2017 Legislative Summary
The big issue in 2017 was the state budget. We went into the Session with depleted reserves – in part due to overly optimistic revenue estimates and a historic (and expensive) fire season. I wrote an opinion piece published in the Billings Gazette before the 2017 session began to highlight the challenges our community facing.
This was my second term in the Senate, and as a result of my ‘seniority’ I was appointed to Senate Finance and Claims, essentially the budget committee. Finance and Claims, together with the House Appropriation Committee, is divided into sections and each section looks at different parts of the budget. I served on Section A, which reviewed and held hearings (together with House Section A members) on all of the Administrative agencies.
The Legislature is (rightfully) required to pass a balanced budget. The Governor proposed a biennium budget with both cuts and some revenue increases. However, the revenue estimate that was adopted by the House Committee (along party lines) was considerably higher than the estimate from the Executive branch. A brief overview from the Bozeman Chronicle can be viewed here. As a result, the 2-year budget assumed revenue levels that were not realistic. Even with the inflated revenue estimates, cuts were necessary and focused particularly in the areas of health and human services, criminal justice, and education (the largest components of state expenditures). In the end, the cuts enacted during the session were insufficient, and the additional reductions mandated by SB 261 (as revenues failed to materialize) were also insufficient. A special session was necessary and, again, only cuts were considered by the majority party. A good big picture summary of the budget process and outcome (as of early 2018) can be found here on Montana Public Radio.
I opposed the final 2017 budget and the Special Session budget because of the overwhelming impacts on our most vulnerable populations. I believe we can do better and continue to be fiscally responsible. I remain committed to that goal.
In addition to Senate Finance and Claims, I served on the Senate Energy Committee.
We saw an unprecedented number of bills undermining renewable energy projects, including net metering. I opposed them all. I continually hear from constituents who support growing renewables. I also appreciate the important role of our other natural resources, including coal, oil, and natural gas, and I supported several bills to help the Colstrip community deal with the impending closures of Colstrip 1 and 2. My priorities are to support the growing renewable sector while ensuring Montana consumers continue to have reliable and affordable energy. I also continue to oppose attempts to undermine our Constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.
I was successful in getting bills passed and signed into law, all with strong bipartisan support. One (SB 58) prohibits insurance companies from using zero dollar claims and simple inquiries against policy holders. The bill was triggered by constituents having problems getting insurance payouts for hail damage; an earlier version failed in 2015. You can see a Billings Gazette article about this bill when it passed the Senate. Another bill (SB 118) clarified how digital assets of deceased or incapacitated individuals may be accessed. I also co-sponsored several other bills, including HB 233 which established procedures for making bio-similar medications available to Montana consumers.
I am proud of the work I have been able to do on behalf of my constituents, and the bipartisan support for the bills I have worked on. I want to build on my experience, especially on the budget committee. My priorities include fiscal accountability; preservation and access to public lands; crafting our energy future; support for public education; and continuing Medicaid coverage for the thousands of Montanans who previously lacked access to health care.