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Freshmen legislators give mid-session report

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By Robin Jordan (Butte Weekly)

                Butte’s freshmen legislators Amanda Curtis, Dist. 76 and Ryan Lynch returned to Butte last week and reported some of their successes and disappointments in carrying legislation during the first half of the 2013 Montana legislative session. 

                Curtis said some of the most frustrating aspects of the current session have been the amount of time wasted on unconstitutional bills and a
number of bills that thwart campaign finance reform and make it harder for citizens to vote.  At the same time, she said she is disappointed that some important bills dealing with mental health services, jobs and education have failed to advance past the committee stage. 

                Lynch summed up the contradictions and ironies of the session as, “The crazy train is leaving the station; make sure you’re    
not on the tracks.”

                One bill Curtis sponsored, HB 166, would have used a part of the proceeds from the state lottery to set up scholarships in the University System, including in vocational schools, for resident Montana students.  The bill was tabled in committee.  Curtis said currently, the $16 million yearly profit from the lottery goes into the general fund.  Her bill, she said, would have addressed the high cost of education in the state and the fact that Montana ranks fourth from last in the nation in state scholarship funding. 

                Curtis introduced HB 490 at the request of Governor Steve Bullock to increase the required percentage of Montanans hired for public works projects from 50 to 75 percent.  The “Hire Montana First” bill would also eliminate loopholes in current law and enforce penalties on companies that do not comply with the law.  The legislation has the support of a majority of Montana contractors and organized labor, Curtis said, but Republicans arguing against the measure say that it is not a free-market solution and could increase costs and delay projects.  After the bill was tabled in the House Business and Labor Committee, Curtis made a “blast” motion to resume discussion.

 

                Curtis said for a blast motion to pass requires 60 votes in the House.  The Feb. 23 motion failed 44-54.  All 39 Democratic representatives and 5 Republicans voted for the motion.  A second blast motion on Feb. 26 also failed, although the measure picked up one additional Republican vote. 

                Curtis said it is ironic that virtually every candidate for the legislature, regardless of party, included jobs in his or her campaign platform, yet when a measure to create jobs for Montanans was presented, it failed to gain majority support. 

                Curtis successfully carried HB 92, which has been signed into law by the governor, to close a loophole in the law governing drug treatment court and mental health treatment court proceedings that allowed clients that did not meet financial guidelines to be represented by a public defender.  

                She also successfully carried HB 164 for the Association of Counties, which fixed deadlines for changing the boundaries of county commissioner districts.  The law mistakenly stated that the district boundaries could only be changed within the 6 months prior to the primary election.  Curtis’ bill rectified the mistake by preventing boundary changes within the 6 months prior to the primary.  The bill has been transmitted to the governor for his signature. 

                Lynch sponsored HB 107, which was signed into law by the governor.  The bill allows the office of the public defender to appoint a guardian ad litem or special counsel at the court’s expense in neglect or abuse cases . 

                Lynch has high hopes for an education bill he is sponsoring which would pay off student loans for a Montana high school graduate going to a university or vo-tech school in the state if the student stays or comes back to the state as an entrepreneur and creates 10 or more jobs.  Lynch said the bill could be structured to either redirect up to 20 percent of the Big Sky Economic Trust to pay for the program or, more likely, it could be structured as a tax credit so there would be no benefit to the entrepreneur until he or she has a liability with the state.  He expects the bill will get further consideration in the second half of the session. 

                Lynch’s bill to allow a successor in an estate to directly petition the state for unclaimed property worth less than $5,000 has been transmitted to the senate.  The legislation, HB 89, would save an heir the legal expense of reopening the estate to pursue the small property claim, he said. 

                Lynch also sponsored HB 59, which modifies the definition of the governor’s drought advisory council and allows the council to track floods and water supply as well as drought, and HB 91, which modifies and expands the public employee 457 deferred compensation program to include a Roth account to allow after-tax contributions.  Both bills have been advanced to senate committees. 

                The second half of the legislative session began Monday, Mar. 4.   

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