Barrett reports busy start to legislative session

Montana’s 63rd Legislative Session is official. The newly elected members of the Senate, including me, were sworn into office on Monday, Jan. 7. By Wednesday we were holding bill hearings in our Senate Standing Committees. 

This session, my committee assignments include: Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Standing Committee Monday-Friday at 8 a.m. I will be in the Natural Resources Committee on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons at 3 p.m. and I will be in the Fish and Game Committee on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at 3 p.m. The Senate and House Floor Sessions are held Monday–Friday at 1 p.m.

However, this Tuesday afternoon I will miss most of the Fish and Game Committee because my first two Senate Bills are both scheduled to be heard at the same time in two different Senate Committees. SB 31 “Revise definition of eligible renewable resource” will be heard in the Energy and Telecommunications Committee and SB 72 “Revise the livestock per-capita assessment date” will be heard in the Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation Committee.

Besides having two bills scheduled in two different committees at the same time, a student from the UM School of Journalism has been assigned to interview me. She left me a voicemail asking to meet with me at that same time on Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, this is a typical day for a Senator—and I will find the time to meet all three commitments.

Montana’s new governor presented his budget proposal and his spending priorities for the next biennium. He proposes a $500 million—half-a-billion—spending increase from the last biennium to this biennium. This is the largest increase ever proposed in state spending! Fortunately, his budget proposal is only a starting place for the discussions and decisions that will take place for the next 90 days.

Each session I am reminded what a wonderful yet strange place Montana is. For instance, to bring our over $4 billion insolvency up to date in the state’s pension plans, the governor is proposing to use natural resource revenue. To address the education community’s concerns for K-12 funding issues, there is a proposal to use natural resource revenue. And, to address the state’s infrastructure and state building needs, you guessed it…natural resource revenue is to be the answer here, too.

I am uncertain at this time if all of these proposals to increase spending are focused on the state’s current natural resource revenue, or if these proposals are narrowly focused on the increases of natural resource revenue. No matter which it is, natural resource revenue today is currently going into the general fund to pay for existing state programs and services. Thus, there will be huge trade-offs to be faced, and legislators will need to prioritize just where and how this revenue is most needed.

What is truly amazing to me is that in Montana we have hundreds of non-profits focused on regulating natural resources out of existence or at least greatly reducing their production. Many of the members and supporters of these non-profits are indeed among the Montana citizens demanding the growth of more government and increased spending. As I pointed out, they are always commanding ever more of the natural resource industries. There are over 60 of these narrowly focused non-profit organizations in Bozeman alone.

As usual, the education community is up and running at full speed. The first week I received a stack of form letters sent by e-mail and phone messages urging my support of an education reform and funding bill that I have never seen. In fact, I don’t believe it has been written yet, and is still in the drafting process. According to the messages I have received, LC 132 will use the state’s natural resource revenue to increase funding to K-12 schools and will also provide local property tax relief. I am looking forward to seeing the bill and having it vetted in the Education Committees in the House and the Senate.

I too hope LC 132 proves to be the answer to all of the concerns and issues facing K-12 education funding and reform. This state’s K-12 education funding laws are among the most convoluted laws in statute. They are in dire need of reform, and have been for decades. I will proceed very cautiously with any changes to our current laws because one of my biggest fears as a legislator is to make a bad situation even worse. I am here to create long-term solutions, not short-term fixes and therefore, it is necessary to carefully examine all proposed legislation.

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