The CSKT water compact passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last Friday. SB 262 will heard on the Senate floor Tuesday. Final Senate reading on Wednesday.
Then that bill will go to the House along with all the other bills that have passed the senate. The coming weekend is our four day transmittal break. It sure will be good to get home.
Working on the budget is still my favorite thing to do around here. I worked on the General Government Section of HB 2, the state budget bill. We reviewed the new proposals for many departments; Administration, Revenue, Commerce, Labor & Industry, Military Affairs, Governor's Office, Legislative Branch and the Commissioner of Political Practices.
You may remember how this works. The governor presents the increases he wishes in all the agencies I listed above. We approve or disapprove these requests. Yes, we can dig deeper and ask for specific base spending and we often do so.
We made our analysis more difficult this session because we started with the legislative appropriated 2015 spending rather than what was actually spent, although we did approve longevity pay increases, inflation and the healthcare increases.
The sub-committees get through the budget in about 40 days. Then the full House looks at each section. They can add or subtract in amendments. When the House passes HB 2, the Senate has the same chance to amend. At the very end, each house approves or disapproves these amendments. The largest increase will be in Section B, Health and Human Services, even before medicaid expansion. I doubt we can hold their increases to 7% in each of the next two years.
My sub-committee did make a couple major changes. Cut the Governor's airplane. The plane costs $1650 an hour to fly, and that amount includes the one and a half pilots. The full time pilot earns $98,666 per year and the part-time earns $37,274.
Our review showed that of the 149 flights last year, 62 flights carrying the governor were less than one hour long. With warm up time, it is nearly as fast and much less expensive to drive to Butte, Great Falls or Missoula from Helena. Add 10 short maintenance fights and nearly half of the flights were under one hour.
The rest of the airplane use was 16% for other government personnel, 4% that could have been commercial (Seattle, Salt Lake) and 32% were flights between 1 and 3 hours, the largest number to Billings.
Yes, we have a big state. But it would save money to rent a plane whenever it was needed. This has been called partisan, but I watch every tax dollar regardless of who is the spender.
Speaking about being partisan, it is my experience that the democrats on the sub-committee vote to approve every increase proposed by the governor. I do believe that we need to support our party but their loyalty is unvarying. I remember republicans in budget disagreements with Governor Racicot and Governor Martz.
Your state government rents a lot of space especially in Helena. We are not happy with some of the rent increases. The Department of Revenue pays for downtown Helena parking for their employees. The last number I saw was $64,000 per year!
Did you know that there are form emails and postcards just like form letters? I received hundreds of emails about an Article V Constitutional Convention of states before I figured out how to block them. Many from out of state! I still read every local comment and I will still try to answer as many as I can.
If you are free on Friday evening, join Representatives Hertz and Salomon and myself at the North Lake County Library in Polson. And keep emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave me a message at 406-444-4800. My cell is 253-8766, but it usually off. Remember I work for you.
Over the last month I have made notes about dozens of things I should write about in an article. This pile is so deep that I'm going to start here. Next week I will write about Medicaid expansion. I have received lots of comments pro and con about Medicaid.
Montana has more veterans per population than any other state. And Native Americans have an even higher percentage of veterans per population. Thank you to all who serve and have served. Our unemployment numbers are down (Montana unemployment 4.2% and the US 5.6%), but the unemployment rate for veterans in Montana is 12.3%. Too high.
The Montana county with the highest unemployment is Lincoln with 11.5%. Lake County employment is 6.1% and Flathead is 6.2%. The lowest unemployment is the far northeast, the oil production area; Fallon County 1.7% and Richland County 1.8% unemployment.
You can follow the progress of bills on leg.mt.gov and here are few you might find interesting:
**Abolishing the death penalty is back again, HB 370 (Moore R, Missoula). As in previous years, I will honor our former State Senator Ethel Harding, the mother of a murder victim and speak against this bill. Senator Harding was in favor of the death penalty but only for pre-meditated murders.
**Beer wars are the name given to HB 336 (also Moore) and HB 326 (Noonan D, Ramsay). As always, follow the money. A brewing license cost $500. And a beer and spirit license is sold in a lottery by population in an area and often costs in the six figures. The issue is how much beer a brewery can sell and what hours.
**Raising the state share of the gas tax 5 cents per gallon (HB 275, Wilson D, Missoula) failed in a house committee. Let's hope the feds don't decide to raise their share.
**As always, physician assisted suicide is up again this week. Two bills. SB 202 (Barrett D, Missoula) grants immunity to physicians who provide end of life suicide care. The other bill, HB 328 (Tschida R, Missoula) provides that consent to a physician is not a defense to a charge of homicide. But once again, follow the money. Last session, Compassion and Choices Montana spent a lot of money. I heard they spent half a million dollars, but I'll have to get back to you on that.
**The water compact between the state, the feds and the CSKT will be in Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, February 16. Lots of money being spent and it is difficult to follow the money. I have seen tribal minutes where giving former Congressman Denny Rehberg and Helena lobbyist Mark Baker $800,000. I do not know the dollar amount spent on the advertising campaign.
It is difficult to get the money out of politics. Our governor just signed a bill against "dark money." He is the chairman of the National Democrat Governors Association and just like the Republican Governors Association; they receive lots of corporate money. Like everything else, if money is spent for an issue you favor, it is OK, and it isn't if you are against.
I would like to thank everyone for the comments. I read every one and respond to as many as I can. Compassion & Choices has sent each legislator about 10 high gloss postcards, each one different, supporting physician assisted suicide. But those do not matter as much as the phone calls and emails from the people of our area. And so far, I have received only two out of the hundreds that have been malicious, but the phone operators do filter a bit!
Leave me a message at 406-444-4800. My cell is 253-8766 but it is usually off. Email me at email@example.com. Remember that I work for you.
So much is happening so fast here in Helena. How about raising the gas tax 5 cents? Right now the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon and the state adds 27 cents more. This bill is sponsored by Representative Nancy Wilson (D, Missoula) but I doubt that it will pass out of House Transportation Committee.
Federal Highway money is a worry. We use our share of the gas tax to leverage federal funds. Of every dollar that we spend on roads, 86 cents comes from the feds. There is a debate in D.C. to raise their gas tax and even talk about charging per mile instead of per gallon. Oregon had a charge-per-mile test program that they did not continue.
Speaking of taxes, Senator Bruce Tutvedt (R, Kalispell) has a great bill to streamline Montana taxes. Right now we have 50 additions or subtractions, detailed in the 48 page Montana income tax booklet. Our income taxes would start with your federal taxable income and there would only be a one page tax form.
The CPA association was in favor of this bill. It will reduce preparation time. We call taxpayers that have increases in taxes "losers" and those that will see a decrease "winners." This simplification bill has very few losers. The biggest loser group is married taxpayers that file separately.
There are also a couple of property tax bills in the works. Should the six year reappraisal cycle be shortened to two years? Last time the six year cycle kept values high in the descending market. This time a six year cycle will probably do the exact opposite; keep appraisal values lower as the market increase.
I have to keep reminding everyone that the appraised value of your home is not as important as the mills set by the counties. The state share of property tax is about 20% and the rest goes to the counties, cities and schools.
The county and schools need to fund their services, so the mills float to assure the same amount of money can be raised each year. And we often increase our mills by voting for school needs, library, pool and safety requests.
The governor's revenue estimate is $359 million higher than the legislative fiscal division's estimate. We heard a revenue report from UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research last week. The projected growth in 2013 and 2014 was lower than expected, 2.1% vs. 2.7%. The experts are worried about global commodity prices, oil investment, timber availability for Montana mills, etc. The largest Montana oil producer plans to cut spending 40%.
This is why I am concerned about the large revenue estimate. We need to be careful with our money. Our fiscal strength is due to the Montana constitution that requires our proposed spending to balance with our revenue estimate.
That brings up HB 5, the governor's infrastructure bill. Once again I call it pork-for-all but the governor calls it "build Montana." Regrettably, too much of this is bonded. The governor and his budget director both said that bonding is better than using cash. Why? Because interest rates are low on borrowed money.
Well, the cash in the bank isn't getting any high interest. Two year treasury notes yield less than .5% and 20 year treasury notes are only 2.2%. Why would we borrow $192 million? The interest payments would be $93 million total at the 4.4% interest rate projected. That is your debt.
The state chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave us a C- for infrastructure. Do you think this has anything to do with their desire for state contracts? And we've heard from other contractors and engineers that the Build Montana program is good. Seems they all want your money!
Leave me a message at 406-444-4800. My cell is 253-8766 but it is usually off. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org