Local lawmakers list 2017 session priorities

Custer County’s representatives in the Montana House — Ken Holmlund (R-Miles City) and Geraldine Custer (R-Forsyth) — are beginning their second terms in the Legislature.

Holmlund said that, “as a sophomore,” they will be the ones showing the new legislators around the back corridors of the Capitol.

The big issue facing the legislature this year is money. “We don’t have any,” Holmlund said. The state budget is also a major concern for Custer, although she sees the money situation as having a silver lining.

“It’s not such a bad thing to be tight on money,” says Custer, noting it focuses attention on true needs as opposed to things that can wait. 

Both legislators agreed, when interviewed by the Star, that removing some buildings from the general infrastructure bill would make it easier to pass. Those buildings include the Romney Hall improvements at Montana State University; the Southwestern Montana Veterans Home in Butte, and a new museum and building for the Montana Historical Society.

Taxes will also play into the budget picture. Custer is in favor of a gas tax increase with the money being used just for roads and not placed into the general fund.

As a rural resident, she figures an increased tax would cost her about $100 a year personally and would allow the roads to be improved.

“They need to be maintained,” says Custer, pointing out that skipping regular, timely road maintenance leads to further degradation.

A local option sales tax or a general sales tax is something the legislature should discuss, Custer said.

Holmlund has several bills he is sponsoring this session, including several that came out of his committee work. One is to revamp the Child and Family Services Division, which has come under criticism lately.

Another bill, probably less vital but one Holmlund likes, is to change the rules on license plates so that counties can require that the traditional numbers — Custer County’s is No. 14 — be printed on all license plates.

They also said they plan to take a hard look at Bullock’s infrastructure package, which would help roads, water and sewer systems in eastern Montana, but also includes other projects previously rejected by GOP lawmakers. The package would be partially paid for with state bonds, and some Republicans have previously resisted going into debt to pay for infrastructure projects.

The House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees will hold a joint meeting Wednesday to take an initial look at the state spending plan and outline their budget priorities.

Lawmakers are also expected to consider a variety of bills that include prison sentencing reforms and reshaping the state’s troubled public defender’s office. Bills also have been requested to respond to a voter initiative that expanded medical marijuana distribution, to give communities more say on refugee resettlements and to blunt the economic effects of a planned shutdown of two of the Colstrip power plant’s units by 2023.

But lawmakers from both parties say the main focus will be on the budget crunch caused by a downturn in the energy industry, which led to drops in production taxes and less-than-expected corporate income taxes and individual income taxes collected by the state.

“We’re here to get an infrastructure bill passed, to make sure our tax system is fair and to balance the budget,” incoming House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said in a recent interview. “Those are the priorities.”