State Representatives Hold Legislative Forum March 4

Nearly forty people gathered at the Richland County Extension Office on Saturday, March 4, to give input on several legislative matters facing the Montana legislature. Led by Scott Staffanson, who serves House District 35, and Steve Hinebauch, who serves Senate District 18, the Town Hall meeting covered topics ranging from an upcoming proposal to increase the statewide fuel tax to legislation proposing easier criteria for the creation of charter schools. Both Staffanson and Hinebauch answered questions and received input regarding possible legislative actions this legislative session, while community members gave their advice and expressed their concerns.

Taking up most of the discussion time, at the forum, was the topic of House Bill 473, sponsored initially by Frank Garner of Kalispell. The bill would seek to raise taxes 8 cents per gallon of gasoline, up to a total of 35 cents per gallon, while 7.25 cents per gallon of diesel would be tacked on to current fuel taxes. Those funds would be split between the Montana Department of Transportation (for highway and bridges projects and matching funds available for city and counties for their road projects), and to the Montana Highway Patrol.

Advocates argue that a sizable percentage of the funds provided by House Bill 473 would come from those outside the state, thanks to the trucking and tourism industry. While Hinebauch and Staffanson did not take a hard position on the issue of the fuel tax rate, both expressed reluctance to give any more money to a state government that, in their opinion, has not spent money wisely.

Rick Norby, Mayor of Sidney, spoke in favor of the fuel tax hike, arguing that the funds provided to city government to repair streets would be a great benefit for the community, and under the current matching funds requirement, Sidney simply cannot find the necessary resources to take advantage of available monies. According to Norby, the fuel tax increase would make more funds available for making needed repairs to local infrastructure. Another city official to speak in favor of the tax hike was Jessie Redfield, Sidney’s City Clerk, who explained that funds received from this measure could provide needed revenue that street maintenance fees on property taxes simply are not sufficient to meet.

Duane Mitchell, Richland County Commissioner, argued that as far as taxes go, a fuel tax seemed equitable and that an 8 cents increase, “doesn’t compare to the sales tax of the states around us.”

Other citizens also seemed to express agreement with the increase, including Shane Mintz, an employee of the Montana Department of Transportation. While making it clear that he was not speaking on behalf of the Montana DOT, Mintz explained that Montana funding for road repair differs from other states, because revenue is not received from the general fund, but only from the fuel tax. The fuel tax, per Mintz, does not entirely go to road repair, but also funds the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Highway Patrol, and other projects. Mintz continued to speak of the cuts using overall figures of jobs available at the DOT in recent years, and Steve Hinebauch expressed that perhaps the MT DOT was over-staffed compared to other states, but acknowledged not knowing the statistics, off hand.

Jim Steinbeisser spoke up on behalf of the agriculture community and explained that those in agriculture have to pay “freight in and freight out,” and he wondered if anyone had proposed making the diesel tax significantly lower to help the ag industry. Duane Mitchell explained such was unlikely, because a heavy diesel truck did far more damage to the roads than gas-powered passenger cars, and the point of the fuel tax was to rebuild roads. Both Hinebauch and Staffanson seemed to agree with that assessment.

Staffanson told the crowd, “I cannot support the measure unless the community is for it,” and asked the crowd who was for the fuel tax increase. More than two dozen raised their hands in affirmation. After Staffanson asked who was against the fuel tax increase, about half a dozen raised their hands. Hinebauch reminded the crowd that, “The government doesn’t have money; the people have money, and the only money the government has must be taken from the people.”

There was brief discussion regarding the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education in the legislature, which will soon discuss state funding proposals that would probably lead to cuts for community colleges like Dawson Community College. Dawson Community College President, according to reports, also claims that additional cuts to the local school could be forthcoming, but no legislation has been presented accordingly. Hinebauch explained that factoring into the equation, most likely, is that nearly twice the funds are received per student by Dawson Community College than at Flathead Valley Community College, and that legislators on the other side of the state might be seeing that disparity. Hinebauch also explained to the forum, “There’s not a bill that can close [Dawson Community College]. It can only take a certain amount of the funding, but [Dawson Community College] is run by a board, and not the legislature.”

The town hall meeting then changed topics when Dan Farr, Superintendent of Sidney Schools, asked a question of Scott Staffanson regarding his support for HB 376 (proposed by Jonathan Windy Boy of Box Elder), which passed the House already, and is moving on to the Senate for further approval. The legislation would allow the creation of a charter school if 20 per cent of the electors of the school district sign a petition to create the charter school. Farr felt that it would unnecessarily compete with the public school system, that it would create more work for administrators, and went on to liken the charter school system to segregation of years past, claiming that a charter system would make it harder for those at a socioeconomic disadvantage.

Staffanson and Hinebauch dismissed the meeting at approximately 8PM.


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