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Government observatory

A legislative scheme to help balance the state biennial budget by (once again) shifting costs to local government continues to run on a false rumor about Billings. Worse, a legislative subcommittee met on a cost-shift bill Friday night at the Capitol without the usual public notice.

In brief, here's the problem: The state needs money to fund the state Office of Public Defender, but the majority of lawmakers say they don't want to raise taxes, so they are looking to shift costs to county and city governments, which then will have to ask property taxpayers for higher levies — or cut local services. Cities and counties already shoulder the expense of law officers, prosecutors and victim-witness advocates.

Lawmakers, a legislative staff report and the OPD blamed the city of Billings for running up defense costs by changing city ordinances over the past two years so that more public defenders would have to be assigned. The fact is that the city hasn't changed any of its ordinances. Data in a Legislative Fiscal Division report shows that the number of city and justice court cases has decreased statewide. Leaders of the Montana Association of Counties and Billings City Attorney Brent Brooks have refuted the false rumor about Billings in legislative committee testimony. Yet the rumor and the cost shift persist.

Last Friday after 6 p.m., four members of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice held a meeting to discuss Senate Bill 773, which Chairman Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, introduced on March 25 as the request of the the subcommittee. A video recording of the meeting shows a quorum (Regier, Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, and Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula) discussing the membership and reporting duty for a public defender funding task force the bill proposes.

"The counties really have a high interest in this," Lynch said in the video. "I wish they were in the room to join our conversation. One of the drivers of this is Yellowstone County. I guess it's not Yellowstone County, it's Billings and their local ordinances."

Interested members of the public weren't at the meeting because it was posted online late Thursday, then taken off line and wasn't announced at the end of Friday floor sessions. Worse yet, the legislator from Butte apparently still believes the Billings rumor.

The major state budget bill, HB2, has passed the House and Senate with a $759,000 appropriation that appears to be drawn from the taxes (on gambling, alcohol and vehicles) that the state by law is supposed to return to the county or city where collected.

This legislative raid on local funds has not been transparent. It became less transparent when the subcommittee members met without giving proper notice for public participation.

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HB773 initially proposed to reduce revenue sharing with local governments by more than $800,000 per year and direct that money to the Office of Public Defender. The bill has been heavily amended so that it no longer changes local government payments. Instead, it would create a task force of six lawmakers and one representative from each of the OPD, county attorneys, courts, counties and cities to make recommendations on how to shift money away from local governments. The report would be due by Sept. 1, 2020. 

The false rumor about Billings also spawned Senate Bill 315, sponsored by Senate President Scott Sales, which said cities and counties must pay the cost of public defenders in cases where a person is charged only with local ordinance violation. The Montana Association of Counties supported SB315 because its impact would be negligible, according to Executive Director Eric Bryson. SB315 was tabled April 2 in  House Local Government Committee.

MACo supported HB773 at a Monday hearing — without agreeing to cede entitlement payment to the state, Bryson said.

As legislation stands now, local governments will lose over the biennium about half as much money as HB773 originally proposed to take. HB773 is in Senate Finance and Claims Committee. If this task force is created, it must determine the facts on cost drivers for the OPD, which is an agency vital to our justice system. Simply foisting costs on local government doesn't help Montanans. We pay state and local taxes.

If HB773 becomes law, task force members must make every effort to ensure that their meetings always have proper advance public notice and any documents received or generated are readily available for public inspection. Montana needs sunshine every day to keep our government open and accessible to the people of Montana.

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