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Column: Legislator gives update on session's bills, resolutions

by Rep. Chas Vincent
| April 21, 2009 12:00 AM

The 61st legislative session is drawing to a close with most policy decisions having been run through the proverbial ringer.

The state’s revenue projections continue on a downward trajectory. The infamous stimulus package sparks passionate debate on how and where the $865 million should be spent. The process surrounding the so-called stimulus package has been frustrating since most of the dollars come with federal strings requiring them to be spent in certain veins of state government.   

Accepting these dollars brings the potential for historic unintended consequences. It is essential that this legislative body find innovative ways to keep tabs on the threat of long-term growth in government that accompanies these short term federal dollars. There is a bill that would create a citizens oversight committee to guard against this growth but it will need bi-partisan support to survive.

For legislation to survive the 50-50 party split House, it must have bipartisan support. Several pieces of legislation that I sponsored this session have found a great deal of bi-partisan support, with some getting just enough to cross the finish line. 

If you will take a few minutes with me right now, I will briefly discuss the 10 bills and two resolutions that I have been pioneering this session and their intended benefits for citizens of both Lincoln County and across Montana.

Four bills I sponsored (HB’s 44, 139, 140 and 545) have already been passed by both chambers and have been signed by Gov. Schweitzer. Two bills (HB’s 544 and 574) have also passed and await the governor’s signature.

HB 44 requires the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to use “coordination” as a tool in federal forest management planning and allows the department to assist counties that want to coordinate with federal agencies on natural resource planning.

HB 139 allows the DNRC to be an intervening party on behalf of the people of Montana on any timber sale being litigated that poses a threat to our citizens’ health and safety due to forest health concerns.

HB 140 will be very important to both our schools and our forests health. It allows the DNRC to exceed the sustained yield on school trust lands by 10 percent when addressing forest health concerns such as beetle kill or fuel loading. The bill will improve forest health, reduce fire suppression hazards, turn unproductive timberlands into productive timberlands, and improve the rate of forest growth which, in turn, increases revenue for our schools. 

HB 545 allows more public participation on county compensation boards.

HB 544 requires insurance companies to return pre-payments of premiums should coverage be cancelled.  Currently in Montana, premiums are considered completely “earned” upon payment. HB 544 will change that if signed.

HB 574 is a revision to the burglary statute that will help law enforcement charge, and county attorneys convict, felony burglary. The bill helps clarify perpetrators “intent” and will put an end to some very unfortunate situations that have transpired in Montana over the last couple years. 

Two state resolutions I sponsored (HJ 7 and HJ 4) also passed and have been filed with the Secretary of State’s office. 

HJ 7 and HJ 4 urge our federal delegation to pass legislation giving our state tools to address the threats of catastrophic wildfire by allowing active management of fuel loading and ensuring our ability to access our forests for aggressive initial attack.

HB’s 42 and 670 have been returned to the House after passing the Senate with amendments for my concurrence. They face two final floor votes before being sent to the governor for signing.

HB 670 allows local governments to suspend or eliminate up to 95 percent of class 8 and class 4 equipment taxes. The bill is designed to encourage companies to consider mothballing equipment while awaiting an economic recovery rather than liquidating those assets to avoid taxes. This type of situation is abundant right now in Montana. We may be able to get companies to hang onto their equipment until things pick up.

HB 42 requires the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to create and implement forest management plans on the 135,000 acres of timberlands in its jurisdiction. The bill will enhance wildlife habitat through active management and allow the agency to address fuel loading conditions caused by ailments such as pine beetle infestations.

I am also sponsoring two bills (HB 674 and HB 699) that have passed through the House and the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee and await a vote by the full Senate. Both bills are the product of a great deal of collaboration from many different stakeholders.

HB 674 includes a $21 million bond that will allow the DNRC to acquire 26,000 acres of an area called the Potomac in Missoula County. Until recently the area was owned by Plum Creek Timber and is open space that has many multiple-use purposes. Most importantly for the state schools trust, it is very productive timber lands.

HB 674 allows the DNRC to purchase the Potomac, but it also requires the department to liquidate an equal amount of acres to offset the net gain of public lands.

HB 674 also includes new provisions for FWP land acquisitions designed to keep Montana’s recreation costs affordable by holding the agency accountable in its land grabbing tendencies.  Accountability will include more public participation and transparency for all land acquisitions. Prior to acquiring any lands the department will be required to provide an estimate of all costs including operating, staffing and maintenance costs. These measures are needed since it is the sportsmen and women of this state that ultimately pay these costs through licenses, fees and permits. 

HB 669 is a low-interest revolving loan account that will be available to Montana mills in hopes of getting them through this market downturn. Montana is on the cusp of losing what mills we have left and this legislation is just one part of the larger effort to hold on.

The bill will allow for low-interest loans to be administered by the Department of Commerce to any individual, business or entity that is critical to the timber industry in Montnaa. Currently, there is $7.5 million in the account, but there is still hope of growing the amount over the next couple weeks. 

The milling infrastructure was on life support before going into this recession, and the 61st legislature has taken great strides this session to help “right” many of the “wrongs” that have crippled our timber industry’s ability to have predictable, dependable and sustainable flows of timber. HB 669 will help, but it is only a piece of the larger puzzle. Let’s hope we can get it assembled in time.

Please don’t hesitate to call anytime, for any reason.

(Rep. Chas Vincent can be reached by phone at 293-1575, via e-mail at cvvincent@hotmail.com or via postal mail at: 5957 Champion Road, Libby, MT 59923).