Legislative heaven in an interim committee

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The process can take a toll on legislators. Some of my Republican colleagues believe they have been left out of decisions by the executive branch and lament about the high number of vetoes by Governor Bullock. Some of my Democratic brethren believe the budget process ultimately decided by Republicans failed to consider new revenues to avoid substantial cuts to balance the budget. Now in the aftermath of deep cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, some Democrats want a supplemental budget (borrow from 2019 for 2018), to stop the bleeding. Such a proposal will not happen because the new budget, established following a short special session in November, was intentional; planned and approved by the two bodies, Senate and House of Representative. Thus, the prevailing cuts do not meet the statutory definition of “emergency,” eliminating any thought of a supplemental budget.

If significant changes are to occur to address the problems we now face, I believe the heavy lifting already is occurring through interim committees. Our committee work during the legislative session often fails to have the intimacy in numbers and necessary time to concentrate efforts at problems that couldn’t be solved by previous legislatures. My experience with the Local Government Interim Committee has been a bit of a heavenly legislative experience. While one wouldn’t think of terming a school board as heavenly, my experiences from the Whitefish School Board allows me to make the comparison to the interim committee I serve. The committee’s partisanship melts away when we consider the tasks at hand; mainly funding, authorizing, and improving emergency services in the state and statutes that effect the proper working order of our cities, town and counties within the state. We’re focused on the task, and have a working environment that fosters mutual respect and sense of urgency with the problems at hand.

The Committee is optimistic that it can develop bills that we will bring forward to the 2019 legislature. We will bring forward a bill that will establish regional fire authorities, enabling legislation to provide fire districts, and municipalities the ability to formally join services under a planning committee and resulting supervisory board if the authority is approved by voters. We are also bringing forth failed legislation from the 2017 session that will codify the use of EMT’s in the practice of Integrated Health Management (IMH), a delivery platform being piloted in Glacier and Carbon county intended to serve a range of patients in the out of hospital setting by providing team-based care using mobile resources. The committee will also study funding methods to assist small volunteer fire departments securing workers compensation for their firefighters. I am working up a fireworks fee to fund emergency services.

On the municipal front, the committee will review an affordable housing bill that will establish a state tax credit plan and seed money for a housing trust fund. This will be a companion to federal credits which are often unable to meet the demand from developers and Housing Authorities. The committee recognized what all Whitefish residents already know; “We have a statewide affordable housing crisis which is adversely effecting employment and family security for thousands of Montanans.” The Committee also met jointly with the Interim Revenue and Transportation Committee to review a lengthy state audit of tax increment districts (TIF). I’m hoping that we can look to review definitions of our Urban Redevelopment Districts (the foundation that allows increments financing) and better understand the allowable blighted areas and how we may more accurately define areas and the resulting geographical areas of need. The TIF will soon sunset in Whitefish. It has been a powerful tool for funding significant projects in Whitefish including the corner of the old fire station and parts of Whitefish High School.

One of my favorite topics is the local option tax. I sponsored HB 577 last session, a bill to establish a statewide voted local option tax. I’m now working with representatives from Park County, the Montana Association of Counties (MACO), and the League of Cities and Towns to establish a “Gateway Local Option Tax,” expanding eligibility to communities close to our national parks and adversely effected (infrastructure, law enforcement and emergency services), by tourism.

The Local Government Interim Committee is completing its first year of existence. Previously we were attached to Education. In the future I hope to fully fund the committee. There’s more on our plate than we presently have the capacity to accomplish.

This is government at its best, far under the radar dealing with essential services for our citizens, a committee I’m proud to be part of.

Democrat Dave Fern represents House District 5 in the Montana Legislature.

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