HELENA — As Republicans and Democrats grapple with how to fund statewide infrastructure projects at the Montana Legislature, one bill in the House aims to put that decision in the hands of local voters.
House Bill 577, introduced by Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, would allow cities and towns to adopt an infrastructure tax on luxury goods and services at a maximum rate of 4 percent. However, the tax would have to be approved by local voters.
“House Bill 577 empowers our cities, towns and counties to solve their infrastructure problems,” Fern said.
The bill would allow taxes on goods and services like restaurants and rental cars. In this way, it would acts as an expansion of the resort tax allowed in cities like Whitefish, said Darryl James, executive director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition. The coalition is a non-partisan interest group consisting of local government and business members that researches methods of funding infrastructure.
“You’re just giving them another tool to decide how they want to fund critical infrastructure,” James said.
If approved, the bill would expire either after seven to 10 years years or sooner if critical infrastructure projects are funded. It also provides for a property tax rebate of 25 percent or more of the total revenue collected by the infrastructure tax during the previous year.
The bill had 18 supporters at its first hearing last Tuesday, many of whom were city managers or representatives of Montana’s larger cities.
Chuck Stearns, the former city manager of Whitefish, said the city has collected $30 million in the 20 years the city has used its resort tax.
The bill also attracted 11 opponents, most of whom represented industries that would be taxed.
“It’s a huge competitive disadvantage,” said Bruce Longcake, representing the Convenience Store Association.
Several representatives from utility companies also said the bill does not adequately guard against local governments from taxing those industries. No immediate action was taken on the bill.
Bill would outlaw abortions at 20 weeks
The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee advanced a bill last week that would outlaw abortions at 20 weeks.
Senate Bill 329, introduced by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is also known as the “Montana Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” It justifies the ban at 20 weeks on the grounds that there is “increased scientific evidence that abortion is painful for the unborn,” according to Regier.
“We all have heard stories of babies delivered between 20 and 30 weeks of development, and they survive,” Regier said. “They survive because they have all of the body parts needed.”
A similar bill, Senate Bill 282, would prohibit abortion after 24 weeks, or at whatever point a fetus can survive with artificial aid outside of the mother’s womb—whichever comes first. That bill passed third reading in the Senate on a 32-18 vote.
SB 329 had five supporters at the hearing, including religious leaders and two doctors.
“I just can’t believe there’s anybody in this room who would intentionally inflict pain on a child and feel that’s OK,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation.
The bill also attracted five opponents, many of whom argued that the decision to have an abortion should be left to the mother and her doctor.
“Montana has a very strong right to privacy,” said SK Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the Montana American Civil Liberties Union. “That translates to a woman’s ability to make a private medical decision all on her own about whether she will terminate a pregnancy.”
Others said the bill does not adequately protect the safety of mothers. Robin Turner, public policy and legal director for the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said 25 percent of mothers surveyed by the National Domestic Violence Hotline experienced “reproductive coercion.” This can mean being forced into pregnancy in order to stay in an abusive relationship, Turner said.
Laura Terrill, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Montana, also noted that the bill does not provide exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
“The bill threatens doctors for exercising their best medical judgment and providing the best care that they can for women,” Terrill said.
The committee passed the bill on a 6-3 vote. It now goes to the full Senate for debate.
Libby could get asbestos cleanup help
The town of Libby has struggled with extremely high levels of asbestos for the better part of a century. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently in the process of cleaning up the contaminated areas, but with the city still struggling, some are calling for additional resources to help in decontamination efforts.
Introduced by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, Senate Bill 315 would create an oversight team to supervise cleanup efforts in Libby.
“There’s going to be asbestos in the area forever, so there’s going to be institutional controls forever,” Vincent said.
The bill helps redistribute money that was allocated for cleanup efforts during the 2015 session. The commission it creates would consist of the director of the Department of Environmental Quality, a Lincoln County commissioner, a citizen of Lincoln County selected by the governor, and a state senator and representative from the Lincoln County area.
Vincent said the bill is necessary because eventually the EPA will conclude its cleanup efforts, requiring the county to pick up the slack. The bill has a sunset of 2028, at which point, the funding would end.
Julia Altemus of the Montana Wood Products Association testified in support of the bill at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last week.
“The state, and the feds, and the county and everybody’s involved, but nobody really wants to take leadership,” Altemus said. “Having this liaison will be a huge help.”
No one opposed the bill during the hearing. SB 315 passed the Senate unanimously in February. The House committee didn’t immediately vote on the bill.
‘Clean slate’ bill would erase criminal records
The Senate Judiciary committee heard a bill last week that would allow for the expungement of criminal records for misdemeanors.
House Bill 168, introduced by Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, is also known as the “Montana Clean Slate Act.” It allows for offenders to petition for the erasing of their records if they are not considered a threat to public safety.
“It provides folks a clean slate in society, erasing a lingering shadow of prior mistakes,” Brown said. “Our friends and neighbors deserve an opportunity at a fresh start.”
The bill would also allow for expungement if the offender were denied application for military services due to a prior offense. It prohibits individuals convicted of stalking, driving under the influence or violating a protective order from pursuing expungement.
Co-sponsor Rep. Dale Mortensen, R-Billings, said he supports the bill because misdemeanors can prohibit convicted individuals from getting professional licenses. Mortensen said he was denied a private investigator’s license because of a fine he received for transporting dirt over the weight limit.
“I believe that somebody should have the ability to have their record expunged,” Mortensen said.
Robin Turner, public policy and legal director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said she initially opposed the bill due to a lack of language regarding stalking and restraining order misdemeanors, but spoke in support at the committee hearing last week because that language was included in later drafts.
Turner said the bill’s language gives the court the ability to decide against erasing a defendant’s records.
The bill had no opponents. No action was taken on the bill in committee.
Irrigation ditches may be easier to rebuild
A bill that would eliminate the need for archaeological surveys before the construction of irrigation ditches was passed unanimously in committee last week.
House Bill 523, introduced by Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, would allow state agencies to bypass the requirement that historical or archaeological surveys be performed before issuing a permit for irrigation construction projects.
Right now, such surveys are required for reconstruction projects as well. Knudsen said this is unnecessary because any historical objects of significance would have been discovered during the initial construction phase.
“If you look at the easements, that’s basically where the ground has already been turned up,” Knudsen said. “If something is going to be discovered it would have been discovered at that time.”
The bill had no opponents at the hearing last week. Supporters of the bill called HB 523 a common-sense measure.
“These surveys can be very time-consuming and costly,” said Mike Murphy, representing the Montana Water Resources Association. “Certainly, from an irrigation perspective, it just makes good sense.”
Others said way the law works now carries the potential to kill crops.
“In some instances, it can mean the difference between being able to get water on a crop or not,” said Chelcie Cargill of the Montana Farm Bureau. The bill will now be heard by the entire Senate.
Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.