Two state lawmakers from Missoula were back from Helena on Monday during the Legislature's midpoint break to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly this session.
Brad Tschida, a Republican representing House District 97, and Marilyn Marler, a Democrat from HD90, spoke to City Club Missoula, with Marler commenting on the number of bills that seemed aimed at Missoula, and Tschida cautioning about a pending economic downturn that could affect statewide programs.
Marler is in her first term in the Legislature, and she said she’s noticed a big difference from when she served on the Missoula City Council.
“I ran for the Legislature because I realized a lot of issues that we deal with here in Missoula are affected by laws passed or not passed in Helena,” she said. “I serve on the House Taxation Committee. For those of us who have served in local government, there’s a disconnect between the Legislature and the local governments."
She noticed something else that struck her as a little odd.
"I’m surprised at the number of bills aimed at Missoula and things that have happened in Missoula.”
For example, Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Darby, introduced a HB379, called the “The Working Animals Protection Act” that would prohibit any city council or county from banning legal enterprises using working animals.
“It turned out she didn’t think Missoula should have been able to ban the circus,” Marler explained. “That was the whole testimony."
In 2015, Missoula banned wild and exotic animals from being displayed in a non-educational way. In 2017, after 75 years, the Western Montana Shrine Circus announced it was ending its run. Marler said she didn't like how Manzella portrayed the City Council's role in the decision to ban wild and exotic animals.
"That was kind of an affront to the community process we had here in Missoula," she said. "We had hours and hours of testimony. That was different from the Helena version. They made it sound like we had a 30-minute hearing. But I don’t know what will happen with that bill.”
Another bill ostensibly aimed at Missoula was HB481, introduced by Republican Rep. Wylie Galt of Martinsdale.
“The bill said local governments can’t enforce the Clean Indoor Air Act in privately owned cigar clubs,” Marler said. “That was specifically against the Fool’s End situation in Missoula.”
A private cigar club on Front Street called the Fool’s End Club was sued by the Missoula City County Health Department in 2017 for violating the Clean Indoor Air Act because it was located beneath a children’s museum, where people complained.
And finally, Marler said Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, introduced a bill that would force government entities to pay property taxes if they initiate condemnation lawsuits to gain property through eminent domain.
“When Missoula bought the water company, Bill Mercer was one of the lawyers for the Carlyle Group,” Marler said. “One of the things Carlyle argued in court was Missoula ratepayers should pay property taxes for the past seven years. They lost that argument at the Montana Supreme Court. So Bill brought that bill, and from the day they started I was thinking, 'Oh, that sounds familiar.'”
All three bills Marler referenced were approved in the House and moved to the Senate.
Marler said the state needs to reform its tax system.
“Democrats are in the minority and Republicans are in the majority, but we have a (House Taxation Committee) full of people who don’t like to talk about taxes,” she said, adding that bringing up taxes is often politically toxic. “But what we’ve done is agree for tax breaks for oil and gas in eastern Montana but we haven’t seen proactive tax breaks for solar or renewable energy. We’re having trouble in the committee of finding middle ground.”
She did say there have been some bills introduced she thinks will be good for Montanans, including one to provide property tax relief for elderly people on fixed incomes, and proposals about local option sales taxes.
Marler said she doesn’t agree with a Bozeman lawmaker’s proposal to end some property taxes and add a sales tax.
“Sales taxes are the most regressive type. They hit poor people the most,” she said. “Economies and communities and cultures are so different, not just one thing is going to work.”
Tschida warned that if the economy slumps again, programs like Medicaid could be on the chopping block.
“When you have good times you need to save some of that money for the bad times,” he said. "We have not had an economic downturn since 2008. Many economists say recessions are likely to happen every eight to 10 years. So if Montana’s economy is forced to make cuts, that could bode poorly for some of these programs.”
Tschida said the Legislature has made some good progress in crafting bills that could benefit the state. For example, bills have been introduced that will revise property tax programs, encourage kids to think about careers in technical trades if they don’t want to go to a four-year college, increase timber harvests and combat organized shoplifting.
He said one Missoula grocery store experiences $1 million worth of losses from theft every year due to organized shoplifting.
Tschida said infrastructure spending is a political football that can lead to pet-project spending. For example, he expressed concern about a plan to spend $32 million to renovate Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman.
“Think of what you could do with $32 million,” he said. “According to some of my friends, people never went into Romney Hall anyway.”