As with any legislative session, there are high and low points, drama, heartbreak and joy. The 2013 session was no exception.
The session began with a series of meetings between new Gov. Steve Bullock and legislative leadership as all parties test the water before jumping in. As a lobbyist, there is a certain amount of uncertainty at the beginning that gradually goes away as the session progresses. Each session brings a new crop of legislators: one-third of the House members are new as well as a handful of senators. Since many members of the Senate were former House members, the transition is not quite as intense.
This session, all of the school districts in Montana got behind Senate Bill 175, the bill sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, to comprehensively change the funding model for education in the K-12 system.
The Billings Chamber/Convention and Visitors Bureau had begun studying the funding model for SD2 early last summer and in the fall we invited Sen. Jones to Billings to explain his proposed bill. Fifty Chamber members attended the briefing, and all felt that passing this bill would be extremely helpful for SD2.
Not everything in the proposed bill made it through the session as the different committees and floor actions amended one portion or another. The governor signed the bill as passed by the Legislature and we now have a piece of law that will greatly benefit Billings, in particular, and the state in general.
The most significant piece of this legislation was to fund more than one basic entitlement, and SD2 will receive multiple entitlements for elementary, middle schools and high schools in the district. Additionally, we will now be eligible for first-year funding of enrollment increases if our school population is more than the lesser of 4 percent or 40 students.
Had this been in place last year and the current year, we would have received approximately $1 million for each year.
Business equipment tax rates
In the 2011 session, business equipment taxes were reduced, and it was a great first step. One of the comments I hear regularly from our friends in North Dakota and Wyoming is, “We pay business equipment tax only when we purchase a new piece of equipment. It’s called sales tax. You Montanans collect business equipment tax annually.”
Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, sponsored a bill that passed to further reduce this tax. This legislation reduces the taxes assessed on class eight business equipment and assesses a tax rate of 1.5 percent on the first $6 million of taxable market value and 3 percent for all taxable market value in excess of $6 million, and exempts the first $100,000 in market value of this property owned by a taxpayer.
Capital improvement projects
HB5 is an act appropriating money for capital projects for the biennium. This piece of legislation includes $10 million for the MSU Billings Science Building. The Billings Chamber/CVB testified in support of this bill as it moved through the process.
There also were a number of bills that we supported that were vetoed by the governor. One of these was a bill to create a new program to provide grants to local governments for oil and gas impact projects. Although it would have no direct impact on our area, it is critical for our partners in Eastern Montana. Another disappointment is the veto of the tax simplification bill that would clean up state income tax filing.
The 2013 legislative session is in the books, and we now assess where we gained and where we lost ground … and prepare for 2015.
Bruce MacIntyre is director of business advocacy for the Billings Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org