Legislative Outlook: Surveying State and Federal Priorities

U.S. Chamber rep says business climate uncertain under Trump administration; state GOP prepares for budget showdown with Bullock

By Dillon Tabish
Montana State Capitol building. Beacon file photo

The nation’s biggest business lobbying organization is “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects of the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, though the next president himself will be “the wild card,” according to an official with the organization.

Chris Eyler, executive director of the Northwest region for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican Congress will begin tackling several significant issues next month, including the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, immigration and infrastructure spending. The 115th Congress will convene Jan. 3, and Trump will assume the role of president on Jan. 20.

“Republicans are going to move early and aggressively,” Eyler said.

Eyler, who spoke at last week’s Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon, said the U.S. Chamber is confident that its relationship with Republican leaders will help devise “pro-business” policies and eliminate “anti-business regulations.” But how Trump will approach several key issues, including international trade deals, remains largely unknown.

“(Trump) said a lot of things in the campaign that could be construed as anti- and pro-business. It’s anyone’s guess,” Eyler said.

Among the key issues that impact Montana, infrastructure spending and international trade are likely to intensify as prominent topics of debate in 2017. Montana receives 87 percent of its highway and bridge funding from the federal government. Trump has continued to tout massive infrastructure investment as a signature policy proposal, yet conservatives are wavering over how to pay for the nation’s massive needs without raising taxes.

Eyler said the federal fuel tax, which collects 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and is the primary source of infrastructure funding, is “not keeping up with the needs.”

“We would like to see a more reliable and stable funding mechanism,” he said, adding the Chamber supports increasing the fuel tax.

Trump has also excoriated overseas trade policies, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump has expressed support for increasing tariffs on foreign trade, which could have enormous ripple effects.

Eyler said the U.S. Chamber remains very supportive of the trade agreements and raised concerns about the impacts of reduced foreign exports on states like Montana, which annually exports $1.4 billion in goods and services.

“Trade agreements open the playing field,” he said. “We see international trade as the best way to grow the economy. We need to sell goods to 95 percent of customers who live outside our borders.”

Eyler said the Chamber will continue to work with Congress and the Trump administration to protect foreign trade agreements, but “in all honesty, it’s hard to say where this is going to go.”

“A lot of Trump’s policies are not hashed out yet. We are in a state where we have a lot more questions than answers,” he said.

Uncertainty also surrounds the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which Trump and Republican leaders have continuously sworn they would repeal. Deleting the national health care law, which was established in 2010, would be complicated, impacting the nearly 30 million people who are covered under the law. The nation’s uninsured rate is historically low at 11.9 percent of Americans ages 18-64. Though aspects of the law are unpopular, others have been widely praised, including protections for those with pre-existing medical problems and keeping children under age 26 on family plans.

The U.S. Chamber opposed the initial enactment of Obamacare, but since then, “We’ve taken the position that it’s best to fix it and make it work better,” Eyler said.

“Right now, what’s being proposed as a replacement is not very comprehensive. We’re waiting to see what Trump and the Congressional committee proposes before we take a position,” he said.

Entitlement programs, such as Social Security, must be addressed because they are “simply unsustainable,” according to Eyler.

Democrats will have some ability to block any changes through filibustering, which is an obstructive tactic used in the Senate to prevent measures from being brought to a vote.

“The Democrats, for their part, are not going to sit on the sidelines and allow Republicans to do what they want,” Eyler said.

The U.S. Chamber is also pushing back against several regulations that are “anti-business,” such as the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States Rule and the federal overtime rule.

The Clean Power Plan is a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s efforts to combat climate change. It requires every state to significantly reduce its carbon emissions. Coal-producing states would be hit especially hard, including Montana, which holds about 25 percent of the nation’s recoverable coal reserves. In order for the state to comply with the new rules, it is possible the Colstrip Steam Electric Station and associated mine would be shuttered.

The Waters of the United States Rule is a directive that would expand the list of rivers, streams and lakes that fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency. Proponents of the rule say it protects vital water sources across the U.S. and ensures that polluters who knowingly threaten these resources can be held accountable. Opponents, including the American Farm Bureau, say it would hurt rural areas, such as Montana, with large agriculture sectors.

A federal judge in Texas has placed a preliminary injunction on a new overtime rule that would have made an estimated 4 million Americans eligible for overtime pay. The rule would effectively double the salary threshold for workers to qualify for overtime. The Kalispell and U.S. chambers opposed the rule, opting to support a bill with similar goals but with incremental increases.

Sen. Mark Blasdel talks to Rep. Mark Noland during the 64th Montana Legislative Session in Helena on April 23, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Sen. Mark Blasdel talks to Rep. Mark Noland during the 64th Montana Legislative Session in Helena on April 23, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

STATE LEGISLATURE OUTLOOK

The 65th Legislature will convene in Helena on Jan. 2, marking the beginning of a 90-day period when state lawmakers hash out a budget and tackle other policy proposals.

Republicans across the state enjoyed a collective success this election, though they fell short of retaking the governor’s office as Steve Bullock held off GOP challenger Greg Gianforte.

Mark Blasdel, a GOP state senator from Somers and the majority whip this session, said Republicans will not have the power to drive through their agenda this session due to Bullock’s ability to veto bills.

“At the end of the day, we will have to work with the governor and come across solutions for Montana,” Blasdel said.

Blasdel said the state’s Republican party seems more unified than in the past and will work together to develop a strong agenda.

“We will try to regain some of the power we’ve usurped in the past and try to speak with more of a solid voice,” he told the Beacon.

“I’ve seen a lot of efforts in the two caucuses to try to work together and mend some fences and come up with a real pro-business, job-creating, less-regulating agenda we can move forward.”

The state budget appears to be the most contentious topic on the horizon. The governor’s proposed budget would increase spending by 1.4 percent over two years. The plan would cut state spending by nearly $8.8 million the first year, with impacts in several agencies, including the Montana Highway Patrol, which would lose 27 jobs. Spending would increase $44 million the second year. The fluctuations are due to lower-than-expected revenues from tax collections. People with an income over $500,000 a year would be taxed at a 7.9 percent rate instead of 6.9 percent. Bullock is proposing to spend $292 million on infrastructure, $157 million of which would come from bonds.

Blasdel characterized Bullock’s budget proposals as “politically charged and filled with political potholes and gimmicks.”

“It’s a house of cards,” he said.

“It ain’t going to happen,” he added.

Under the budget proposal, Blasdel said funding for community colleges would decrease by $1.7 million, hurting institutions such as Flathead Valley Community College.

“It’s going to take a lot of leadership and vision (to address the budget debate),” Blasdel said. “I’m excited to be a part of that.”

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