- Associated Press - Friday, April 28, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The 2017 Montana legislative session that ended Friday was dominated by debates over infrastructure and how to tighten the budget, but it also included bills to make significant changes in tax policy, health care, energy, campaign finance and other areas.

A total of 1,188 bills and resolutions were introduced by lawmakers this year. A majority of them died, but more than 236 bills have already been signed into law.

More than 250 other bills have yet to be sent to Gov. Steve Bullock for him to sign, veto or let become law without his signature.

A look at some of the highlights from the session:

___

BUDGET

The state budget is $10.3 billion for 2018 and 2019, and will leave an estimated $200 million in reserve. Most state agencies saw their budgets trimmed, and they will see some vacant positions go unfilled for the next two years to make up for the revenue shortfall. The Legislature also created a budget stabilization reserve fund, with rules meant to allow the governor to respond more quickly to future revenue drops.

___

TAXES

The Legislature approved the first increase in Montana’s fuel tax in a quarter of a century, with the proceeds to pay for road and bridge projects. Fees were also increased on motor vehicle registrations and on vehicles worth more than $150,000. To fund an effort to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels, fees on fishing licenses were raised and a new one imposed on hydroelectric dams. Lawmakers passed tax policy bills meant to attract new businesses and return some money to low-income residents.

___

INFRASTRUCTURE

The Legislature approved about $173 million in cash to pay for water, wastewater, road and bridge projects in mostly rural areas of the state, and authorized spending hundreds of millions more in federal funding for road projects. One of the most contentious issues of the session was a failed measure that would pay for a range of other projects, including major building projects at state universities and colleges and a veterans’ home in Butte.

___

HEALTH CARE

The Legislature passed bills that lawmakers hope will lower the rising cost of health insurance. Lawmakers voted to approve a high-risk health insurance pool, to allow out-of-state insurers to sell policies in Montana, to increase transparency of health care prices for patients and to give tax credits to small companies that offer high-deductible insurance plans to their employees.

___

CAMPAIGN FINANCE

Lawmakers approved a measure to raise the amount of money that donors can give to state candidates for political office, despite pending legislation on the current limits. The Legislature also added the option of a mediator to review allegations of campaign finance violations and confirmed a new commissioner of political practices, former Democratic legislator Jeff Mangan.

___

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

The Legislature created regulations for the medical marijuana industry after voters approved an initiative to allow dispensaries to operate in the state. The bill creates licenses and fees for marijuana distributors and requires tracking of the drug to prevent it from being sold on the black market.

___

PRESCHOOL

After negotiations with Bullock, lawmakers approved spending $6 million to test ways to expand 4- and 5-year-old children’s access to preschool in the state. The funding will last two years as a pilot project and be reassessed in the 2019 legislative session.

___

PRISON AND SENTENCING REFORMS

The Legislature passed several measures meant to ease the state’s overpopulated jails and prisons and reduce the number of repeat offenders. The bills eliminated jail time for certain misdemeanor crimes, revised how offenders on probation are supervised, set deadlines for pre-sentencing investigative reports and addressed the housing needs of released offenders, among others.

___

CHILD PROTECTION REFORMS

Another package of bills is meant to help the state deal with the record number of children in the foster care system and reduce child neglect and abuse. One measure would require that foster children not be excluded from Medicaid services. Another measure would require foster parents to allow children to participate in developmentally and age-appropriate activities. Other bills will require more planning and study to combat child abuse and neglect.

___

COLSTRIP

Lawmakers passed a bill requiring Colstrip power plant owners to submit a remediation plan for the closure of the plant’s two older coal-fired units scheduled by July 2022. They also approved a plan to allow Colstrip owners to borrow up to $10 million a year from the state to keep the units running until that time. Another bill that would have required the owners to compensate property owners, governments and workers for losses related to the closure failed to pass.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide