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Local GOP legislators discuss the legislative session

 

Russ Tempel

The Legislature adjourned April 25, after 87 days of being in session this year, and state Sen. Russ Tempel, R-Chester, and Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, spoke Friday to the North Central Pachyderm Club about their opinion of how the session went and what they accomplished.

"It was a good session," Kassmier said. "We accomplished quite a bit.

"At the end, it got a little tense," he added.

President of the North Central Pachyderm Club Andrew Brekke said that even though the session has ended, a large number of the bills were still waiting for action from the governor's office.

He added that the fight is not over and the state still has a number of unanswered questions about where the state stands on a number of issues.

Kassmier said that, late in the session, the Legislature voted down the bills regarding NorthWestern Energy's purchase agreement of the Colstrip facility, which is set to close units one and two in 2022 and close units three and four in 2045, and was a huge loss to the state.

Brekke said that the bill did not authorize the sale, but did guarantee NorthWestern Energy's profit.

The first bill, Senate Bill 278 introduced by Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, was voted down in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee in March. SB 278 would have allowed NorthWestern Energy to buy more ownership shares in the coal-fired Colstrip plant for a purchase price of no more than $1 per transfer without oversight of the Public Service Commission.

That same month Richmond introduced a second bill, Senate Bill 331, which would revise electric utility cost recovery for certain coal-fired plants and required the Public Service Commission to include certain returns and costs in utility rates; allowing for utility cost recovery for certain acquisitions. SB 331 was later voted down on the House floor 37 to 60 in April.

"I don't know if that was the right bill. I'm not going to say it was, but we got to start looking at how to help Colstrip to make sure it provides reliable energy and use," Kassmier said.

Kassmier said that a large amount of the state's funds are from coal tax, with the tax used to fund various projects and programs across the state.

"As a state, I think we are going to need to use more of our natural resources," he added.

Tempel agreed that Colstrip plays a major role in the state's economy, and if the state were to lose Colstrip and other coal plants it would not only cost the state, but each individual household, a large amount of money, to purchase electricity from out-of-state companies.

Three of Kassmier's bills waiting for action

Kassmier said that, at the end of the session, the legislators worked hard on getting the session wrapped up and a budget passed. He added that a large number of bills have gone through the Legislature and more than 300 bills are still waiting for the governor to take action.

Once a bill arrives at the governor's desk, the governor has nine days to either pass or veto the bill. On the tenth day, if no action is taken, it becomes law, he said.

He said that this session he had four bills pass through the Legislature, with one, House Bill 142, a bill to generally revise county weed laws, already signed into law.

The other three are House Bill 142, to exempt certain community service act contracts from the procurement act; House Bill 332, which requires county commissioner approval to relocate bison into their county, and House Bill 393, which increases truck speed limits to 65 miles per hour for the entire day.

Kassmier said that Montana Department of Transportation has already tested the idea in the Sidney area and saw a drastic reduction in accidents. He added that having the truck speed limit set at 65 miles per hour causes a reduction in careless passing on the highways and allows for a better flow of traffic.

"I think it would be signed," he said, adding that the bill was unopposed in the Legislature and had a number of proponents from the trucking industry who supported the bill.

Education

Tempel, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said that one of the bills which was passed is aimed to encourage teachers to teach in rural areas. House Bill 211, introduced by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, is a bill which would allow the state to revise eligibility for quality educators receiving loan repayment assistance for up to four years after they are hired at a rural school.

Tempel said that if a teacher has accrued more than $15,000 of debt for their tuition, the school may pay up to $16,000 toward the debt. The first year the teacher is eligible for $3,000, the second year $4,000 and the third year $5,000. After the three years, the school can apply for an additional $4,000. He added that Havre Public Schools would qualify as rural schools because the criteria for a rural school is being in a community with a population less than 20,000.

"For rural schools that means a lot to just have that extra incentive to encourage teachers to teach at these rural schools," he said.

He added that he was unsure if the bill would be signed by the governor.

Tempel said one of the bills which died in the Legislature was the continued funding for the preschool program. Within the state more than 20 programs were previously funded through matched federal funds. But once the federal funding expired, Tempel said, it was going to be to expensive to the state to continue funding the programs.

Medicaid

Late in the legislative session HB 658, introduced by Rep. Edward Buttrey, R-Great Falls, to fund Medicaid expansion was passed by the Legislature. The bill was highly debated by both the Republicans and the Democrats throughout the session with some of the points of argument about funding of the program, putting a work requirement in place and a co-pay.

Kassmier said that for every dollar the state spends on the program the federal government will fund $9, with hospitals and others contributing to funding the program. If the federal government drops below the 90 percent match, Medicaid will need to be re-addressed by the Legislature because the state would not be able to afford funding the program, he said.

He added that with the federal government and hospitals funding the program, it still costs the state approximately $10 million out of the general fund.

Andrew Brekke said that during the session not a lot of information was available about the status of Medicaid with the information constantly changing.

Joshua Kassmier

"No one knew what was going on," he said.

Kassmier added that the bill no longer requires a co-pay from the participants in the program.

Tempel said that the bill does terminate in 2025, when the Legislature will have to renew the program or end it. But if the federal funding drops before 2025, the Legislature will have to have a special session to address the future of the program.

"As soon as the federal government drops below the 90 percent, it's going to be a moot issue anyway," he said.

Kassmier said that even though the bill passed the Legislature and has new requirements, it has not yet been signed and still has many issues and concerns.

"I wouldn't say that this battle is over," he said.

 

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