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Legislative Session Roundups: Washington, Alaska, Georgia & Montana

Legislative Session Roundups: Washington, Alaska, Georgia & Montana

Monday May 18, 2009

PERMALINK: http://www.progressivestates.org/node/23102

Increasing-Democracy

2009 Legislative Session Roundups

Increasing-Democracy

Washington State Session Roundup

Increasing-Democracy

Alaska Session Roundup

Increasing-Democracy

Georgia Session Roundup

Increasing-Democracy

Montana Session Roundup


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Increasing-Democracy

2009 Legislative Session Roundups

As legislative sessions come to a close, PSN highlights positive gains, legislative defeats, and unfinished business. This Dispatch will feature state legislative session roundups for Washington, Alaska, Georgia, and Montana.

Increasing-Democracy

By: JULIE SCHWARTZ and ADAM THOMPSON

Washington State Session Roundup

Budget, Tax, and Unemployment: The $31.4 billion general operations budget approved by the legislature filled a $9 billion shortfall with federal stimulus money, one-time transfers and more than $4 billion in cuts to education, health and state programs.  The budget includes many cuts to health care and education and slashes $1028 billion from state employee salaries, health benefits, and other compensation, resulting in 7,000 to 8,000 lost government and public school jobs.  The state's K-12 system will lose $800 million in state funds, although about half of that figure will be made up by federal stimulus aid going directly to school districts. While higher ed money has been cut as well, the state has authorized two and four year institutions to shift the burden to students by raising tuition by 7% to 14%.  The $7.5 billion transportation plan, however, passed with only 8 senators voting "nay" and is projected to create 49,000 jobs.  The bill puts $4 billion into more than 400 road projects over the next two years.

With no state income tax and a regressive, sales-tax-dependent tax structure, revenue generation for state and local governments is a perennial hot topic in Washington State.  Lawmakers considered but failed to act on a proposal to create an income tax for the state's top earners, those earning more than $500,000.  Tax fairness proponents plan to renew the effort as part of a broader campaign to improve the state's tax structure in subsequent years.  Still, lawmakers approved SB 5433, which gives local governments, in particular, a little more flexibility in raising revenue.  In most cases, the bill requires officials to gain local voter approval for any levy or fee increases.  One positive provision allows King County, which includes Seattle, to add a 7.5 cent property tax for transit projects.

At the last minute, lawmakers passed SB 5963, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, to give employers a tax break on the premiums they pay into the state's unemployment insurance system.  Earlier in the session, legislators passed HB1906, which increases jobless benefits to $225 per week through the end of the year.

Health Care
: This year, lawmakers sought to preserve the state's health infrastructure so that temporary cuts to programs in eligibility and reimbursement levels can be quickly restored when the state's budget condition improves.

  • Painful Cuts: $2 billion in federal stimulus funding helped the state to minimize cuts to the Medicaid program, but services for adults were curtailed and reimbursements to providers were reduced.  Full implementation of a voter-approved initiative to increase training for long-term care workers was delayed a year.  In response to the state's budget woes, lawmakers approved a $225 million cut to the Basic Health Plan, which serves 102,000 low-income residents and provides subsidized health benefits. As a result of the cuts, 40,000 residents will lose coverage by the end of the year.  The state is currently seeking advice from advocates on how to implement the cuts.
  • Covering Kids: Despite harmful cuts in eligibility and reimbursement to many programs, lawmakers were able to preserve a prior commitment to achieve health care for all kids and place the state on the path to health-care-for-all within 5 years.  Lawmakers passed HB 2128, sponsored by Rep. Larry Seaquist, to confirm the state's goal of ensuring all kids have health coverage by 2010.  The measure officially named the state's kids program, Apple Health for Kids.  Its new provisions streamline enrollment measures (of the 75,000 uninsured children in WA, almost half are eligible but don't know it), take advantage of the federal re-authorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, and modify some requirements for a twin program that will start by 2010 allowing families above 300% of poverty to buy Apple Health coverage for their children.  While families below 300% of poverty will pay relatively low-cost sliding scale premiums for the program, there was concern that the level of benefits would have made the program too expensive for parents above 300%, so the required benefits have been pared down for higher income families that may elect to buy into the program.
  • A Reform Commission for Universal Care: In addition to moving forward on kids' care, Washington lawmakers committed to achieve health care for all Washingtonians by 2014 by passing SB 5945. Sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, the measure creates a reform advisory group to further study and develop health care reform legislation and it articulates key priorities for reform, including the choice of public or private health plans.  Additionally, the bill directs the new reform advisory group to monitor state and federal progress towards health care reform and to specifically collaborate with federal lawmakers.  The bill also directs the state to seek a Medicaid waiver to expand eligibility to low-income adults.  
  • Promoting Efficiency: Other notable health care achievements in 2009 include the Health Efficiencies Act (SB 5346), which will bring providers together to define uniform administrative standards and procedures around claims reimbursement, prior authorization and other utilization systems, and establishing a standardized and electronic process to verify patients' insurance eligibility and coverage.  As Sen. Keiser notes, 30 cents of every health care dollar is spent on administration, "this legislation is intended to change that."  SB 5501 will bring stakeholders together to develop processes for the safe and secure exchange of clinical data and improve patients' access to and control of their health care information. 
  • Other Bills: SB 5360 creates a grant program to help community-based coalitions serve uninsured and under-insured adults and children.  SB 5892 will promote use of generic medications by state programs while ensuring patients' quality of care and use of quality drugs.  HB 2105 creates a work group to create guidelines for the appropriate use of diagnostic imaging, like MRIs and CAT scans, to ensure these costly services are used when necessary. SB 5891 will test primary care medical home reimbursement pilot projects.  And, to improve hospital safety, lawmakers passed two bills to beef up requirements on hospitals to publicly report medical errors and to conduct unannounced inspection of hospitals (HB 1123, HB1021).  A key goal of the measures is to reduce hospital-based infections, notably staph, or MRSA, which can be prevalent in hospitals.

National Popular Vote: Washington became the 5th state to join the "electoral college pact" by enacting SB 5599 to commit the state's 61 electoral college votes for president to the winner of the national popular vote.  Even though 77% of Washingtonians support national popular vote, opponents to the new law are waging a campaign to put the question to the voters in November.

Broadband: Awaiting action from the Governor, HB 1701 aims to bring new high-speed Internet access to residents, businesses, educational institutions, public health and safety services, and community organizations in under-served parts of Washington State, as well as increase broadband adoption throughout the state.

Gay and Lesbian Rights: Opponents of recognizing same-sex relationships plan to file a referendum today that repeals the latest addition of rights to the state domestic partners registry.  The Legislature passed Senate Bill 5688, which substantially expands the registry to include all state rights accorded to married couples. The registry has more than 5,000 couples, most are same sex couples though some are heterosexual domestic partners.

Foster Parenting: Lawmakers enacted several bills to strengthen foster parents' rights and assure the best interests of children in the state's foster system.  To create more stability for foster children, lawmakers passed HB 1782 to allow the courts to consider long absences by biological parents when deciding whether to end visitation rights and SB 5431 requires that children who are removed from their biological parents for a second time be placed with foster parents they know.  Another bill, SB 5803, puts foster families on notice that if an adopted foster child needs mental health services in the future, the state will not pay for the care through the foster system.  Such transparency is important, but advocates are hoping to get the state to someday pay for mental health services for adopted foster children, who often need such services because of high instances of abuse or drug use by their biological parents.

Newspaper Industry: HB 2122 provides the state's struggling newspaper industry with a temporary break on the state's main business tax.  Under the proposed measure, the business and occupation tax on newspapers would be cut by 40 % through 2015.

Education: The session saw some major education reforms:

  • K-12 Education: Lawmakers passed HB 2261 to overhaul the public education system and redefine “basic education” for the first time in the state since 1979.  The bill would phase in funding for high schoolers to achieve 24 credits and attend 6 classes per day, phase-in all day kindergarten and include early learning for at-risk children and highly capable education in the definition of "basic education".  It would also create a transparent funding system so that everyone, including the public, understands how the state supports basic education, create work groups to make recommendations on how to best spend local levy funds and how teachers are hired and compensated. Lastly, it would require the Board of Education to create a comprehensive system for improvements targeted at challenged schools and districts that have not made enough improvements on their own and assign the Professional Educator Standards Board to create performance standards for teachers.  The legislation was not without controversy, with the state's largest teachers' union vigorously opposing the bill.  Union officials say the education overhaul is the wrong move at a time when lawmakers are likely to cut heavily from K-12 spending to make up a $9 billion budget deficit - including skipping voter-approved cost-of-living raises for teachers.
  • Higher Education: Revenue shortfalls mean that Washington’s institutions of higher learning will need to raise tuition rates if they are going to maintain the level of services they currently provide.  Despite budget issues, the Legislature took steps to help families have better access to information that will assist in the college planning and financing processes.  One large change comes in the form of HB 2021, which makes big changes to financial aid for Washington higher education students and institutions.  The intent of the legislation is to promote and expand access to state financial aid.  HB 1946 encourages all institutions of higher education to use common online learning technologies. HB 1025 requires college bookstores to disclose information on required course materials at least four weeks prior to the start of class.  SB 5043 convenes a work group to develop a plan to create a one-stop, web-based portal for students and families planning, preparing, applying for, and attending college.
  • Workforce Development:  Washington State made an effort to link higher education and training of students so that they can achieve the high-demand skills that are needed to grow the economy.  HB 1323 (companion to SB 5048) requires state agencies and local organizations involved with workforce and economic development to coordinate their efforts to assist industry clusters.  HB 1328 allows public technical colleges to offer degrees that prepare students to transfer into certain bachelor degree programs.  The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, explained that the legislation was about breaking down the institutional silos that currently exist to make it easier “for real students living real lives” to transfer technical college coursework to bachelor’s degree programs.  HB 1394 (companion to SB 5316) changes the timeline for the state to develop a comprehensive plan for workforce training and education.  

    House Bill 1355 (companion to SB-5773) creates the Opportunity Internship Program.  Students chosen for the program will receive internships, apprenticeships and up to one year of college financial aid, along with the promise of a job interview if they complete a post-secondary program of study.  Local groups that help place students into jobs that pay at least $30,000 per year will be eligible for incentive payments, subject to existing funds, of $2,000.  The goal is to develop educational and employment pipelines for low-income high school students to high-demand occupations.

Environment: 2009 was a mixed bag for environmental legislation, with comprehensive reform measures failing to pass while smaller, more focused legislation made it through.  

Bills that made it:

  • SB 5649 is a bold weatherization effort that will target the reduction of energy consumption by retrofitting 20,000 homes and buildings across the state. This will reduce heating bills and provide an estimated 8,000 living-wage jobs for skilled workers, apprentices, veterans and disadvantaged populations.
  • SB 5854 will raise efficiency standards for new building construction, while improving energy efficiency in existing public buildings through insulation, better windows and improved heating and cooling systems.  Known as Efficiency First, the bill will make Washington the first state in the country to meet the Architecture 2030 Challenge for progress toward buildings that are net-zero energy consumers.  Efficiency First will also establish energy use scores, similar to miles-per-gallon ratings of cars, to be disclosed to potential buyers before buildings are sold.
  • SB 5560, which still needs to be acted on by the Governor, takes some important steps to move Washington forward in planning for climate change impacts, and requires any entity receiving grants from the capital budget to have a plan in place to meet state climate emission reduction goals.
  • Noting a European Union ban on the use of lead weights on vehicle wheels, lawmakers passed HB 1033, which phases out the use of lead-weights on vehicle wheels starting in January 2011.
  • HB 1007 creates a sustainable energy trust allowing for investor and consumer owned electricity and natural gas utilities to collect a monthly charge from customers to support sustainable energy resources of five megawatts or less, or smart energy technologies.

Bills that didn't:

  • This session’s cap and invest bill, SB 5735, died at the last minute.  However,  most of the bill's important substance (especially authorization for the state to participate in the Western Climate Initiative) had been taken out of the legislation weeks earlier. Some environmentalists fear that failing to join a regional cap-and-trade program has left Washington with statutory commitments to reach certain emissions targets but no clear way to achieve those targets.
  • HB 1614/ SB 5518 would have levied a per-barrel fee on petroleum products that contribute to storm water pollution. The revenue from the fee would have been used to fund projects to restore Puget Sound and Washington’s rivers and lakes.  If it had succeeded, the legislation would have created green jobs around the state.
  • The state's environmental community was successful in stopping the passage of SB 5840 that would have cut the voter-endorsed renewable energy standard up to 75% or more in 2020. 
  • The Legislature failed to pass governor-requested legislation SB 5735, which would have continued progress to develop a comprehensive approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet the state’s 2020 limits.

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Increasing-Democracy

By: JULIE SCHWARTZ

Alaska Session Roundup

Alaska's 2009 legislative session was full of strife between lawmakers and Gov. Sarah Palin, but resulted in little legislative action other than passage of the state budget.  Much of this session was spent deliberating about what to do with the budget, the federal economic stimulus plan and funding.  In addition, a significant amount of time was consumed over the appointment, and subsequent legislative vote to reject, Wayne Anthony Ross for Attorney General.  According to Legislative Research Services, it was the first time in state history that a head of a state agency has failed to be confirmed by the Legislature.  When the legislative session adjourned, only an approximate 62 bills and 29 resolutions were approved by both the Alaska House and Senate. 

Stimulus Debate:  Initially, Gov. Palin said she would accept only about two-thirds of the $930 million of stimulus funds available to Alaska, calling the stimulus package "an unsustainable, debt-ridden package of funds," and expressing concerns about the state having to finance programs and projects created by the stimulus funds after the federal money ran out.  After holding public hearings, state lawmakers voted to request nearly all the ARRA funds available to Alaska.  

While Gov. Palin still has veto power, she has now indicated that she will sign bills accepting most of the federal stimulus funds available to the state, except for the nearly $29 million available for a State Energy Program due to her concerns about adopting a statewide energy code.  Deborah Williams with Alaska Conservation Solutions stated, "[s]he has not yet actually vetoed this provision, and so we sincerely hope she will reconsider given the importance of this money to advance state energy efficiency and renewable energy programs."  Among the stimulus funds Palin has directed her agencies to seek are $264 million for transportation projects, $130 million for Medicaid, and $171 for education.   

Aside from the stimulus money, legislators completed work on a $9.7 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1st and approved a $1.8 billion capital budget for 2010.  According to House Speaker Mike Chenault, because of declining oil revenue, this year's budget negotiations were more difficult than in past years and hard choices needed to be made. 

Overall the legislative session was unproductive - with some legislators stating that the 90 day short session made it too hard to study bills and move them through the committee process. 

Despite the lack of legislative action, a couple of positive initiatives passed the legislature and are now on the Governor's desk:

  • The Legislature approved SB 1 which, if enacted, will boost Alaska’s minimum wage.  Under the bill, Alaska's minimum wage would increase from $7.15 an hour to 50 cents above the federal minimum wage on January 1, 2010.  In addition, the bill states that from now on the Alaska minimum wage will always be no less than 50 cents an hour more than the federal minimum wage.  Five House Democrats voted against the bill, saying it simply didn’t do enough for the state’s lowest-paid workers
  • SB 133, which passed the legislature, if enacted will start the process of replacing paper records on prescription information, laboratory results and other medical records with an electronic health information exchange system. According to the bill's sponsor Sen. Joe Paskvan, the system would electronically link labs, clinics, pharmacies and hospitals and reduce the risk of drug interactions, misdiagnoses, and administrative costs.  A real motivating force behind the legislation was the availability of federal funds to help cover initiation costs.  However, it is unclear if Palin will be requesting this pot of stimulus money.  
  • HB 26 continues preventive maintenance in the Medicaid adult dental program.  In 2006, the Legislature changed the adult dental program in Medicaid from treating only “acute infection and pain” to a more comprehensive program that covers preventative and restorative care. The 2009 legislation repeals the previous version's sunset provision, making the current program permanent.   
  • The Legislature approved the Governor’s request for $2 million to fund a pilot program of public preschools operated by school districts.  The pilot has four purposes: to serve children who are not now being served by preschools; to help parents who want more guidance in educating their young children at home; to form partnerships that would strengthen existing providers; and to try out different ways of achieving quality care.

Some bad bills were thwarted:

Missed Opportunities:  

  • SB 87 would have increased Denali Kid Care coverage for children and pregnant women to 200% of the federal poverty level.  In addition, the bill would have created a new program to cover all uninsured children between 200% and 350% of the federal poverty level.  For this expanded group of children the bill established a sliding scale monthly premium, plus co-payments for families above 250% of the federal poverty level.  
  • HB 68 would have made sales of and offers to sell certain energy resources by a refiner at exorbitant or excessive prices an unlawful act under the Alaska Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act.
  • While legislators approved about $100 million for renewable energy projects across Alaska, as well as $9 million for a low-income heating assistance program and roughly $7 million for in-state natural gas development, little was accomplished to set state policy and define a plan for bridging high fuel costs and a future of stable, alternative fuels.  While special committees addressed energy and traveled to several communities seeking first-hand input on a statewide energy plan, no final document emerged this year.  However, energy and resources committees plan to work in the interim on an energy policy.
  • HB 126 and SB 105, which aimed to enact a series of reforms such as extending housing assistance for young people coming out of foster care and providing more education assistance for foster children, did not get voted on this session.

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Increasing-Democracy

By: CAROLINE FAN

Georgia Session Roundup

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed around 350 pieces of legislation into law, but took few steps forward as budget debates consumed the legislature. Some better bills included the nation's first mandatory reporting of food contamination tests by food processors, enacted after a Georgia plant released salmonella-laced peanuts. The passage of the budget bill (HB 119) trimmed the state's spending by $3 billion rather than raise taxes. Programs, including an automatic scholarship to top Georgia students who choose to go to school in-state, suffered cuts despite an influx of over $1.3 billion to Georgia from the federal recovery act, much of which went to preserve Medicaid and education spending. Some highly regressive policies became law, including proof of citizenship and a freeze on property tax assessments until 2011 (HB 233). However, Georgians can take comfort in the fact that some of the worst legislation was vetoed, including a bill to pass a capital gains tax break, which would have cost $1 billion in lost revenue.

Despite the desire of conservative legislators to rebel against taking stimulus funds, Georgia will in the end receive $932 million for highway transportation, $144 million in public transportation, $1.7 billion over the next three years to help pay for Medicaid spending, and hundreds of millions for weatherizing and energy improvements in public buildings. Notably, Gov. Purdue admonished Republican legislators that:

"Georgia’s a balanced budget state. And it’s very difficult to do the stimulus-type bills in a state that’s starved for revenue and cash at the same time. So that kind of destroys a supply-side theory within a state government.”

Recently, state officials announced that state revenues for April were down 20% from April 2008, which led to further budget cuts. Fortunately, some of the worst government-reduction bills died.

Tax breaks: Even with the budget in crisis, the legislature continued to enact new tax breaks, although the Governor vetoed a major capital gains tax break (HB 481) which had near unanimous Republican support, with only one Republican voting against it. The bill would have largely benefited the wealthiest Georgians at a time of high statewide unemployment with the richest 1% getting more than 75% of the benefits. It would have eliminated the corporate net worth tax and cut other business taxes while providing employers a tax credit for hiring unemployed workers.

A freeze on property tax assessments until 2011 (HB 233) was enacted, which will have a significant impact on local school funding, as well as a $1800 home-buyers credit that costs $123 million but which is estimated to only generate $2 million in state revenue (HB 261). Another bill which enacted was SB 55, which forces assessors to factor in neighborhood foreclosures when calculating the value of a home.  HB 186 provides a business tax credit for teleworking.  HB 438 revises Georgia's business development tax credit program, at a state revenue cost of $16-42 million in FY 2010, and thus changes the structure of state tax credits for companies that do business in Georgia.

Unemployment Insurance:  HB 581 restructures the Unemployment Benefits Fund, changing the base period of unemployment and allowing some part-time workers to continue drawing on unemployment benefits, in line with federal stimulus regulations.

Culture and Wedge Issues: Although many other states focused on bread and butter issues, Georgia's legislature persisted in rehashing cultural and ethnic wedge issues.

  • Abortion: Georgia passed and signed the first ever embryo adoption act in the nation (HB 388), which is a backdoor attempt to grant legal rights to embryos.
  • Confederate History and States Rights: SB 27 designates April as Confederate Heritage and History Month and celebrates the Confederate States of America and its “citizens of various races and ethnic groups and religions who contributed in sundry and myriad ways to the cause which they held so dear.” The Senate also passed a resolution (SR 632) that upholds the state's right to nullify federal laws that it disagrees with, including criminal statues.
  • Immigration: SB 20, which prohibits state and local governments from having immigration sanctuary policies, was passed and signed. If localities fail to uphold this law, state and federal monies can be withheld. HB 71 outlawed novelty licenses. Proponents of the bill claimed that undocumented immigrants used these licenses to gain public benefits. Notably, SB 67, which would have prohibited Georgians from taking the drivers' licensing exam in languages other than English, passed the House but did not achieve concurrence in the Senate.
  • Elections: Related to the immigration issues, a bill requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship (SB 86) was passed in both chambers and signed into law, making Georgia the second state after Arizona to create such high burdens for voters. The law does not issue free identification to poor voters, and clearly constitutes a poll tax (can we say that?). The legislature missed an opportunity to pass HB 540, a no-excuse absentee ballot bill that made some progress through the legislature but did not pass.

Education:

  • Rep. Alisha Morgan's HB 251 was signed into law allowing public school students to attend any school in their district, not just the ones they are zoned for, provided there is space and parents furnished the transportation. Additionally, it bars nepotism in school board appointments and school administration.
  • HB 484 expands HOPE scholarship eligibility to children of military members stationed in Georgia by deeming them residents of the state, a bill that has interesting implications for supporters of in-state tuition for undocumented students.  HB 280 provides additional compensation for teachers in subjects with severe shortages such as math and science. It will also allow schools to go to a four-day week if gas prices rise.
  • Gov. Purdue vetoed two education bills: HB 100, which would have allowed individuals and businesses to write off 75% of any donations to scholarship funds, and SB 178, which would have created new technical education and career initiative in schools.

Transportation:  SB 200 restructured the state Department of Transportation to remove decision-making power over road building money from the 13 person board, giving the legislature direct control of funding all new projects with 20% of the DOT’s money from motor-fuel and sales taxes. The bill stirred controversy and concern over potential cronyism. The legislature missed an opportunity to allow MARTA, Atlanta's public transit system, to have greater flexibility over spending with SB 120.

Other Notable Bills:

  • Energy: Legislators enacted a measure this year that would allow businesses to receive clean and efficient energy grants (HB 473 ).
  • Consumer rights: A first in the nation law (SB 80) requiring food manufacturers to report internal tests that find tainted products within 24 hours.
  • Health care: HB 160 to increase fines on "super-speeders " driving more than 85 mph passed, and the revenues would fund trauma care in the state.
  • Ethics and Reform: There were six bills which would have introduced good government and accountability reforms, all of which the legislature failed to enact. Senate Bill 96 House Resolution 229, Senate Bill 17, House Bill 601, House Bills 130-136, House Bill 855, SB 17. 
  • Criminal Justice: The Governor signed SB13, which would allow prosecutors to pursue a true life sentence without first asking for the death penalty. Currently, inmates are up for parole every 30 years , and this bill would make the life sentence final.

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By: CHRISTIAN SMITH-SOCARIS

Montana Session Roundup

During Montana's 90-day legislative session lawmakers moved beyond the bitter acrimony that bedeviled their last meeting two years ago.  Instead, legislators worked to craft a compromise budget that made new investments in health care and education, but saw agency spending drop 2%.  While working families were protected on key issues, the state did take several steps back on the environmental front as laws regulating resources extraction and energy infrastructure saw rollbacks in multiple areas.

Budget and Stimulus:  Lawmakers were able to pass a balanced budget that totaled about $8 billion including close to $900 million in stimulus funds. The state will also have an ending fund balance of $260 million, as well as $100 million fund to cover wildfire fighting and other contingent expenses.

  • Transparency: The Governor and the Senate clashed over infrastructure funding with Senate leaders pushing for block grants to the counties, which the Governor likened to "shovel[ing] money out of a window in the dark of night.”  He instead demanded that all projects be individually listed in the budget.  In the end a compromise was reached where projects are stipulated in the budget, but localities can petition to have dollars moved.
  • Conservative Opposition: Conservatives were strongly opposed to stimulus funding for unemployment and other non-infrastructure spending, claiming that if revenues come in lower than expected the state would not be able to cut support for workers and families in response.  Instead, they wanted to use stimulus funds primarily to back-fill spending cuts.  Backers of true stimulus spending won by just a few votes.
  • Property Tax Adjustment: The biggest revenue debate this session concerned the recent property reappraisal by the Department of Revenue, a job lawmakers take up every six years. The value of the average home increased 55% statewide, leading to steep property tax increases.  Progressives worked to increase existing aid programs for the elderly, disabled veterans and other long-time residents suffering most from increases in the value of their property, but attempts to overhaul the reappraisal were unsuccessful and aid programs were untouched.
  • Children's Health Care: Conservatives fought hard to phase in a voter-approved expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), but progressives were able to achieve full implementation of the plan to insure 30,000 additional kids.  In response to many mentally ill people ending up in prison for lack of services, as well as Montana' highest-in-the-nation suicide rate, community mental health service programs were expanded with a $2 million appropriation and several new policies (HB 130, grants for community-based crisis programs; HB 131, extra emergency detention beds; and HB 132, diversion from involuntary treatment).   One notable failure for the health of Montana's youth was the defeat of a provision to allow CHIP to cover contraceptives.  Finding common ground with progressives on this issue, Sen. John Brueggeman noted that more abortions would be the inevitable result.  He lamented that "we all have to be clear with that, we all have to sleep with that."
  • Education: Education will also get a 3% annual spending increase, growth that conservatives fought against strongly.  In addition, $15 million of the state's stimulus dollars will go to increasing the energy efficiency of schools.

Environment and Agriculture

  • Energy: In the name of increasing the state's energy development, a couple of bills will loosen environmental review of various projects, leading to a disappointing session for environmental and conservation advocates.  Areas targeted for deregulation include the review process for energy projects on state land (HB 529) and air quality and facilities citing for energy projects (HB 483).  As noted by Ryan Busse of Montana Conservation Voters, "Several of these bills presented this kind of false choice of ”˜it’s either jobs or it’s environmental protection’.”   One area of defensive victory has been protecting the state's renewable energy portfolio.  Two bills to undermine mandates for renewable energy production failed to become law (SB 257, SB 403), though SB 403 may be brought back to life by a legislative override.  Another small area of victory was passage of a bill beefing up the environmental review of open-cut mines.
  • Horse Slaughter: Like all of the west, Montana faces a huge increase in abandoned horses.  An emotional dispute over the proper response was resolved, when lawmakers re-passed a bill limiting legal action against slaughterhouses after it was initially vetoed by the Governor.  The Governor let the bill, which is expected to open the door for the first horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. since 2007, become law without his signature.

Criminal Justice

  • Gun Deregulation: Several new laws support a boldly libertarian approach to gun rights.  One new law purports to exempt firearms manufactured in Montana from federal regulations.  The bill is an attempt to challenge the federal regulation of gun sales.  Another law, HB 228, relieves people from the obligation to attempt to escape before using a gun in self defense, puts the burden of proof on the state in any criminal trial where a "defendant has offered evidence of justifiable use of force" and allows any licensed gun owner to carry their gun in public unconcealed.  Removed from the final bill was a provision to allow any licensed gun owner to carry their firearm concealed.
  • Death Penalty - The GOP-controlled Senate passed a bill to repeal the death penalty in the state.  Sadly, this tremendous advance was not followed by any action in the House.

Elections and Governance

  • Voting Procedures: Early in the session there were major skirmishes over voting rules when some conservatives tried to undo the state's recent adoption of election day registration.  Simultaneously, an effort was made to establish a vote by mail pilot project.  However, the county clerks supported a direct move to vote by mail.  Advocates worked to both protect EDR and establish voter protections in a vote by mail law and keep to a pilot program that would be studied thoroughly before further steps were taken.  Agreement between the various stakeholders proved impossible and no significant changes were adopted.
  • Yearly Legislative Sessions: A constitutional amendment to move the legislature to shorter, yearly sessions from its current 90 day session every other year failed by four votes.  Proponents felt more people could serve and new lawmakers would have an easier time becoming familiar with the legislative process.  However, more than a third of lawmakers disagreed, feeling that this would move the state toward a full-time legislature.
  • Forward Montana Recognized: Forward Montana's "Trick or Vote" halloween get-out-the-vote campaign won a Reed Award from Politics Magazine for the best GOTV campaign and execution in the nation!  This fun and effective GOTV event is now conducted all over the West through the efforts of the Bus Federation of which Forward Montana is a member.

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Interim Executive Director
Caroline Fan, Immigration and Workers' Rights Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Broadband and Economic Development Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Executive Administrator and Outreach Associate
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist
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