At a legislative video conference Tuesday in Havre, lawmakers and their constituents raised a number of topics, including eminent domain, state pensions and access to public lands.
Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, and Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, attended the conference from Helena. Rep. Wendy Warburtion, R-Chinook, who has attended previous sessions, was unable to attend.
Jergeson said he believes other area lawmakers, Rep. Clarena Brockie, D-Harlem, and Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, have another caucus meeting that is held at the same time as the legislative video conference, sponsored each week by Havre Public Schools and the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce.
One issue raised Tuesday was a contentious item at last week’s video conference — a bill sponsored by Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, and Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, that would allow people to cross the corners of private land where checker-boarded public and private ownership prevents access to the public land.
Dennis Hansen of Chester, a former member of a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks citizens advisory committee and president of the Hi-Line Sportsmen Club, said he read an article about the previous video conference in which Warburton said she is opposed to the bill due to trespassing issues, and she is not stopping people from flying to the public land in a helicopter.
“I don’t think that was real tasteful,” he said. “It’s turned into a (partisan) deal. This is stuff we didn’t want to see. We were hoping people can work together.
“This seemed like a real common-sense deal,” he added.
After generally partisan opposition rose, Kerns voted against his own bill, killing it in committee.
Dennis Hansen asked if it might help if people came down to Helena Feb. 18 to support an effort to blast the bill from committee to the floor of the House.
Rep. Hansen said she thinks it will be difficult to raise the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to the floor, but said she has heard that legislators are working on other compromise bills to deal with the access issue.
Jergeson said the topic would be controversial regardless of who is in office.
“It’s interesting to me, in a way, that the bill was introduced to a lot of fanfare about how it was a joint effort between a very staunch Republican and a very staunch Democrat to find some common ground on an issue, but yet, when the committee took action, it broke down into a partisan division,” he said.
He said he agreed with Dennis Hansen that the Legislature should find a way to resolve the issue without drawing partisan lines.
“Good public policy on that particular issue is not going to come out of sharply drawn swords on a partisan basis,” he said.
He said a bill on another controversial issue was being heard in a Senate committee Tuesday afternoon — a bill overturning a 2011 law granting eminent domain to utilities, primarily to allow a Canadian company to build an electrical tie-line between Alberta and Montana.
That bill would not be up for a vote until later, he added.
Rep. Hansen said a bill she has requested dealing with the tax code should be coming out soon.
“It’s an income tax simplification bill ... if all goes well it would allow you to file your Montana state income tax on one page, at the most, or a postcard at best,” she said.
She said the bill would simplify the process, reducing the number of brackets from seven to three, a 1 percent, a 3 percent and a 6 percent bracket. It would not reduce income taxes or state revenue, Hansen added.
She said it would reduce the top rate from 6.9 percent to 6 percent, and would add more low-income bracket people to the 1 percent bracket.
Jergeson said a Senate committee approved 7-0 expanding Insure Montana, a state program to help small businesses insure their employees, from businesses with two to nine employees to businesses with two to 25 employees. The sponsor of that bill, Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, has put it back into committee while legislators look for sources to fund the program.
Richard Cronk of Chinook asked if progress is being made to find solutions to the solvency of state retirement programs. Those programs are expected to overdraw their reserves in future years.
Rep. Hansen said a special subcommittee has been formed to wade through the pile of bills proposed on that subject.
“It’s my understanding they’re still just working through those bills,” she said.
Jergeson said he doubts any solutions will be sent to the floor until late in the session. There are many opinions on the best solutions, and many contractual and legal issues, that have to be dealt with.
Cronk said people want to be assured that the problem will be solved.
“They don’t want this to happen again in five to 10 years, if another economic downturn happens, that you’re going to have to come back to taxpayers, citizens of cities and counties, and raise their taxes again,” he said. “They would hope it is a permanent fix.”
Jergeson said, especially for a system dependent on the ups and downs of the stock market, programs will run into problems. He noted that, in the 1980s, the fix to Social Security was thought to be permanent, but it is back in the news again.
“Permanent, in these cases, is only until the next crisis comes along,” he said.