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  • Margie MacDonald

Sine Die (the Legislature is over!)


Montana’s 2023 Legislature has adjourned “Sine Die” (indefinitely)

Legislative Bulletin #16, May 5, 2023


When Minority Leader Sen. Pat Flowers (D-Belgrade) made the non-debatable motion to adjourn “sine die,” 10 Republicans and all 16 Democrats voted to end the session on the 87th day.


And that was a wrap… in the Senate.


The House, still working on amended bills from the Senate or conference committees, took a few more hours to finish up. Some bills, interim study resolutions, and Governor’s amendatory vetoes were still in the pipeline.


The final days of the legislature can be a time when bad policy decisions are made:

  • In free conference committees, lots of shenanigans were happening.

  • Additionally, bad dead bills had been emerging from the graveyard -- an alarming and growing trend in a single party state where both the legislature and the executive branch have little to no checks on their power.

It was time for the session to be over!

 

Two dominating themes of the 2023 session were the allocation of the state's largest surplus ever, and dozens of culture war bills. These bills ranged from banning books in schools and libraries to assaults on women’s reproductive health care, and assaults on Montana’s small transgender community, especially youth and their families.


Consequential changes passed under the radar.

With a supermajority, Republicans had enormous clout to push things through, and the number of bills introduced and passed broke all previous records. Much of the change that was wreaked has been below the radar of Montana’s limited news services. Some changes are immediate and dramatic, while others are more subtle and nuanced and may take years to fully impact Montanans.


For example, when Judge Mike Menahan ruled against a temporary restraining order for Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s challenge to House leadership expelling her from discussions on the House floor, he cited Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick’s SB 191, a bill that passed just a few weeks prior, affecting when and how a court could act to protect a plaintiff from irreparable harm.


Another illustration is Sen. Keith Regier’s SB 176 which, among other things, puts Montana’s Consumer Counsel, a constitutionally independent advocate for ordinary utility ratepayers, under the control of the ruling majority party.

  • As demonstrated in several bills in 2023, the majority party in Montana is closely aligned with the interests of Montana’s largest monopoly utilities, NorthWestern Energy and Montana Dakota Utilities.

  • This subtle shift on the committee that hires and fires the consumer counsel may take years or even a decade to fully unfold in our pocketbooks.

  • It should be noted that Montanans now pay some of the highest electric rates in the region and nation due to the disastrous effects of electric utility deregulation 25 years ago, yet another illustration of a majority party throwing its weight around wreaking havoc still being felt.

 

How Big Sky 55+ Priorities fared:

Senior Long-Term and Community-Based Care


“It’s nothing to shake a stick at! We came very, very far,” Rep. Mary Caferro (D-Helena) said in closing remarks on House Bill 2 (the state budget) specifically in reference to one of the dominant debates of the session - reimbursing providers of senior long-term care.


Will Montana nursing homes survive the 2023 session? The jury is still out. But we pushed hard every step of the way and in the end, we came pretty close to covering the costs of caring for seniors and adults with disabilities and adequately funding the folks who provide vital human services to Montana’s most vulnerable people.


Part of the problem was how far under water those providers were at the outset. Eleven out of 72 nursing homes closed in 2022!

  • Shockingly, they were given very little help in the Governor’s budget.

  • The House Appropriations and the Senate Finance and Claims Committees, controlled by Republicans, moved the needle only partway, despite a clearly defined benchmark set by the $2 million independent Guidehouse analysis of what it costs to provide nursing home, group home, and community-based care in Montana.

Finally, last week on the floor of the Senate, Sen. John Esp (R-Big Timber), Chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee offered a $45 million addition to HB 2 that bumped the reimbursement rates almost to the benchmark.


This amount fails to account for the inflation since mid-2022 and won’t reach the benchmark set by Guidehouse until the end of the new biennium, but we celebrate and give thanks for the last-minute addition and hope it will be enough.


Attempts to pass HB 649, which by last week had been amended to provide $15 million to help stabilize the most at-risk providers in the immediate short term to prevent additional closures, failed to pass the Senate.


Soon, Montanans will see if providers can make it work, and recruit and retain the workers they need to care for our most vulnerable elders.

 

Finally, HJ 28, an interim study of the continuum of care for seniors that had been successfully moving through the process died because it had not yet been put on the second reading board in the Senate prior to sine die. Sponsored by Rep. Mike Yakawich (R-Billings), HJ 28 passed the House 93-6, and was unanimously recommended by the Senate State Administration Committee. But time ran out.


We will work with lawmakers on interim committees to bring some of the questions coved in the study to their interim work.

 

Tax Fairness


The State of Montana went into 2023 with a once-in-a-lifetime surplus in its accounts, due in large part to federal action to ensure that the national economy and state and local governments did not spiral into economic recession or depression during the global pandemic that shut down economic activity for much of 2020-2021.


Other states with similar surpluses, including Colorado, Minnesota, and California, invested strategically in the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, including childcare and affordable housing:

  • Helping moms and dads get back into the workforce by rebuilding affordable and safe childcare options.

  • Investing in affordable housing where local wages could not sustain access to local housing.

  • Sharing tax rebates evenly among taxpayers rather than funneling the largest measures to those who needed it the least and were least likely to use it to spur the economy.

But not Montana. With a supermajority in the legislature and the Governor’s office, Montana Republicans instead rewrote Montana’s tax code, directing most of the largesse into the pockets of Montana’s super rich families. See more on the Tax Fairness page of our website here.

 

Fiscally responsible proposals to target ongoing residential property tax relief and senior income tax relief, targeted at lower- and middle-income households were blocked:

  • Sen. Shannon O’Brien’s (D-Missoula) SB 15 (property tax relief)

  • Sen. MaryAnn Dunwell’s (D-Helena) SB 258 (income tax relief for middle income households that depend on social security)

 

Affordable Housing


First, the good news! HB 889 Rep. Jonathan Karlen’s (D-Missoula) bill to balance the rights of manufactured-home owners in mobile home parks passed both houses and is headed to the Governor for his signature.


Manufactured homes are an enormously important component to affordable housing and benefit older Montanans, young families, and adults with disabilities. While manufactured home park residents own their homes, they rent the land beneath it, and can be forced to accept exorbitant increases in rent and utilities without adequate notice or recourse. It is very difficult to move a manufactured home and doing so can cost thousands of dollars.

HB 889:

  • gives lot renters 60 days to decide whether to move when the terms on their lot rental change,

  • establishes some balance around lot renters' ability to sell their homes, and

  • prohibits retaliation by park owners if residents organize an association or speak to government decision makers about their situation.

We need your help to encourage the Governor to sign HB 889.

If you haven't yet contacted the Governor and Lieutenant Governor about HG 889, please do so!

One consensus bill around land use planning that Big Sky 55+ supported did pass: Sen. Forrest Mandeville’s SB 382. This bill, which will help speed up permitting for developers, also gained the support of a broad spectrum of local governments, industry, conservation groups, and housing advocates.


 

And the bad news


Much of the legislative energy around affordable housing in this session was spent on bills telling local governments what they could and couldn’t do in managing their services, infrastructure, zoning, and land use planning.


Most were bad bills, some were not too terrible, many passed.


Bills that brought money to the table for proven effective strategies to build affordable housing units fared poorly, for the most part. The most potent tool, Rep. George Nikolakakos’ (R-Great Falls) HB 829 was killed before it left the House. It would have leveraged hundreds of affordable units at very little cost to the state through workforce housing tax credits, an idea that originated with Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and is successful working in almost half of the states.

 

A potentially good bill, HB 819 sponsored by Rep. Paul Green (R-Hardin), was amended by adding three other bills and investing $165 million (either by appropriation or revolving loans from the coal trust) in a variety of strategies to encourage housing. It was adopted in the last minutes of the session.


Unfortunately, late amendments to this bill gutted its most effective tool: the $65 million lower-interest revolving loans from the coal trust.

  • Prior to amendment, this fund was poised to enable the building of as many as 650 desperately-needed affordable units.

  • Low interest rates are critical for developing units to meet the needs of front-line workers like caregivers, clerks, servers, seniors, veterans and persons with disabilities.

  • Low interest loans have also shown they will leverage a similar amount of private investment, resulting in $130 million in affordable housing construction.

The amended bill limits the revolving loans to higher interest rates, reducing the affordability of construction fostered by the bill.


HB 819 does incorporate an interest rate buy-down for mortgages for workforce housing, providing an entry level to home ownership for young families. This is a new concept and not yet tested, so we will watch it closely.


 

Defending the Constitution, the Courts


One of the best outcomes to report for 2023 is the failure of the legislature to refer ANY constitutional amendments to the ballot, despite more than 67 draft requests and 19 introduced bills.


The following bills made it out of committees and through both chambers, but, fortunately, their final tallies fell short of the 100 total votes required to get on ballot:


• HB 372 (Fielder) Establish right to hunt and trap: 90 votes total

• HB 517 (Hopkins) Board of Regents: 88 votes

• HB 551 (C.Knudsen) Constitutional right to carry concealed weapon: 95 votes

• HB 915 (Mercer) Governor appoint Supreme Court: 82 votes

• SB 534 (McGillvray) Change redistricting: 96 votes

 

The courts and the vote are another story.


While dozens of bad bills were blocked, there were many bills that made it through. How these bills will affect justice, elections, consumers rights, prisons and public safety is yet to be determined.


As mentioned above, SB 191 was instrumental in the Court’s denial of a technical restraining order in the case filed on behalf of Rep. Zooey Zephyr in the waning days of the session.








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