By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - State agencies already have a wish list of almost 250 bills for 2005 Legislature, including proposals to maintain funding for health care programs, crack down on drinking drivers and other criminals, and bestow more benefits on Montanans in the military.
The roster of potential legislation was submitted to the governor's budget office for routine review, with the 2005 session still nine months away.
Chuck Swysgood, budget director for Gov. Judy Martz, said his staff will determine possible costs of the proposals and decide whether the ideas have the administration's support.
While opposition from the governor's office probably dooms suggestions from executive branch agencies, elected officials are free to pursue what they wish, he said.
Not all departments met the April 16 deadline for submitting legislative ideas to the budget office. Nineteen of 32 agencies listed 246 proposals.
Attorney General Mike McGrath will make another attempt to get tougher seat belt laws. Making failure to buckle up or to properly restrain children a primary offense would allow officers to ticket a motorist without first spotting another traffic violations.
Another rerun McGrath plans in 2005 will be a proposal for a graduated driver licensing system, in which new drivers are restricted for their first year behind the wheel. Similar legislation was vetoed by Martz in 2001 and failed to pass the 2003 session.
The Justice Department also will propose expanding a $10 court fee assessed on each criminal offense to include traffic violations as well. The additional money would be used to help finance the state Law Enforcement Academy.
Criminals would be more closely tracked by authorities under another pair of bills the agency has listed.
One would require all convicted felons - not just violent and sexual offenders - to provide a DNA sample for a national database. The second would mandate any offender, required to register with law enforcement in the state where the crime was committed, to also register in Montana.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services wants legislation to ensure that it continues to receive about $12 million from the state's share of the settlement in a multistate lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
The agency needs the money to maintain key offerings, such as expanded mental health services to the poor and a program that provides health insurance to poor children. The 2003 Legislature approved allocation of the money for just two years.
Another source of money allowed for just two years was a hospital bed tax that raises about $30 million to qualify the state for increased federal Medicaid funds that are used to increase reimbursements for hospitals serving Medicaid patients. The department wants to ask legislators to continue that tax.
The top priority for the Department of Transportation is, once again, a ban on open alcoholic beverage containers in vehicles on Montana highways. The idea was rejected by the 2003 Legislature.
Tim Reardon, chief attorney for the agency, said changes in federal law make it important that lawmakers enact the ban in one of the next two legislative sessions. After that, the punishment for failing to outlaw open containers will become more severe and federal highway aid will be lost.
The Department of Military Affairs has several proposals to aid National Guard members and those who employ those citizen soldiers.
The agency may ask the Legislature to give employers a tax credit for hiring Guard members and to exempt from Montana income tax the pay Guard members receive when on active duty for the state. Other proposals would protect the jobs of Guard members, allow each Guard member free licensing of one vehicle, and offer a free fish and game conservation license for a year to reservists and Guard soldiers returning from federal active duty.
Such special treatment seems fair in light of the changing roles of the National Guard as troops are sent to fire lines at home and combat zones overseas, said Lt. Col. Jim Moran, judge advocate for the Montana National Guard.
''The world has changed so drastically for everyone since 9-11,'' he said. ''Our mission is changing. We're calling more and more on the Guard for state missions and, on the federal side, for active-duty missions. We're taking more and more of their time.
''Our job is to make sure that they are not being disadvantaged by being willing to serve,'' Moran said.
The Department of Environmental Quality would like a law change allowing it to recover all of its costs in preparing expensive environmental analysis of projects.
The Revenue Department wants a bill to encourage more taxpayers to electronically file their returns. Director Don Hoffman said one option would be to charge those filing paper returns a handling fee to reflect the higher processing cost.