May 1, 2013
We still donít know all the final details in the $10 billion budget. There are several bills still on the governorís desk. Some of them spend a lot of money, so they may get vetoed.
The latest balance sheet still has all the spending bills listed, so the bottom line looks bad: negative $7.2 million for fiscal year 2014 and negative $20.9 million for 2015.
At the end of the session, the governor negotiated $13.5 more spending in the big budget bill. Many of us wanted to see some of the surplus returned to the taxpayers.
There are two tax bills still waiting on the governor. One bill, SB 282, simplifies Montana taxes, making our tax forms more like the federal tax forms. We had dozens of credits and exemptions. Pension, annuity and interest credits still are there for seniors. SB 282 also lowers our top tax bracket to 6 percent from 6.9 percent.
These changes are expected to save a lot of Department of Revenue staff time and the CPA Association said it will make filing Montana taxes much simpler.
The other tax reform is SB 96, to lower the business equipment taxes. I believe that the first $100,000 in equipment will be exempt, and then there is a 1.5-percent tax up to $3 million and 3 percent after that. This should help almost all of our small businesses and farmers and ranchers. Important to Lake County, there is a payback for any lost revenue. This change will help Montana attract businesses but most of our neighbors do not have equipment taxes.
I am very disappointed that the property tax bill did not pass. We worked for many weeks to get the two-year cycle perfected. Some agricultural landowners wanted to remain on the six-year plan. This time real estate values have still not fully recovered, so the six-year appraisals will benefit most of us.
If the governor doesnít veto or sign a bill, it will become law without his signature. Governor Bullock said that he would let the bill to require parental approval for a minor to obtain an abortion become law because he expects a lawsuit.
So in Montana, a minor needs parental approval for body piercing or tattoos, but not for an abortion. Doesnít seem logical. Of course, there is a judicial override if a minor must avoid her parents.
The pension reform bills had a reduction in the yearly guaranteed benefit increase. Hereís another lawsuit. Employee benefits are contractual. But some cities and counties have been able to reduce benefit packages as part of bankruptcy. Because of our balanced budget requirement, Montana is a long way from that problem. Still, the unfunded liability is $4.2 billion.
It is great to be home. Iím watching the final disposition of bills and waiting for interim committee assignments. Looks like Iíll be on revenue and transportation as well as one or two other committees.
Iíd like to thank everyone for the comments and opinions throughout the session. You can reach me on my cell at (406) 253-8766 or my email at email@example.com. Remember that I work for you during the interim as well as the session.
April 24, 2013
Last session at about this same time, I wrote about the disappearing surplus. Well, this session itís the same. Four months ago, we were looking at a $458 million surplus. Now it is gone.
I am writing this a few days before you are reading, so I canít tell you all the results. It is not unusual for everything to happen at the end of a session. In fact, often the budget gets decided on the last day.
Also, the governor has 10 days to decide if he should sign, veto, amend, or just let a bill go into law. We have agreed with many of his amendments, but have to wait for his actions on several critical bills.
For the next two years, the state budget is $9 billion. Of that, nearly $4 billion is federal money. Federal sequestration has only removed $2.5 million in royalty payments to Montana so far, but I donít like the reliance on federal dollars.
Looks like the pay plan will be about $114 million. The executive branch will decide how the money is to be allotted. The legislature has asked that the lower pay levels receive the largest increase, but the governor will have to negotiate with the unions.
A percentage increase always benefits the higher salary employees. For example, the Commissioner of Higher Education earns about $265,000 per year. His 5 percent increase is $13,250, while someone earning $30,000 a year would receive $1,500.
We have many hardworking state employees. I hope everyone can get a raise in salary. Over the years that unions claim to have no increases, healthcare benefits have risen more than $3,000 per year for state employees.
The loser in the entire budget process is the taxpayer, both individual and business. There are still a couple of tax relief bills alive, income tax and personal business equipment, but there may not be enough money left. The governor may veto those.
It looks like the Medicaid expansion bill died in the House. We had a reform plan, but that didnít make it, as well. There are pension bills, both for the public employees and the teachersí retirement plans. They include a reduction in the guaranteed increase in retirement. We will have to pay for that lawsuit.
There was a very innovative funding method that surprised me. Everyone is worried about fires this coming year, so we passed a bill that any corporate tax that comes in higher than estimated, will go to a fire suppression fund. Many of us intentionally want to keep the estimates low. So we expect to see the corporate tax dollars increase. Good use of the money, but not good method of budgeting.
I received dozens of emails asking me not to vote for an extension of the water compact between the feds, state and CSKT because it included a legislative study. That is the only way to get the necessary information to legislators from across the state. I hope negotiations can be reopened, because I do not believe that a lawsuit would benefit anyone.
Next week I can all give you a true legislative wrap-up. Until then continue to leave me a message at (406) 444-4800. My cell is (406) 253-8766 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember that I work for you.
April 17, 2013
Of course the big deal last week was House Bill 2, the state budget. It is not easy to vote for $9 billion. I donít think that anyone really likes the budget. As always, there are winners and losers. And no one gets everything they want.
We started on Saturday at 9 a.m. and never stopped until 6 p.m. At the end, I voted against HB 2. In my time here in Helena, I have voted for and against this funding bill. I have seen state government increase more than $2 billion, too much, while our population has not increased.
Total payroll for state employees increased about $30 million (5.08 percent) during the last two years. Over half of the state employees did receive raises, and everyone has received increases in benefits over the last few years.
I have received hundreds of emails from state employees asking for a 5-percent raise in each of the next two years. The emails are forms sent out by the union and have the line: ďErase this line and put in your own story.Ē Many senders forgot to do this, but the worst part was the employees that used their government computer and Internet during work hours to send these messages to every legislator. Montanaís state government Internet address is mt.gov, and I received lots with this return address.
Each agency can give raises on longevity, new job description or broadband comparison. I have written about the broadband pay system several times. Our pay scales are compared with those of the private sector and the pay in other states.
Also last week we voted on House Bill 391 sponsored by Rep. Jerry Bennett (R-Libby). HB 391 will require parental consent for an abortion provider to perform an abortion on a female under the age of 18.
The laws of Montana require parental consent for a minor to get a tattoo and also parental permission for any body piercing. Only makes sense to require parental permission for an abortion. There is the judicial override if a minor cannot tell her parents for some reason.
Referendum 120 passed last year and required parental notification, not consent. This referendum passed with over 70 percent of the vote. For that reason, many of us voted for Rep. Bennettís bill, and it passed the Senate 30-20 and the House 59-41.
Hereís the real question Ė will Governor Bullock agree? The governor has only vetoed 13 bills so far. Of the 166 bills that have made it into law, the governor has signed 159 and let seven just become law without his signature.
Governor Bullock has sent back another eight bills with his amendments. Some of these we agree with, and some we donít. Time will tell if those bills will get vetoed eventually.
The end of the session is always the most stressful. Continue to leave me a message at (406) 444-4800; my cell is (406) 253-8766, and my email is email@example.com. Never forget that I work for you.