By Jon Tester
The second week of the 57th legislative session saw the anticipated increased pace of legislation and legislative activity.
Electricity and gas costs, along with the state's budget, seem to be overriding concerns in the conversations and discussions among the citizens and the legislators alike. The dramatic increase in natural gas prices to businesses and homeowners, and the imminent increase in electricity prices to Montana Power Company's customers come July 1, 2002 (the date deregulation begins and the fixed-rate power contract with MPC ends) have everyone concerned about economic development as well as the ability to simply survive financially in Montana. There are some proposals to deal with the electricity increases, which will also take some of the pressure off gas demands. These proposals will help increase electricity problems in the long term (5 years and longer). In the short term, I have seen no proposals to help ameliorate the electricity or gas increases. If you haven't been informed yet, the budget is tight. Last week former Senator and now Budget Director Swysgood reviewed the budget along with the legislative fiscal analyst. It is accurate to say that the funding of projects and programs will probably end up being less than requested or even expected. It is also fair to say that the budget is extremely fluid at this point and, as in the last session, the priorities for funding or tax decreases will dictate what receives funding and what does not.
I had two bills pass the Senate last week. The bill that increased the penalties for rental items that had not been paid for and my bill to increase the jury pool both passed the Senate quite easily. This next week I have two bills to be presented in committee. The first is a bill by the request of the Legislative Audit Committee, which revises the type of fund from internal service to an enterprise fund for the placement of money derived from the sale of surplus property. The second bill limits the liability of people who serve on the board of directors of a cooperative. Basically, what this bill does is allow directors on a cooperative board the same protection as people who serve on the board of directors of a corporation. The Audit Committee bill will be heard Monday in the Finance and Claims Committee and the bill on director liability will be heard Thursday in the new Senate Energy Committee.
Last week my subcommittee on long-range planning continued to hear proposal requests for TSEP monies. Geraldine and Havre both had proposals from this Senate District. These TSEP grants, if granted, are for infrastructure improvements and cap at either 50 percent of the project costs or $500,000, whichever is less. Last Thursday, this subcommittee, along with the state architect, had a daylong tour that included the state prison at Deer Lodge and the University of Missoula campus. There are several proposed building projects including an $8.7 million reception facility at the state prison, and several building renovations at the U of M. The U of M also has a request for spending authority for a new addition on the law school and a new journalism building. If state authority is given to expend and to build, this money will be coming from private sources. The state's obligation to these facilities is the operation and maintenance monies needed to keep these buildings open.
I received many e-mails and letters last week and I thank everyone who contacted me. I appreciate your input. If you have concerns or questions, please contact me by regular mail at: Jon Tester, Box 243, State Capitol, Helena, Mont. 59620 or e-mail me at email@example.com or phone me at (406) 444-4800 or (406) 444-1444.