue to increase tax compliance by businesses. And Sonju will carry a bill to rename U.S. Highway 2 through Evergreen after David Graham, the Highway Patrol trooper killed there in a 2007 accident.

Freshman Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, has a bill to change the number of “pupil instruction-related” days in the Montana school calendar, and freshman Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, is working on a bill to take revenues from new energy development and put it into a building fund for schools. Rep. Bill Beck, R-Whitefish, has a bill to increase the population requirements for cities with resort taxes, and a bill to deposit a portion of oil and gas taxes in the older Montanans’ trust fund.

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