Lawmakers pass $10 billion budget
May 1, 2019
HELENA - On the final day of the 66th Montana Legislature, lawmakers completed their only state constitutionally mandated task by passing the bill that sets the budget for state agencies.
House Bill 2, which spends about $10 billion of state and federal money over the next two years, passed its final vote in House of Representatives 73-25.
The bill had moved through the session relatively quickly, passing the House 54-45 for the first time in late March and then passing the Senate 28-21 in early April. The final vote in the House was to adopt Senate amendments that added about $12.3 million of state money to the budget, with the biggest chunk of added spending going into the state health department.
In addition to outlining expenditures for the next two years, the budget includes $210 million in reserves for the same time period, which can be used in a budget crisis or for natural disaster relief. The budget will cut 100 vacant full-time positions from the Department of Public Health and Human Services and will add more than $700,000 to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation budget.
Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, voted against the bill, saying it spends too much.
"House Bill 2 may be as good as divergent opinions allow it to be. But, remember the Mark Twain quote: 'no man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session,'" he said.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, who sponsored the bill, said balancing a state budget is a huge undertaking, but any member of the legislature can contribute to the process.
"Anyone in this chamber can bring a change, an amendment-can participate in this process. If you choose not to, you get what you see," Ballance said.
"Hanna Act," Aimed At Addressing Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, Passes
After being introduced in January, the bill that would create a special position in the Department of Justice to investigate all missing persons cases in the state passed its final vote in the Montana Legislature 96-1 Tuesday.
House Bill 21 is named "Hanna's Act" after Hanna Harris, who was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in 2013.
The legislation would spend $100,000 a year on the position. Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, the bill's sponsor, said it wouldn't have passed without help from both sides of the aisle.
"It was so bi-partisan in this House that it overwhelms me right now. And they have told me this themselves, that they understood human trafficking is a serious issue for all people in Montana," Peppers said.
The bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, said after a rough journey of the bill losing funding, being tabled and missing deadlines, the final vote was almost anti-climactic.
"It was such a hard journey. So, today, taking the final vote, it's like 'we're done.' It's a sigh of relief," Stewart Peregoy said.
"Hanna's Act" is the last in a package of bills addressing missing and murdered people to pass the Legislature.
Other bills included in the package were House Bill 20, which lets law enforcement officers file missing persons reports for children who have been taken by their parents, House Bill 54, a bill that would allow any law enforcement official in the state to file a missing persons report, and Senate Bill 40, which creates a photograph directory through the state Office of Public Instruction used for only for locating missing children.
Legislature Increases Bed Tax To Fund Museums
After being originally tabled, but then revived by the House of Representatives, the Montana Museums Act passed on a 58-40 vote on the last day of the 2019 Legislature.
Senate Bill 338 would increase the state bed tax from 3 percent to 4 percent to pay for a new location for the Montana Historical Society, which the agency has been requesting for about 15 years. The bill would also use the increased tax revenue to build and maintain infrastructure for other museums and historical sites across Montana.
Montana Chamber of Commerce CEO Cary Hegreberg supported the bill during a public hearing in the House Appropriations Committee in the session's final week.
"This is the appropriate way to fund the preservation of Montana's history. Not only here in Helena, but throughout the state," Hegreberg said. "I think having a heritage center and having museums of quality around the state of Montana will not only induce more tourism but I think it will also induce people who are travelling on business to spend an extra day or two and enjoy and learn about Montana."
Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, sponsored the bill and said 75 percent of the state bed tax is paid by visitors and tourists. Gauthier also told the committee this bill has failed the past seven sessions.
"There's been a lot of hard-working people working on this thing for about 15 years. So, it's nothing new to the Montana Legislature. So, today I ask you to make some real history and let's support this bill," he said.
State To Use Professional License Fee Revenue To Prevent Aquatic Invasive Species
Lawmakers made a last-minute switch in funding for a bill that aims to pay for aquatic invasive species prevention programs, but it will still move forward to the governor's desk.
Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, carried House Bill 411, which proposed an increased tax on boat licences to pay for AIS prevention programs. The species, like quagga and zebra mussels, have invaded most of the midwest and have cost billions of dollars in damages.
Montana is mostly free of aquatic invasive species, however the risk of invasion is ever-present as boaters carry in water from infested lakes in other states.
"I think it's an expectation that this is something Montana is going to deal with for a long, long time," Curdy said.
Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, suggested amendments to the bill to remove the tax on boat owners and instead get funding from an increased fee on out-of-state investment advisers who pay for licenses in Montana. The change made HB 411 contingent on the passage of House Bill 694, which contained the language to increase the fee.
The Senate approved HB 694 on Thursday 28-21.
Curdy said he thinks every bill should stand on its own without contingency on another policy. However, he said he was glad to see his bill pass a final vote. It passed the House as amended 62-35.
Speaker of the House Greg Hertz, R-Polson, has been a strong advocate for AIS prevention and HB 411.
"I do support it. I do think that was a good idea," Hertz said.
Criminal Justice Reform
Lawmakers ended the 2019 session having passed a number of bills aimed at cracking down on sex crimes.
Gov. Steve Bullock signed House Bill 282 into law Thursday, which makes sexual contact between residents of alternative adolescent residential facilities and employees of the facilities illegal, even if the resident is of consenting age. Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, said a series of investigative reports from the Missoulian prompted the proposal.
Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, also carried several bills aimed at streamlining prosecution of sexual abuse of vulnerable people.
House Bill 173 and House Bill 640 are both co-sponsored by Republicans and Democrats. HB 173 eliminates consent as a defense if an employee of a public or private school engages in sex with a student.
HB 640 revises statute of limitations laws to allow for delayed reporting in cases of child sexual abuse. The bill was proposed in response to the case of James "Doc" Jensen who admitted to admitted to sexually molested high school athletes in Miles City between the 1970s and 1990s. He wasn't charged until last fall.
Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, a veteran lawmaker, who founded Montana's first rape crisis center in Missoula, carried Senate Bill 52, which will streamline and create strict guidelines for processing sexual assault kits used to prosecute the crime in court.
In the past, Sands said laws regarding sexual assault have been "inconsistently applied" by Montana's judicial system, and that she hopes her legislation will help perpetrators accountable.
Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce are reporters with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.