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Senator Welborn’s Weekly Report

The past week has been busy with on going budget negotiations, as we work

toward the end of session, one key piece has been signed by Gov. Greg

Gianforte, HB 13, which authorizes the state’s 2024-2025 employee pay plan ,

which appropriates wages, benefits and bonuses for the state workforce over

the next two years.



The pay plan calls for either $1.50-an-hour or 4% raises, whichever is greater,

for state and Montana University System employees this year and next, effective

July 1 of each year. Employees will also receive a one-time bonus, $1,040 for

full-time workers and lesser amounts for part-time workers.

The plan also raises the state’s per-diem meal rates by 10% and holds

employee out-of-pocket health benefit contributions, copay amounts,

deductibles and coinsurance costs constant through 2025.

A fiscal analysis prepared by the governor’s budget office estimates each round

of raises will raise the state’s payroll costs by roughly $50 million a year. The

one-time bonuses will cost an estimated $16.9 million.

The pay plan, which was negotiated between the governor and public

employees’ unions and ratified by the legislature. Its implementation measure,

House Bill 13, passed the House, 89-7, and the Senate, 48-1, winning bipartisan

support in both chambers. The governor signed the bill, which was sponsored

by Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda.


On a related note, we in the Senate voted down a bill, which would have allowed

state employees to use paid sick leave for child related events.

Those that were against the bill, myself included, contend many of these

employees are in public sector unions. where they can negotiate for these types

of benefits, and that personal leave remains available, for such uses.



Switching gears,

Two proposals with competing visions for the tens of millions in taxes that

Montana collects annually on the sale of recreational marijuana are still making

their way through the Legislature as lawmakers work to set a two-year state

budget.


One measure, HJB 669 would send most of the state’s adult-use marijuana tax

collections — which are forecast to top $50 million per year — to the General

Fund, allowing lawmakers to distribute that money as they see fit on a session-

by-session basis, including this one. The other, Senate Bill 442, which i've

personally been involved with and still support, started as a proposal to divvy

the revenue between rural road maintenance and Gov. Gianforte’s signature

substance use disorder treatment program, but has since been amended to also

include statutory allocations for wildlife habitat, state parks and veterans’

programs. Most of SB 442’s statutory allocations would be permanent unless

retooled by a future Legislature.


After passing the Senate 49-1 on April 4, the latter proposal was heard by the

House Taxation Committee Friday.


In his opening remarks, bill sponsor Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, described SB 442

as a “once in a generation bill” that would bridge a gap between agriculture,

hunting and access.



I also contend that, in addition to providing stable funding for county roads and

allocating 11% of marijuana tax collections toward treatment for drug abuse, it

would create a new fund, Montana Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program and

Legacy Act, to “increase the pace and scale of habitat stewardship and

restoration treatments across rural Montana.” About one-third of the tax

collections would go toward the general fund, he added.

More than 40 people spoke in favor of the bill, most of whom focused their

support on the county road or wildlife habitat pieces of the bill. Many described

it as a “win-win” measure and thanked Lang for bringing a diverse set of

interests together to craft the proposal seeking to distribute revenues from a

recently established special fund. (Montana voters passed a ballot initiative in

2020 that legalized adult-use marijuana and laid out a framework to divide the

20% state tax levied on recreational marijuana sales between conservation,

veterans, law enforcement and substance use treatment programs.)

HB 442 does covers all these provisions.


While debating the competing measure, HB 669 sponsor, Rep. Bill Mercer, R-

Billings, argued that it’s inappropriate and unconstitutional for lawmakers to

allow appropriation of state revenue by initiative. The Legislature should be

given the opportunity to distribute tax allocations on a session-by-session basis

without digging into Montana code to change where special revenue accounts

are directed, he said. “If we send the signal that you can create, by initiative, a new revenue stream and we allow it ... that’s a terrible precedent,” Mercer said. “We need to get the

money into the General Fund.


I don't entirely disagree with some of Rep. Mercers sentiment's, but what we

have here is a collision of visions, in which I still like SB 442, because it just

makes sense.



Like SB 442, HB 669 has been changed in the legislative process. The version of

the bill that passed through the House with a 62-37 vote included one-time

appropriations for FWP, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation,

and Department of Military Affairs programs. It’s awaiting a hearing in the Senate

Finance and Claims Committee, where we will we will hear and deliberate in the

coming days.


SB 442 awaits further action in House Tax.

Thanks for tuning in, and have a great Montana kind of week.



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