Local lawmakers, talking to local constituents Thursday night in Havre on the first night of a recess of the Montana Legislature, talked about progress they have seen in the first half of the session — including an improvement in the tone from the 2011 session.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said — much like the sessions following confrontations between Gov. Stan Stephens and the Legislature in the late 80s and early 90s — the lawmakers seem to be making a conscious effort to curb the angry tone of the last session.
“I would give this particular session of the Legislature high marks,” he said.
Regional water rates and utility taxes
Jergeson said he prefers taking action to make minor improvements when he is in the Legislature, rather than the attitude new lawmakers seem to have that they will make the world safe for Democracy.
He said he had success with one of those — a bill setting procedures for regional water systems like the Rocky Boy’s/North Central Montana Regional Water System and the Fort Peck/Dry Prairie system farther east to set and maintain their water rates.
But, he said, he failed in the third reading of another, an attempt to repeal a law passed 10 years ago.
That bill allowed electrical utilities to automatically pass tax increases to their customers, Jergeson said. While the Public Service Commission is required to review those rate increases, it can’t stop them, he said.
“This year, that tax increase to consumers is showing up on your NorthWestern Energy bills right now, it’s $12.5 million,” he said.
His bill passed on second reading, Jergeson said, but after extensive lobbying by NorthWestern Energy failed on third reading.
“I’m not a terribly happy camper with the folks at NorthWestern,” he added.
He said the company — earned an extra $15 million above authorized amounts last year, but will charge its customers the $12.5 million in additional taxes instead of using that money.
Jergeson said the company is insisting on short-circuiting the regular rate-making process that is supposed to be in place at the PSC. He tried to repeal that.
“It failed (Wednesday) 23-27,” he said. “And every senator, frankly, who voted against that bill voted to confirm that its OK to raise customer rates by $12.5 million.”
Property taxes, business equipment
Rep. Kris Hansen said work is proceeding on the budget — the committee has been listening to departments justify their budget for 45 days straight — and that the House passed two bills she said are true jobs bills.
One gives a property tax cut totalling $100 million a year, while the other will exempt the first $250,000 value of business equipment.
A company with less than $250,000 would pay nothing in business equipment taxes, while a company with $300,000 worth of equipment will pay for $50,000 worth.
“That, we believe, is one of the biggest job-creator bills we could send through the process,” she said.
Indian child welfare, domestic violence and drug task forces
Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy said a few of his bills have passed from the Senate and a few more are still in the works.
His bill to create a Montana Indian Child Welfare Act passed, as did his bill creating a permanent process to provide for non-Indians attending tribal colleges.
His bill creating a pilot project preserving Montana Indian languages also passed to the House.
“We need to preserve what we have left,” Windy Boy said.
He said two other bills still are in the works — one increasing penalties for domestic violence, and another on providing funding for state drug task forces — which could be one of many areas hurt with sequestration going into effect today, he said.