By Jon Tester
After a five-day transmittal break, the Senate resumed its business on Wednesday. During this short week, nearly everything that was dealt with was non-controversial in nature.
On the energy front Rep. Sliter introduced HB 474. This bill is similar to HB 445 that was introduced by Rep. Gallik and tabled (killed) in committee about a month ago. What both of these bills do is increase the Wholesale Energy Transmission (WET) tax. The WET tax applies a tax on all wholesale energy that flows through transmission lines moving into and out of the state. HB 474 increases the WET tax significantly from .015 cents per kilowatt-hour to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Even though it isn't explicit as to where the money derived from this tax will be used for in HB 474, I believe the intent is to use the accrued monies ($230 million over the biennium) for electrical rate relief for consumers and allow for a portion of the collected tax to go to a low-income energy assistance program.
On Saturday an education rally was held in the capitol. The capitol was packed with parents, teachers, and administrators. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people attended. The concerns expressed was that the amount of funding offered in the Martz budget (increases zero percent the first year of the biennium and three percent of the second year) was simply not adequate if public schools are to maintain their programs. As I have said in earlier updates, with the drop in enrollments and the looming and current increases in energy prices, education needs more of an increase than zero and three percent. The prioritizing of expenditures is as always very important and developing long-term funding for education is necessary.
In the House there was a piece of legislation offered late this week to raid the corpus of the trust of $40 million to be used for education. If the coal trust was just setting there doing nothing, I would agree. However, the interest ($42 million annually) from the coal trust funds the water, sewer, and bridge program in the Treasure State Endowment Program (TSEP), it funds the Northeast and North Central Montana Water projects, and it funds the Economic Development package that we established during the most recent special session. The rest of the interest goes into the general fund to currently fund education, human services corrections, and general government. The corpus also allows us to have an AA- state bond rating when the state needs to issue bonds for building projects. My further concern goes back to 1987 when Montana had a $100 million education trust that was raided for a few million that session, and within four years that trust was totally spent.
This was a short week and so is the weekly update. Thanks for all the e-mails and letters. As always, feel free to contact me at Box 243 Capitol Station, Helena, MT 59620 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 444-1444. Until next week, may you be blessed with health, happiness, and moisture.