It’s been a mixed bag at the Montana Legislature these past weeks. Some Republicans have sponsored good bills to go along with some really bad bills. Many of the Democrats’ bills are holdovers from last session: Medicaid expansion, free preschool for four-year-olds, additional infrastructure funding, higher education funding … déjà vu all over again. Here are some of the bills that got my attention:
The Good is Rep. Nancy Wilson (D-Missoula) introducing a bill to raise the gas tax by a nickel a gallon. Revenue would be split between fixing local roads and public transportation. It’s a modest increase but could bring in as much as $25 million a year. With a gallon of gas going for less than two dollars these days, now is a good time to pass this bill. Of course, gas isn’t going to stay below two bucks, but we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and investing in public transportation is a step in that direction. Our streets could use some help as well.
I seldom give kudos to Rep. Art Wittich (R-Bozeman), as you’ll see below, but his bill to expand “net metering” could spur growth in home solar systems and other forms of alternative energy. Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls) is sponsoring another “net metering” bill in the senate. Other “net metering” bills are being offered up by Sen. Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) and Rep. Randy Pinocci (R-Sun River). (Pinocci also sponsored a really bad bill, see below.)
The Bad comes in the form of tax legislation from Reps. Art Wittich and Keith Regier (R-Kalispell). Wittich wants to reduce state income taxes and give Homeowners – renters certainly don’t get anything – a tax credit of up to $100 for property taxes. From the news story: Heather O’Loughlin, co-director of the Montana Budget & Policy Center, opposed the bill. She said the top 1 percent of taxpayers – those earning more than $455,000 a year – would each see their taxes cut by $2,200. In contrast, those earning $27,000 would receive a tax cut of $12 apiece.
Hey, I don’t like paying taxes any more than the next guy but I can handle a nickel on a gallon of gas and I’ll bet people earning over $455,000 a year can handle paying the $2,200 they’d be saving through Wittich’s bill. (I’d be saving maybe $25.)
Regier’s bill would cut income taxes, permanently, and would reduce income tax revenue by 1.6 percent annually or by about $82 million over the next four years. According to state revenue chief Mike Kadas, 50 percent of the tax reductions would go to the top 10 percent of taxpayers, while everyone else would receive smaller shares.
Also bad is a bill from Rep. Randy Pinocci that would require drug testing for welfare recipients. Three Montana daily newspapers, that I know of, have come out against this bill on their opinion pages: the Missoulian, the Helena Independent Record and the Billings Gazette.
The Stupid comes from Sen. Steve Sales (R-Bozeman) who wants to scrap hunter safety orange. It’s mandatory now that hunters wear at least 400 inches of orange. Sales’ bill would make it voluntary. According to statistics he cited Thursday before the Senate Fish & Game Committee, most hunting-related accidents aren’t from people shooting people they mistake for game, but from other incidents, such as accidental discharge of a gun, or hunters getting lost. This comment on KRTV’s website says it all:
“ … having instructed Montana Hunter Education for over 40 years, this is a very ill conceived piece of legislation. Has it ever occurred to you and your cohorts that the safety statistics you were spouting were probably a result of our current law? Leave well enough alone please.”
And finally, look for a bill to be introduced this week to “emphasize critical thinking in science education” that would do just the opposite. Sponsored by Rep. Clayton Fiscus (R-Billings), the bill would require public schools to teach “intelligent design” along with evolution. Science teachers are calling it an anti-science bill. Fiscus sponsored a similar bill in 2013. Fortunately, it died in committee.