New government office to open in two months

HELENA - A bill intended to help the Montana economy by reorganizing the Commerce Department and creating a new economic development office takes effect in two months, after being signed by Gov. Judy Martz.

The legislation, a centerpiece of her administration's hopes of promoting economic growth, shifts eight government programs to other state agencies and establishes a $1.2 million-a-year office with a seven-member staff charged with luring more business to Montana.

The office would include a state business recruiter and a Washington, D.C., lobbyist to work with Montana's congressional delegation in finding federal money and attracting businesses to the state.

Senate Bill 445 was a partisan measure. Of the 86 votes for the bill, only two came from the Democratic minorities in the House and Senate.

The arguments of supporters and opponents centered on funding for the new economic development program to be created in the governor's office.

Critics said the money should be used for education because business recruitment will be a waste of time unless the state first ensures a quality school system. Backers contended economic growth, and resulting expansion of the state's tax base, is necessary before Montanans can afford to give education more.

Democrats also questioned the proposed salaries in the economic development office, especially the $143,000 in annual wage and benefits for the office director. Republicans said the pay is justified by the results demanded from the office.

Martz also has signed a bill increasing the prices of hunting and fishing licenses for out-of-staters. The bill is expected to provide an additional $4 million a year for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Agency officials said the money is needed to prevent a $15 million deficit in six years. The higher fees, which take effect March 1, 2002, will transform that red ink into an $8.5 million surplus by 2007.

The bill raises the price of a $45 season fishing license to $60 and a two-day fishing license increases from $10 to $15. Moose, mountain goat and mountain sheep licenses, each priced at $475, will cost $750. A black bear license would cost $350, up from $120, and the price of an antelope license will rise from $150 to $200.

Big game combination licenses - for fishing and hunting of elk, deer and birds - increase from $475 to $625. The deer combination license for deer, birds and fishing increases from $245 to $325. Nonresident wild turkey hunters would see their tag drop from $123 to $115.

Other bills signed recently by Martz:

Increase fines for minors possessing or attempting to buy alcohol or tobacco products.

Require government, upon request, to provide a written statement explaining its authority for denying a permit or issuing one with conditions attached.

Expand eligibility for a program providing health insurance to poor children.

Spend about $190,000 a year to create a special court to handle asbestos-exposure lawsuits related to the vermiculite mine operated by W.R. Grace and Co.

Increase the tax on telecommunication companies by $1.6 million over the next two years.

Add a district judge each in Ravalli and Cascade counties, to be elected in the fall of 2002.

Give prosecutors twice as much time after a victim of sex crime reaches age 18 in which to file charges.

Provide unemployment insurance to those who leave their jobs because they are victims of domestic abuse.

Allow the state to manage prairie dogs as a species in need of management, to prevent the federal government from listing the animals as threatened or endangered.

Give elk permits to landowners who open their property to free public hunting.

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