Letters From Your Lawmakers

By Beacon Staff

Flathead Valley lawmakers continue to write home from Helena during the 2009 Legislative Session. Here’s letters from a pair of Whitefish Republican lawmakers:

It was the Primary Seatbelt Bill that drew the largest and most emotionally charged testimony to the Capital this week. Senate Bill 237, sponsored by Senator Dave Lewis (R) from Helena, would have made not wearing a seatbelt a primary offense. Even though the bill was ultimately defeated by a split vote, support and opposition for the bill was spirited from both sides of the isle. It seems like few issues in Helena are as simple as they first appear and the issue of the seat belt is no exemption.

Since 1988, the law in Montana states that drivers and passengers must wear a seatbelt. The catch is, however, is that law enforcement officers cannot stop any driver for failing to wear a seatbelt unless that driver violates another offense. Failing to wear a seatbelt is what is called a secondary offense, or as I like to refer it as a “mini-law.” A State Trooper can observe a driver or passenger violating the law but does not have the authority to do anything about it. Up front, I have to say I have never been comfortable with the idea of having any law that can be flagrantly ignored. Senate Bill 237, proposed to change the law by making it a primary offense and allow enforcement of wearing seatbelts.

Opponents of the bill pointed to personal responsibility, freedom of choice, and the passage of a primary seat belt law would simply move Montana closer to a “Nanny State.” In general, those in rural districts were more inclined to oppose the bill and those living in more urban areas tended to favor passage. Once again, the debate highlighted a growing division within our state between the growing urban centers and the declining rural areas.

I thought the most compelling augment against the bill came from Senator Steward-Peregoy (D), from Crow Agency. Senator Steward-Peregoy offered personal testimony of being racial profiled while driving on Montana’s highways. She argued that the passage of Senate Bill 237 would give one more excuse for law enforcement to stop law abiding Native Americans. Senator Windy Boy (D) from Rocky Boy agreed and rose in opposition to the bill. The dissenting vote among the Native American legislators was Senator Carol Juneau (D) from Browning who argued in favor of the bill for the reason that it would serve to protect children.

Arguments for Senate Bill 237 echoed those heard in earlier committee hearings that had filled the Old Supreme Court room in the Capital. Impassioned supporting augments that greater enforcement of seat belts would save lives, reduce the taxpayer burden from medical services, lower insurance premiums, and create safer highways were all brought forth on the Senate floor. On the second reading, one Senator supporting the bill perhaps let his emotions get the better of him and his remarks drifted dangerously towards violating Senate rules by singuling out those Senators who opposed the bill. The Senate rules state that one should argue the merits of the bill and personality should be kept out of the discussion. In this case, even though good Senator later apologized, it may have eroded his position and adversely affected the final outcome. The final role call was 25-25 and on split decisions, the bill fails to pass the Senate

As a matter of record, I voted in favor of Senate Bill 23 and believe that wearing a seatbelt is in the best interest of Montana. I read hundreds of e-mails in support of the bill and was glad to receive a personal message from my good friend and a former State Senator, Bob DePratu. I am working on a compromise bill that would at least protect children and minors and believe it will receive a favorable reception.

For more information on current bills, hearing dates, and how to contact your local legislator, you will be able find information by using the State of Montana official website found at http://mt.gov or http://leg.mt.gov.

Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish

The Legislature is getting more interesting each week. We took steps that will, hopefully, provide a steady hand to get Montana through these tough times. Keeping the process accountable and important progress towards building a better future were top priorities.

Keeping a close watch on bills requesting general fund monies is a constant urgency. The latest projection of state revenue for the next three years forecasts $31 million less than predicted last month. That brings to $251 million the total amount that has been reduced from the state’s estimated general-fund revenue set by an interim legislative committee in mid-November. With these reductions, it leaves an estimated $4.5 billion in total projected state general-fund revenue for fiscal 2009, 2010, and 2011 combined.

The House Taxation Committee will be forced to reduce the official revenue possibly by similar amounts ($31 million) by next week. It will also require legislative budget committees to cut even deeper into planned increases in state agency budgets. It’s very simple, folks. You can’t spend what you don’t have.

The stimulus package continues to get a lot of attention, especially about how the legislature will deal with any federal funds that come to Montana. There’s too much pork and politics in it. It’s not going to solve the state’s budget problems – in fact it’s going to put pressure on the legislature to grow government even further in the future. Washington isn’t asking our opinion, they’re just doing it. This is what we can do to build a better future. Stimulus money is to be spent on real projects that will make a long-term difference in our economy. That’s why we want the legislature to appropriate the money and a general public commission to provide oversight. We want all stimulus spending to be accountable to the people of Montana.

The Business and Labor Committee, which I sub-chair, is beginning to hear more and more bills as we get close to transmittal. So far, we have been able to table the majority of new bills with substantial amounts of money attached. Like I said, we still do not have a firm handle on the state’s projected revenue receipts for the up-coming biennium. The House Appropriations Committee has tabled a considerable number of bills for the same reasons in anticipation of future revenue estimates and stimulus in-put.

Interesting note, House Bill 358, by Speaker Bob Bergren, would make it unlawful for elected officials to hand out bonuses to their appointed staffs as they exit office. Also, a bill will be presented requiring the Montana Department of Revenue to post on its website the number of employees and their job descriptions, the performance measures used to evaluate goals and objectives, changes to administrative rules, the methods used to calculate taxable value, and other information.

In conclusion, there’s a lot more work to accomplish and the days are going to get longer and longer. But if the legislature continues to work together, the state of Montana WILL survive the economic crisis by being fiscally responsible and putting the people of this great state first.

Thanks for listening,

Rep. Bill Beck, R-Whitefish

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