HB 2, the budget bill, passed out of the House last Friday on a party line vote. Democrats in the House proposed nearly a billion dollars in amendments. Every amendment was an attempt to return the budget to the governor's proposal.
Like every other governor before him, Bullock wants only his proposed budget and is threatening a veto. What part of "proposed" is hard to understand? The legislature has a right to be heard.
I should tell you right now that the power of the legislature, your voice in state government, is getting weaker. We only meet for 90 days every two years. Only 4 other states have biennial sessions. With term limits few legislators have the institutional knowledge that the agencies and the lobbyists have. The executive branch and the judiciary have become more powerful, especially in dictating how we spend money. That use to be our job. Personally, I am too old for a career in politics.
The House Republicans held the spending to about a 5.7% increase over the previous biennium. Remember that HB 2 only reduces the increase. Current spending is almost never reduced. The governor proposed an increase of 7.3% over the last biennium.
The difference is less than 2%. Pretty close. And many of us think that a 5.7% increase is too much. Montana's economy did not increase 5.7%. Did yours?
The 2 year total spending is about $10 billion. Much of our revenue (45%) comes from the feds. That money is earmarked mostly for transportation and health and human services. There is also some state money (15%) that is reserved for specific purposes, like Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
That leaves what is called general fund. The legislature approves all spending, but the general fund is where we have the most discretion. General fund comes from individual income tax 51%, 12% property tax and 7% corporate tax. The rest is vehicle, oil and gas, etc.
General fund money goes primarily for education (52%), health and human services (26%), and corrections (10%). Senator Keenan calls it; pupils, patients and prisoners.
In all of this the taxpayer's voice gets left behind. Income tax is our top funding source and the highest 20% of those taxpayers pay 70% of the tax. It looks like the governor will veto any attempt to return the surplus to the taxpayers. I hope not.
Whenever you read tax ratings among states, remember that no sales tax raises our score. One interesting measure is net migration, the number of citizens that move in or out. California and New York have each lost 1.5 million people from 2002 to 2011. Texas and Florida have each gained a million. Remember that that translates to four more congressional seats for Texas. Montana has gained 44,000 in the same time period.
It is no surprise that Texas and Florida have no income tax. Some of our neighbours also have none; South Dakota, Wyoming, Washington and Nevada. North Dakota's top tax bracket pays 4%. Ours pays 6.9%.
On another topic, Lake County is one of the four Montana counties with the highest teen pregnancy rates. The average in Montana is 32 births to teen mothers out of every 1,000 births. Lake County's statistic is 47.7 out of 1,000.
The Department of Health and Human Services proposes to work with County Health Departments, Planned Parenthood and Best Beginnings Early Childhood Coalition to provide a curriculum for middle schools. I would like to see the lesson plans for this Montana Pregnancy Prevention Program (MAPPP) because, although I am in favor of sex ed, some of the Planned Parenthood materials are pretty explicit.
Leave me a message at 406-444-4800 because my cell phone, 253-8766, is usually off. Email firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>. I am working for you.
The infrastructure bills are now being heard in the House Appropriations Committee. Representative Mike Cuffe (R, Eureka) has done a great job putting grants and loans into manageable pieces. And several items assist our area.
Polson will receive $750,000 for wastewater treatment, Hot Springs $103,000 and Whitefish $500,000. Another grant gives Polson, Hot Springs, Whitefish, Buffalo Rapids Irrigation Project, and Foys Lake $125,000. There is $500,000 for Invasive species prevention. As part of the quality schools grants, Polson elementary will receive $968,823 and Arlee $375,000 for boiler work.
These grant programs are taxpayer money given free for local needs. No repayment required. There is always a debate. Billings legislators point that they pay a huge amount of taxes and these grants primarily assist smaller areas. I believe that giving grants and bonding is a better use of state funds than loans.
The revenue estimate is still a contentious issue. The problem is the $350 million difference! The governor's staff forecast a higher growth rate for the next few years.
If the legislative estimate is correct there may be no structural balance and the governor and/or the legislature will have to make cuts. If the governor's estimate is right we may leave too much money and the executive branch can spend it. The governor and agencies seem to find ways around the requirement that only the legislature appropriate the money.
The House begins hearing HB 2, the budget bill, on Wednesday the 18th. The governor's budget is an increase of 13 or 14% over the last biennium. We have reduced the increases to around 5%. I present section A, general government, to the senate. We were able to keep our part to about 3%. Education and Health and Human Services take the most money.
We need to return some of the overtaxing to the taxpayers. SB 200 (Ankney R, Colstrip) would cost about one-third of our surplus. SB 200 would go into effect for 2016 and reduce our state income taxes by a small amount. The lowest bracket would go down from 1% to .9% and our top bracket would go from 6.9% to 6.7%.
We passed a property tax reappraisal bill out of Senate Tax. SB 157 reduces the reappraisal time frame from 6 years to 2 years. It also removes an assistance program that will not work well in the future and the homestead deduction. The new rate will account for the homestead removal.
Remember that even though appraised values have remained the same or even been reduced in our area, taxes will not go down. Mill values float so that the county can raise enough for their needs. Lake County has seen more land in tribal trust and the sale of Kerr Dam will be finalized in September.
Lots of great emails and calls. Leave me a message at 406-444-4800 because my cell phone, 253-8766, is usually off. Email firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>. I am working for you.
If you read my columns you know that I closely watch the state spending. Usually I think that state agencies are not careful with taxpayer’s money. Well, last Friday I found five bills, each requiring money, that I support!
Mental health problems have become a serious crisis in our state. What do our small communities do when faced with these incidents? Our hospitals are not equipped to handle serious mental illness. And to guarantee their safety, our sheriff’s office has to drive 170 miles to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs. According to our Sheriff, 300 individuals a year are detained by the county for mental health assessment.
Five mental health bills are part of a package that will not only save money in the long run, they will help Montanans. We need to find humane care that includes crisis intervention, preventative care and jail diversion plans. People suffering with mental illness serve longer jail sentences and face more frequent arrests.
HB 24 (Rep. Scheiner D, Great Falls) would fund a 16 bed state run mental health group home for crises stabilization. Our state hospital at Warm Springs has had lots of problems, and over-crowding is one. Build for 32 it now houses 50. Other states have found that transitional group homes are very effective. We will still need the state hospital, but with many fewer patients and at $650 per day we can save $300 to $400 per day using transitional homes.
HB 33 (Rep. Ehli R, Hamilton) gives matching grant money to counties for crisis intervention instead of jail.
HB 34, also by Rep. Ehli, would help communities build secure psychiatric facilities. We heard about Hope House in Bozeman, Journey Home in Helena and Hays Morris in Butte. The Community Crisis Center in Billings has 8,000 visits per year. Of these only 12% needed to go to the state hospital. Community crisis centers can save taxpayers thousands of dollars yearly and treat people where they live, where they have family support.
We have a crisis center planned for Polson. The Lake House will be an emergency detention and voluntary crisis stabilization facility. St. Joseph’s Hospital has donated land for the facility near the hospital. Patients will not use this crisis center for long term in-patient treatment.
HB 35, another of Rep. Ehli’s bills, would allow for voluntary inpatient mental health treatment for up to 14 days to avoid a jail sentence.
Lastly, HB 47 (Pease-Lopez D, Billings) would fund up to six projects for youth treatment. Right now the state of Montana has 41children with serious mental illness treated out of state at a cost of $400 per day. We need to keep children home and out of the system if at all possible.
Here’s the bottom line, $4 million per year, however this will cost us much less in the long run and provide for preventative treatment, especially of children. There is no dollar amount for these compassionate choices. And did you notice that these bills are carried by members of both parties. Continue to keep in contact. Leave me a message at 406-444-4800. My cell 253-8766 is usually off. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember I work