By Ron VandenBoom
A funding package that, because of its complexity and size, is commonly known as the "big bill" was stripped of all amendments late Tuesday evening after it was defeated by a tie vote of 24-24 on the floor of the Senate.
The big bill's goal is to stabilize funding for counties losing money due to property tax cuts and redistribute revenue back to counties through a complex formula based on what they are currently receiving from the state.
After the Senate defeated HB-124, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, senators realized there was no longer any reimbursement of the counties.
The Senate, for lack of any other expedient alternative, then stripped the bill of all its amendments and passed the now much slimmer measure by a vote of 38-10.
"Most of the bill is in the garbage can," Tester said Wednesday morning.
But by late Wednesday morning the bill had been resurrected from committee with many of its amendments reattached and passed over to the House.
The bill has met with cautious concern by many county commissioners who feel the success of the legislation rests mostly on trust of the Legislature an entity that they say history has shown to be less than trustworthy.
Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher, while recognizing HB-124 has some strong points, especially regarding court funding and welfare, is apprehensive about sending county money to Helena where "it loses its identity."
Kaercher explained that counties could become like K-12 schools are this session having to cut back on services because of a lack of state funding and begging to get more money out of a tight budget.
The bill was the result of findings by the Local Government Funding and Structure Committee, which during the last biennium investigated local government funding. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Bob Story, R-Park City.
Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway described proponents of the bill as having the philosophy that state and local government have a partnership. "And if that's the case, we might be better off," he said.
Conway emphasized that Hill County has no plans to cut any services and that there is no reason to believe they will be cut. But again, there is the possibility that some services would go the way of the County Assessor's Office and residents would have to call Helena to get answers or information.
"People like to walk up to the courthouse and get services," Conway said.
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette used the term "reluctantly supporting" to describe what she thinks is the general reaction of commissioners around the state to the proposal.
"There is no other mechanism for getting our money back," she said, She added that she doesn't necessarily think the reaction here is negative and noted that the Local Government Funding Committee put a lot of time and hard work into its job.
"If everything works, we should be better off," she said.
Tester, who voted against the bill, said he fears it could lead to the consolidation of counties if county populations drop and funding decreases. Counties could suffer the same way that schools are suffering now due to decreases in students, he said. He also said he feels the bill is unpopular with commissioners who think it will take power away from the counties.
"I believe that the best government is government that is closest to the people," he said.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said he would not be concerned about the "big bill" if it makes good on the promise that local governments and school districts would be adequately reimbursed.
"It takes all of (the counties') revenue sources and takes it to Helena," Jergeson said. "And then you rely on the good graces of government to return those revenues to the counties."
Jergeson's suggestion is that state government cannot be trusted to live up to its obligations in the long term.
Referring to the property tax breaks passed by previous Legislatures, Jergeson said that, instead of leaving local government's tax base alone, the state has eroded it.
The implication is that HB-124 is the state's way of correcting past errors.
"My guess is that there aren't very many that would have voted for it," Jergeson said of the state's county commissioners.