By Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce,
UM Legislative News Service, University of Montana School of Journalism
HELENA — The House of Representatives passed a bill last week that calls for studying Montana’s tax structure in the face of quickly shifting economics and demographics.
Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, is carrying House Joint Resolution 35, which would ask the Legislature to create an interim revenue and transportation committee to conduct the study. It would also include a subcommittee of non-legislative members, like business owners or tax experts. The bill passed the House on a 94-3 vote Friday.
“It’s going to be a big undertaking,” Redfield said of the study.
Montana doesn’t have a sales tax, and state revenue largely relies on property taxes. The state has also built a huge savings account through a tax on coal, but three of the state’s coal-fired power plants are slated to close in the next few of years.
In addition to those changes, Redfield said the study needs to focus on how population and demographic changes have affected tax policy.
Proposals to implement statewide or local-option sales taxes have been voted down this session. In an interview last week, Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said he thinks it’s unlikely voters will support these ideas.
A wide variety of proponents voiced support for the study resolution in a Tuesday House Taxation Committee hearing. Representatives from the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, the Montana League of Cities and Towns, the Montana Budget and Policy Center and the Montana Taxpayers Association all support the proposal.
The latter two organizations are usually at odds, but everyone seems to agree the tax structure needs work. Bob Story, executive director of the taxpayers association, said he thinks the property tax structure is collapsing.
“A good study will at least move us down the road dealing with some of these issues,” Story said.
Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, pointed out during the hearing that many people often support study bills because everyone wants “a bite out of the apple,” wanting tax burdens shifted from the themselves onto someone else. Because of this, he stressed, the composition of the interim committee and subcommittee will need to be balanced in terms of background and ideology.
Bill would fine hunters for abusing animal location data
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has exact, real-time location data of some animals, like sage grouse or bears.
“Lots of hunters have contacted the department and asked them for that exact coordinate location so that they could improve their hunting ability,” said Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-Helena when she was introducing Senate Bill 349 in the Senate last month.
SB 349 would make it illegal for hunters to abuse tracking data. It passed out of the Senate with a vote of 27-23 last week and is scheduled for a hearing in the House.
Hunters could be fined up to $1,000, serve up to six months jail time and lose hunting licenses for using exact location data to track and harass or kill animals under the proposed law.
FWP Director Martha Williams spoke in support of the bill during its public hearing in March. She said the department receives many requests asking for location, but that information often becomes detrimental to the animals and their habitat.
“This bill serves to protect fair chase hunting, ethical hunting, fishing and trapping standards that the Montana public has come to expect,” Williams said.
The bill was amended while it was in committee, removing language that would have allowed FWP to deny data requests. Now, the bill would still allow people to make requests, but penalize them for abusing the information.
Bill to prohibit local gun ordinances passes
The Montana Legislature passed two bills last week to revise gun laws and weaken local governments’ authority to implement municipal gun ordinances.
House Bill 325, which passed the Senate last week 29-20 after passing the House in February 57-42, would prohibit local governments from regulating where people can carry concealed weapons to “prevent a patchwork of restrictions … across the state.”
Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, introduced both HB 325 and House Bill 357, which are essentially the same bill. If the governor vetoes HB 325, HB 357 would make the policy a referendum for voters to decide on, which the governor cannot veto.
The City of Missoula passed its own gun ordinance in 2016 to require background checks on all gun sales. It was stalled in court after Attorney General Tim Fox argued the policy was unconstitutional. In October, a state judge disagreed with Fox and upheld the ordinance.
When HB 325 was debated on the Senate floor, Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, spoke in support of the measure.
“We can’t have a disarray of having a gun here and not having a gun there, because then nobody knows what’s going on,” Hinebauch said.
Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, argued that the state trusts local governments to make local ordinances about other safety issues, like banning the use of a cell phone while driving.
“Certain restrictions in certain places are appropriate,” Sands said.
Hanna’s Act, focused on missing persons cases, revived
A bill aimed at streamlining reports of missing persons was revived in the Senate last week after it was voted down in committee.
House Bill 21, known as Hanna’s Act, passed the House 99-0 in February, but was tabled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which generally signifies a bill is dead. But after more consideration and amendments, the committee voted to move the bill to the full Senate for debate, where it passed 42-6.
However, it was then referred to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, meaning it has more hoops to jump through before it’s in the clear.
Hanna’s Act is named after Hanna Harris, a young woman from Lame Deer who was killed in 2013 on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The bill is in response to a high number of missing and murdered indigenous women.
When the bill was debated on the Senate floor, Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, spoke in support and said native women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average.
“This came about because there was no response to what was happening on Indian reservations, especially when it came to Indian women,” Webber said.
Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula said one of the biggest challenges of the missing and murdered indigenous women issue is the slow response time. She said part of the challenge is that tribal, state and federal law enforcement all have different jurisdictions, and haven’t been communicating.
“It will really work across all jurisdictions,” Sands said.
HB 21 would create a specialized position in the Montana Department of Justice to coordinate efforts on missing persons cases. Originally, the bill would have mandated the position be created, but after amendments, now it makes it optional for the DOJ. It was also stripped of state funding before it moved out of the House.