Legislative update

   Boy, is it good to be back home! After four months in Helena with hundreds of meetings and hearings, this ranch sure is like an old friend!

By Sen. Matt Rosendale

   While the legislature was able to accomplish some good work, unfortunately, some of it has already been undone by the governor. For example, we were able to extend the “Insure Montana” program which helped over 1700 small businesses and 6100 individuals throughout the state purchase health insurance without resorting to Obamacare. This was truly a “Made in Montana” solution which private firms have utilized for many years. The legislature overwhelmingly passed SB 99 which would have extended the program for two years. Unfortunately, the governor vetoed that bill in an attempt to force those same businesses on to the federal exchange and Obamacare.

   Recognizing that health care costs are a huge part of everyone’s budget, including the state, the legislature passed several pieces of legislation which directly targeted those costs. We passed a multi-state compact which recognizes nursing certifications in our region This allows folks who are certified in one state to practice in the others. I had a bill pass handily (SB 149) which would have allowed primary care providers, physicians, PAs, optometrists, and others to offer a menu of services for a specific cost to individuals who wanted to pay direct. Those individuals could arrange for a monthly or annual fee dependent upon what the primary care provider established. Unfortunately, this bill, too, ended up on the governor’s stack of good legislation which was vetoed.

   Another victory for the people of Montana was the passage of the state pay plan. The legislature passed a pay plan that treats state employees fairly and forces the state to address the escalating health care cost. The Schweitzer administration found a way to spend money when the legislature wasn’t in town. He unilaterally opened several health clinics for state employees. The clinics are 100 percent free to state employees. That is great if you live near one and are a state employee. Not so great if you don’t live near one or can’t use it but are paying for it like the balance of the state taxpayers. This has contributed to a situation where the health care reserve account for state employees is losing revenue at a rate which will cause it to have a negative balance within 12 months. As part of the pay plan approval, the state will be required to implement health care cost savings measures which will include looking at co-pays at the clinics and referenced based pricing for other facilities. These measures will protect both state and non-state workers by controlling health care costs and assuring access to health care facilities across the state.

   We passed funding for our schools early in the session so the districts were able to prepare budgets in a timely fashion. In the past, approval for education funding has been delayed until late in the session. Whether this has been intentional or not, I don’t know. It has created a scenario where education funding had become a point of unnecessary negotiation and contention. This problem has been eliminated.

   The legislature passed several bills which would have provided tax relief to our citizens through reduced income tax. The first bill, HB 166, was vetoed by the governor early. Governor Bullock claimed it wasn’t fair to the middle income earners and was presented too early to determine how it would impact the balance of the budget. Later on we passed SB 200 which directed the bulk of $50 million in relief directly at the middle income earners. This, too, was vetoed. Simply put, our governor will not support tax relief.

   He will support tax increases. With the state projecting another ending fund balance of over $300 million, Governor Bullock signed SB 157 which provides for a two year re-appraisal schedule for agricultural and residential property taxes. Instead of the six year phase that was in place, now you will have two years to adjust to the new rate. The legislation is expected to generate an additional $10 million a year in revenue for the state. Much of that will come from eastern Montana where the property values are increasing at a higher rate than the balance of the state. This legislation will require an additional 12 employees as well to turn the work around in a timely fashion. I fail to see the benefit and feel it adds insult to injury to our area which will pay higher taxes at a time when the governor refuses to allow us to retain some of the oil and gas revenue we currently produce for basic improvements.

   I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the infrastructure situation in our region. Several pieces of legislation were proposed to address infrastructure in eastern Montana and the balance of the state. Many meetings were organized and discussions held in an attempt to devise a plan which could gain support from both the legislature and the governor. Once again the governor exercised his “my way or the highway” mentality and would not support these much needed investments. The final version of his infrastructure bill had little in it for eastern Montana. Any communities, such as Glendive and Culbertson, which had already begun critical projects, would not even be eligible for assistance. Water, sewer and road projects would be limited to $2.5 million per project and $5 million per county. Those vital infrastructure funds would be distributed on a grant and loan basis after appropriate requests had been made through the Dept. of Commerce. The governor, however, earmarked several pet projects that would not be subject to any of the other criteria. MSU Bozeman was in line to receive $20 plus million for renovations to Romney Hall. Helena was earmarked to receive $30 million for a museum and UM in Missoula was guaranteed $10 million for the Clapp Science Building. There were several more projects listed for preferential treatment by the governor, none pertaining to water and sewer facilities. While those projects are important, I do not feel they are as urgent as adequate water and sewer facilities across our state. Additionally, many of those projects could, and should, be funded by private sources.

   Lastly, I have been in close contact with the owners of Bridger Pipeline and have an update on the pipe replacement and clean-up of the Yellowstone River after the pipe fracture this winter. They have replaced approximately one mile of pipeline, roughly 2700 feet of which was directionally bored. This replaces everything which was located between the two block valves which isolate the segment of the pipe that travels beneath the river. The new pipe is one-half inch wall thickness and is buried approximately 40 feet beneath the bed of the river. The pipe has been pressure tested and was monitored during initial startup by personnel at key points and aerial surveillance. Crude is now flowing again. There remains some cleanup operations around the construction sites, and Bridger remains committed to completing those tasks as well as any remaining mitigation that is necessary on the Yellowstone River as they work closely with the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality.

   Living in Montana surrounded by the agricultural industry is a blessing. Our citizens have a firm connection to the land, a strong desire to help each other, and an absolutely positive belief that next year will be better! We may have only made small strides, but I believe we did move forward. With your help and support, next session will surely be better. Please continue to send your questions and comments to me during the interim at: mattrosendale@midrivers.com or 406-687-3549.