Gazette opinion: Forums offer lawmakers food for thought

2012-12-05T00:30:00Z Gazette opinion: Forums offer lawmakers food for thought The Billings Gazette
December 05, 2012 12:30 am

A group of Billings business people, community leaders and lawmakers started the week off with a wide-ranging forum on issues of concern in the 2013 Legislature.

These early morning forums, hosted by Montana State University Billings at its downtown campus on Broadway, are cosponsored by the Billings Chamber of Commerce and the city of Billings.

At this venue, Bruce MacIntyre, governmental affairs director for the Billings Chamber, talked about the impact of the oil boom and the need to help neighbors in Eastern Montana. Cities especially are struggling with growing infrastructure demands because almost no oil and gas revenue is distributed to cities. That tax money is split between counties, school districts and the state. Legislation that could help Eastern Montana cities includes:

- Changes in the state resort tax law to allow cities over 5,500 population to enact the 3 percent sales tax and removal of the requirement that 10 percent of city revenue come from tourism.

- Creation of an oil revenue stream, separate from the Coal Board, to fund infrastructure in affected communities.

Tina Postel, executive director of the Billings Y, made a case for investing in prevention, particularly in preventing childhood obesity and adult diabetes.

Kristen Lundgren of United Way and Barbara Schneeman of RiverStone Health took prevention a step further, supporting legislation to focus on improving the lives of children ages birth through age 5.

United Way and RiverStone are among 22 members of the Billings Best Beginnings Council, which organized earlier this year to improve advocacy and cooperation among organizations serving the youngest children in Yellowstone County.

At the Legislature, the Best Beginnings Council will advocate for:

- Expanding Medicaid to all impoverished Montanans.

- Adding a surcharge to criminal offenders’ sentences to fund crime prevention.

- Raising the age for state school funding to 19, so Montana schools can afford to keep students in school to finish their education. Under present law, schools receive no state funding for students who turn 19 by Sept. 10. This rule affects students even at the elementary level, because repeating an early grade can consign the student to “aging out” before he can complete 12th grade.

The Montana Organizing Council, represented by the Rev. Susan Otey, a retired minister, and two church members, talked about concerns for justice and fairness to Eastern Montanans affected by the oil boom, including seniors being priced out of their homes and families experiencing crises. The group supports:

- Setting a $50 a barrel price trigger on the 18-month oil tax holiday Montana now provides for new wells. North Dakota has such a price trigger, so there’s no tax holiday while the price of oil is as high as it has been in recent years. Increased oil tax revenues could fund infrastructure and services in impacted communities.

- Formation of a Montana partnership bank, somewhat similar to the Bank of North Dakota. The Montana bank’s purpose would be to provide money for community banks in this state to make home and small business loans.

Leila Farnum, a retired Billings teacher, said students in large school districts deserve more equitable funding, but not at the expense of small districts. She proposed that the state’s basic entitlement be based on student enrollment with augmentation for the needs of the smallest and largest districts.

The fourth weekly forum drew a standing-room-only crowd. Unfortunately, the group included only a handful of legislators. Some others were in Helena for training.

All lawmakers from Yellowstone and neighboring counties are invited and encouraged to attend the remaining two sessions starting at 7 a.m. on Dec. 10 and 17. The forums are open to the public.

Presentations scheduled for Dec. 10 are: Montana Bioscience Alliance, Adult Resource Alliance, School District 2, Montana Association of Community Disability Services and a speaker on fishing access and conservation issues.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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