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Legislative Update: Monday, March 27


Push made for higher taxes on cigs, tobacco
By Freddy Monares
The sponsor of a bill that would increase the tax on cigarettes and tobacco says the generated revenue will help curtail the use of tobacco among Montana youth and provide a raise for personal-care providers funded by Medicaid. Senate Bill 354 would also include e-cigarette-related vaporizing substances in the tax for the first time, and allocate a majority of that money to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicaid. “What we know is that when we raise the price of tobacco and tobacco products it has a prevent nature,” said bill sponsor Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena. “It specifically helps with kids.”

Ron Marshall, the owner of a vape shop in Belgrade, spoke in opposition to the bill. “And I’m taxed at 74 percent?” Marshall said. Continue Reading →

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Legislative Update: Friday, March 24


Bill seeks to head off Real ID showdown
By Freddy Monares
Montana is facing a deadline at the end of this year to comply with a 2005 federal mandate called the “Real ID Act,” which requires states to meet minimum security standards for identification cards to access federal facilities or get through airport security. Senate Bill 366 would make it so that Montanans have the option to get a state driver’s license that complies with the standards. Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, the bill sponsor, said, “The fact that Montana has not implemented (it) now, is going to start to affect actual citizens’ ability to get on a plane and fly domestically,”

Cohenour said the state’s issue with Real ID is a worry that private information could get leaked to the federal government. “I think we’ve gotten to the point where, let’s get our questions answered about what does compliance really mean, and put this in place as an option for folks,” Cohenour said. The Senate Administration Committee will hear first testimony on the bill Monday. Continue Reading →

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Legislative Update: Thursday, March 23


Proposal would head off future sales tax
By Cole Grant
A bill heard in the Montana Senate Thursday would let voters decide if the Constitution should prohibit a future general statewide sales tax option. Senate Bill 351’s sponsor, Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, says a statewide sales tax would unfairly tax people with lower income. “The higher your income, the lower the percentage of your income that you pay in tax,” he said. “Or turn it the other way around, the lower your income, the higher the percentage of your income that you pay in tax.”

He also says the proposed constitutional amendment would not include a ban on local option taxes. Bridger Mahlum with the Montana Chamber of Commerce says the chances of passing a statewide sales tax are slim. Continue Reading →

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Legislative Update: Wednesday, March 22


Mail-in-ballot bill up for hearing in House
By Freddy Monares
A contentious bill that would allow counties to opt for mail-in ballots for the upcoming special election to fill now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vacated congressional seat is advancing in the Legislature. Senate Bill 305 passed the Senate in February and gets its first hearing in the House on Thursday. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said mail-in ballots could save counties up to $500,000.  During debate on the bill last month, recorded by the Legislature, he also said the percentage of people voting by mail ballot has skyrocketed. “Most people vote by mail,” he said, “and we don’t have problems with fraud or any of these other things that people think they’re going to get from mail-in ballots.” Continue Reading →

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Legislative Update: Monday, March 20


Infrastructure projects proposed
By Cole Grant
Lawmakers heard proposals Monday for infrastructure projects across the state, from upgrades to university system buildings to wildlife habitat programs.

House Bill 5 allocates more than $50 million in federal and state money to infrastructure. The largest portion of that money would go to securing land for the Habitat Montana program, which, among other things, encourages wildlife conservation among landowners. Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, is carrying the bill. “These are the vehicles that actually build things around the state of Montana,” he said. Gov. Steve Bullock’s office proposed the list of projects last November. Continue Reading →

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Legislative Update: Thursday, March 16


Funding increase for elderly, disabled shot down
By Cole Grant
One of the amendments to the state budget Montana lawmakers shot down Thursday would have given more funding to a program that helps pay for long-term care for low-income seniors and disabled Montanans. Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, chairman of the Health and Human Services Subcommittee, said there’s money left over from what was set aside for that program from the last biennium. Cook said the Legislature’s budget proposes about $3 million less to the program than what was spent last biennium. “You look at this $42 million that wasn’t spent, why wasn’t that spent on provider rate increases?” he asked. Continue Reading →

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Legislative Update: Tuesday, March 14

Bill would allow traditional regalia at graduation
By Freddy Monares
Native American communities across Montana are asking the Legislature to make it unlawful to ban traditional regalia, specifically beaded caps, during graduation ceremonies. Senate Bill 319 would allow items with cultural significance to be worn at public events, including public meetings, awards ceremonies and high school or college graduation ceremony. Bill supporter Georgeline Morsette is a senior in high school. “Beaded graduation caps aren’t merely for decoration or to look pretty, but there is great traditional importance to the beaded caps,” Morsette said. Cindy Swank was the only opponent of the bill. Continue Reading →

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Legislative Update: Monday, March 13


Senate blocks bicycle-friendly bill
By Freddy Monares
The Montana Senate blocked a bill that would have required vehicles going 35 mph to give cyclists three feet when passing, and five feet if traveling faster than 35 mph. House Bill 267 failed on a 24-to-26 vote. Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, opposed the bill. He says he does not want any more cyclists in the state and thinks there are too many of them as it is. “They’re some of the rudest people I’ve ever—I hate to say it, but I’m just going to be bold—they’re some of the most self-centered people navigating on highways, or on county roads I’ve ever seen. Continue Reading →

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Legislative Update: Friday, March 10


Budget amendment would raise pay for care providers
By Cole Grant
The Montana House Appropriations Committee is nearly done ironing out amendments to House Bill 2, the main budget bill. Rep. Marilyn Ryan, D-Missoula proposed an amendment to the Department of Health and Human Services budget Friday that would increase wages for those who work directly with seniors and people with developmental disabilities. “This is costly, I will not deny it,” she said. “But I believe we have a responsibility to every citizen in Montana to find the money to improve the wages of our direct-care workers.”

Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, said he appreciated the light the amendment shines on provider rates and direct-care wages. “But to just pull $61 million out of that ending fund balance and then pretend that we have some way to heal that before we get out of here with a budget that’s balanced and acceptable is in a lot of ways erroneous,” he said. Continue Reading →

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Legislative Update: Thursday, March 9


Bill would refund taxpayers if enrollment projections miss the mark
By Freddy Monares
When schools overestimate the number of students in their district, Montana property taxpayers end up eating that cost. House Bill 390 would return the excess money collected back to taxpayers the following year. Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT teachers union, spoke in favor of the bill. “What it says about overestimating is important, and we certainly don’t want people in any way to think that school districts are trying to scam the system and this addresses that,” Feaver said. The bill also aims to change a $1 million appropriation for school technology grants to be used as matching funds for a federal program to provide schools with internet access. Continue Reading →

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