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Area legislators talk workers' comp, education, revenue

Topics at the first Havre legislative video conference for the 2013 session turned to issues related to business, school and the budget during the discussion with three local lawmakers.

Reps. Wendy Warburton, R-Chinook, and Kris Hansen, R-Havre, took questions for about 20 minutes before having to leave for an official portrait session, with Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, coming in from his portrait session as they left.

The legislators talked to a roomful of local constituents during the video conference, sponsored by the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce and Havre Pubilc Schools.

Havre businessman Brad Lotton asked Jergeson if he has heard anything about bills to improve workers' compensation — the 2011 Legislature made improvements, but Montana is still rated as the 46th-worst state for rates, he said.

"Which isn't a great place to be, " Lotton added. "Is there anything we can do to keep chipping away at that workmen's comp problem we have? "

Jergeson said he hasn't heard of any bills yet, but it easily could come up.

"It is an important topic, " he said. "It's one that, every session I've served, workers' comp has been an issue. I wouldn't be surprised that it will be a topic.

He added that, so far, most people have brought balancing the budget and taking care of projected future shortfalls in state retirement systems to the forefront, but "that doesn't diminish the importance of the issue (of workers' compensation.) "

Havre Public Schools Superintendent Andy Carlson also commented on a bill drafted by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, in cooperation with the Montana School Board Association, the teacher's union group MEA-MFT and the Montana Rural Education Association.

"I just want to stress that this is a joint effort, and we are supportive that bill, " he said.

Jergeson said he has received an email about that bill from every superintendent in his Senate district. While he is supportive of the issues raised in the bill, how it looks on the floor — and how much he supports it — will depend on how it is amended in committee, he said.

Chamber Executive Director Debbie Vandeberg said she would be contacting the local legislators when bills dealing with tourism come up.

"You guys will be hearing from us again as they start talking about bed tax dollars … and start to chisel away at that pot of gold, " she said.

Hansen and Jergeson, each of whom sit on their body's taxation committee which are holding joint hearings on revenue, each spoke about the revenue estimates now being worked on in the Legislature.

Hansen said she expects the revenue estimate to be about a week out.

"Then we can compare how much is requested for spending compared to how much we have to spend, " she said.

Jergeson said the procedure has been changed for this session — for the last several sessions, the bill stating revenue estimates started in the House, and never made it to the Senate.

"The Senate has been a little frustrated with that pattern, " he said, adding that this year the Senate will propose the revenue estimate and send it to the House.

That will be used to balance the state budget. Changes in the Montana economy can impact what actually comes in, for better or worse, he said. But the estimate has to be used to balance the budget, which will determine if a special session has to be called to cut spending or raise revenue if the estimate is too high.

"Clearly, as it turned out, there have been some big surpluses in the last few years, " Jergeson said. "Even so, it's still important and necessary to have those numbers so it's all documented. "


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