Good News, Mischief, Culture Wars, and more! Legislative Bulletin #12
First the Good News! Constitutional Amendments:
Of eight constitutional amendments that were brought to the House or Senate floors last Monday, it appears that only one passed 3rd reading with enough yes votes to have a path to the 2024 ballot (HB 563, see below). This is as long as Democrats maintain their united front opposing rewriting the constitution by way of multiple incremental ballot referenda.
If there is a mathematical path to garner 100 total yes votes, the bills DO advance to the other Chamber, so we will continue to watch them closely. Two of concern:
HB 517 weakens the Board of Regents' ability to govern higher education in Montana. Seven Republicans voted NO on third reading, enough to jeopardize its passage to the ballot.
HB 915, lets the Governor choose the Supreme Court and removes Montanans ability to vote for Supreme Court Justices. It also lost eight Republican votes on third reading in the House.
Other amendments establishing trapping as a constitutional right, concealed carry as a constitutional right, sheriff supremacy over all other law enforcement entities, and allowing gerrymandering and partisanship in redistricting all fell short.
All of this is contingent on whether Democrats in the other chamber maintain their united front in opposition to these amendments.
One that might make it to the ballot is SB 563 (Bogner), a constitutional amendment to create a trust fund for mental health within the coal trust. It does not, however, deposit any funds into the trust. In a year with a once-in-a-lifetime surplus, lawmakers could have simply appropriated those funds and placed them in the trust and would not need to amend the Constitution to achieve this.
Constitutional Votes Explained...
This graphic, used with permission from Eric Dietrich of the Montana Free Press, does a fantastic job illustrating the votes that would be needed for a Constitutional amendment to advance or not advance to the ballot.
Read more in Montana Free Press's story here. (Montana Free Press is a news outlet and does not advocate for or against any legislation. This graph is purely informational.)
In the words of Shakespeare, “Mischief is afoot!”
One of the dominating themes of the session is a relentless assault on Montana’s municipal and local governments, especially its cities.
Considering that these urban economies are the engines powering the state’s thriving economy and surplus revenues, it is dismaying to see them under attack.
There are numerous bills that attempt to undermine their ability to maintain fiscal solvency and provide basic services.
Others brazenly restructure their polity notwithstanding these cities have their own voter-adopted charters of governance.
Finally, a trove of zoning and land use bills remove discretion needed to plan for water, sewer, streets, sidewalks, parking and schools.
Two dangerous bills would sow havoc in local and school elections:
HB 774 (Hopkins) puts most local and school elections on the even year June and November ballots. This means that elections for city councils and commissions, mayors, mill levies and bond issues, some schools, and infrastructure districts would be piled onto already lengthy ballots.
It was drafted without consultation or conversation with school boards, local election officials, or local governments.
It makes administration of elections into a Rubik’s cube for local officials.
The bill changes how school funding is managed.
Amendments in the House added a short period where some school districts would be given an incentive to test the process.
It passed the House even as proponents acknowledged it is not ready for prime time.
HB 774 is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate State Administration Committee on April 19, 3:00.
SB 381 (Freidel) would require several major Montana cities to redraw their wards and in some cases reduce the number of city council seats. It has an immediate effective date -- in the middle of an election cycle(!), with filing for seats scheduled to start in a matter of days.
It conflicts with some cities’ voter-adopted local government charters as provided under Montana’s Constitution.
It was drafted and brought without open or public consultation with the affected jurisdictions, their elected bodies, or their wider communities. Legislation that dramatically affects local governments needs to happen in consultation with those bodies.
It is an aggressive, gross overreach by the legislature.
SB 381 is headed to the full House of Representatives, having narrowly passed the House Local Government Committee. Please join us in sending a message to the House of Representatives urging them to oppose this bill.
Affordable housing in Montana requires real investments and public-private partnerships.
Several bills that bring real and necessary investments in affordable housing for Montana’s workforce, seniors, veterans, young families, and persons with disabilities fell by the wayside over the past two weeks.
This week, let’s focus on the few remaining vehicles to get much needed housing moving in Montana:
HB 546 (Fern) uses coal trust money to invest in affordable multifamily housing for Montanans.
It would add $15 million to an existing revolving loan fund that helped generate 252 units across Montana, including rural areas like Belt, Cascade, Joliet, Havre, and Livingston.
This proven effective investment using state coal trust dollars to meet community priorities is exactly why the coal trust was established.
The program doesn’t reduce the trust, but instead puts those dollars to work in revolving loans that strengthen and build our communities.
The bill was heard in the Senate Business and Labor Committee last week.
Big Sky 55+ supports this bill.
HB 927 (M. Regier and Abbott) would earmark $130 million of coal trust dollars in revolving loans administered through the Board of Housing to support construction and rehab of affordable housing across the state.
The rationale is the same as HB 546, but the amount of trust fund dollars invested would be significantly higher.
It has also passed through the House and is set for hearing in the Senate Local Government Committee for April 14 at 3:00.
Long-term Care Math: “2 x 0 = 0, still.” Will nursing homes survive MT Leg 2023?… Round 5…
Nursing home reimbursement rates in HB 2, the state’s budget, remain under water.
We know what it costs in Montana to provide this important care because the State spent $2 million to figure it out over the interim. Here's a review:
The Guidehouse report set a “minimum benchmark” of $278/day, which is well below the average cost of providing this care ($328/day).
The state currently reimburses $212/day for Medicaid beds in nursing homes.
The budget, as it currently stands, is at about $253/day for the first year of the new biennium.
Because HB 2 still falls short of the minimum identified by the Guidehouse study, it risks the loss of even more beds and nursing homes across Montana.
Senate Finance and Claims is just about the last stop on the road to the biennium budget. Join Big Sky 55+ in asking the Committee to amend the budget by adding $25 million in general fund, which would then be increased by an additional federal $50 million match.
Click here to watch Big Sky 55+ lobbyist, Margie MacDonald's testimony on HB 2 before the Senate Finance and Claims committee.
Throughout the 2023 session much time has been spent on a series bills taking aim at LGBTQ+ children and youth. One of them is HB 359 (Mitchell), “Prohibit minors from attending drag shows,” which passed the House and was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
In a Q & A exchange with a Senator, lobbyist SK Rossi, explained why it matters and the implications of bills like these for transgender and LGBTQ+ Montanans and their families. We would like to share it with you here (about 3.5 minutes).