Montana lawmakers tackle budget, missing persons, sexual abuse and firefighter insurance
By Shaylee Ragar,
UM Community News Service, University of Montana School of Journalism
Taxes, Rainy Day Fund On Tap for Budget Talks
While budget projections appear more secure than they were in the 2017 legislative session, long-standing rifts, particularly concerning taxes, still make the state’s two-year budget a hot topic this session.
Unlike the previous session, the Legislative Fiscal Division and the Governor’s Office have fairly close revenue estimates — about $10 billion over two years. Gov. Steve Bullock called a special session two years ago when a historic fire season and inaccurate revenue projections led to deep cuts for several agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services.
But, Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said the similarity in projections this session doesn’t necessarily mean Montana’s in the clear for revenue. He said both estimates could be off, causing the state to experience another shortfall.
This is one of the reasons Bullock has proposed keeping $300 million in a reserve, or a “rainy day fund.” If revenues decrease to $125 million, the governor is required by law to make cuts to agencies. In 2017, the Legislature allotted $200 million in reserves, which Bullock’s budget director, Tom Livers, said gave only a one percent cushion before reaching the level the governor had to make cuts. The governor wants a bigger cushion.
“It will help avoid the need for required cuts and a special session,” Livers said.
The rainy day fund will be a point of contention again because it would need to be filled with new revenue sources. Bullock has proposed new taxes on liquor, tobacco, accomodations, rental cars and an increase on the licensing fee for investment advisers.
“The one thing we have to do for predictability and for the services Montanans expect is leave money in the bank at the end,” Bullock said in an interview before the session.
The proposed tax revenues would also go to special programs Bullock is pushing for, like a statewide preschool program, which would cost $12 million. The proposed taxes would bring in roughly $160 million in total.
Republicans are not on board with new taxes.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, is chair of the House Appropriations Committee and said she’s working to come up with a balanced and fiscally conservative budget
“I’m not hearing of anybody who has an appetite to increase taxes,” Ballance said, in a press availability meeting.
The budget bill will work its way through the Legislature over the next couple of months. The appropriations committee has five subcommittees and will focus on agency funding before moving on to programs like pre-school and the reauthorization of Medicaid expansion.
Bills Seek to Streamline Missing Persons Reporting
The House of Representatives is advancing a bill that aims to make law enforcement response more efficient when it comes to missing children reports, especially between tribal and state entities.
HB 20 is sponsored by Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, and was requested by the State-Tribal Relations Committee. The bill shifts or deletes words in Montana law that seem somewhat minor. However, Peppers says the changes will have great impact.
“It is a simple bill with huge consequences,” Peppers said.
The bill, which passed a preliminary vote 100-0 in the House, would require all state, county and municipal officers to submit information about missing child reports to the missing children information program. It would also allow any law enforcement office, including tribal offices, to make file a missing persons report, no matter in which county the child went missing.
This bill is personal for Peppers.
“I have been one one of those children, I have been taken,” Peppers said on the House floor during the second reading of her bill.
Multiple proponents of the bill spoke in favor of one part that would require law enforcement to report a child missing when the custodial parent does not know the whereabouts of his or her child, even if it’s believed the non-custodial parent has taken the child. It would also require law enforcement to record biographical information from the court from all involved parties, including any suspects, in a custodial interference case.
Bryan Lockerby is an administrator for the Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation. He spoke in favor of HB 20, saying police often refer custodial interference cases to civil procedure, which takes substantially more time to process than criminal investigations.
Lockerby said he hopes the bill will “close gaps” and end “uncertainty” for law enforcement so that missing children can be found more quickly and efficiently.
Another proponent, Brandi King, Assiniboine representative for the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, asked legislators to forgive her emotions as she spoke because she was thinking of Henny Scott. The 14-year-old girl went missing from Lame Deer and was found dead on Dec. 28. King said she hopes this bill can move forward to “bridge that gap” between state and county law enforcement.
There were no opponents to the bill.
Lawmakers Agree on Workers’ Comp for Firefighters, But Not On How to Fund It
Two bills working their way through the Montana Legislature focus on workers’ compensation insurance for volunteer firefighters. However, the bills’ sponsors don’t agree on how it should be paid for.
House Bill 28, sponsored by Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, would create a tax on fireworks to help pay for workers’ compensation coverage for volunteer firefighters. Part of his reasoning for taxing fireworks is their contribution to sparking wildfires, he said.
Leonard Lundby, of the statewide Volunteer Firefighter Association, said about 2,000 Montana volunteer firefighters are uninsured. He spoke in support of the bill at a hearing on Tuesday.
“It is only meant to help the poorest of the poor fire departments,” Lundby said.
Lundby said this is a needs-based funding program, and that many fire departments already provide workers’ compensation insurance for volunteers. Others cannot afford it, he said.
Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, is carrying Senate Bill 29, which would require volunteer fire departments to carry workers’ compensation insurance. But, he opposes the fireworks tax. Thomas said rural firehouses should find ways to build workers’ comp into their budgets.
Thomas said said he usually disagrees with government mandates, but in this case, it’s necessary.
“This is so important because volunteers, firemen, really put their livelihood on the line to take care of their neighbor,” Thomas said.
The senate bill would allow fire departments three years to buy insurance. Thomas said if departments find they cannot afford the insurance, the bill could be repealed in two years.
Mike Maeder, owner of Liberty Fireworks in Great Falls, spoke against the fireworks tax. He said he thought the tax would drive consumers out-of-state to buy fireworks.
“We’re going to get kicked in the teeth, we really are,” Maeder said.
A number of fireworks retailers and wholesalers testified against the bill. Many asked why this industry was being targeted for the tax when wildfires can be caused by a slew of hazards, like cigarettes or power lines.
Lawmakers Hear Bills on Sex Crimes and Consent
Legislators have introduced a number of bills in the 2019 session revising state laws dealing with sex crimes, including one that would eliminate the statute of limitations for child sex abuse.
Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, is carrying HB 109 which would end time limits to prosecute child sex abuse cases. At a hearing for the bill in the House Judiciary Committee, 11 people spoke in support and no one voiced opposition.
One testimony came from Kristen Newby, the daughter James “Doc” Jensen, the Miles City trainer who admitted last year to sexually abusing students for years.
“He was able to get away with his crimes for a very long time because of a system that was set up to protect him more than it was set up to protect the students,” Newby said.
Thirty-seven other states have lifted the ban on the statute of limitations for these types of crimes.
Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, introduced HB 149, which would limit when a person is capable of consenting to sexual activities. Specifically, the bill addresses cases in which there is an imbalance of power.
For example, it would “infer” no consent if a witness or person under criminal investigation has sex with a law enforcement officer involved in his or her case. The bill aims to protect vulnerable people from being coerced into sexual activity with someone in power. Dudik said current law is unclear here.
Billings attorney John Heenan spoke in support of the bill. He said he represents clients who have been taken advantage in this way.
“The power imbalance is so great, it’s just impossible for someone to consent to sexual relations,” Heenan said.
Heenan said this change would shore up a loophole in Montana’s consent laws.