The Halfway Point: Legislative Report

February 23, 2009

Dear House District 54 Neighbor,

We have reached the half way point of the 61st legislature, and we have heard a lot of great legislation. I am continually optimistic for Montana and Yellowstone County.

While the entire nation is feeling economically squeezed, Montana is in much better financial shape than many other states and our state budget (HB 2) is still on track. I am happy to report that we are living within our means. House Democrats and Republicans are working together to make sure we end up with some money left over to cushion our budget for the next biennium. While we are still able to protect critical programs, we are not adding significant new spending during these uncertain economic times. We are moving ahead with an effort to keep Montana moving forward. 
Sincerely,
Rep. Margie MacDonald


Stream Access Passes House 97-3

It’s easy to take for granted our wild places here in Montana. However, in recent years multiple lawsuits by a few wealthy private land owners have tried to close us out of some of our most cherished hunting and fishing areas. We know that we have some of the world’s greatest trout streams and it is also our right to have access to those streams.

HB 190 sponsored by Rep. Kendall Van Dyk (D – Billings) will guarantee these rights to everyone. With bi-partisan support HB 190 had the approval of both agricultural and conservation groups. Montana’s wild places are part of what defines us, and I proudly vote for this bill in order to help secure our outdoor heritage for fishing and water recreation for the future.


 Fighting for Children’s Health Insurance

In November, Montana voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly passed I-155, the state Children’s Health Insurance Program. All 56 counties, and 73% of voters in HD 54, voted for passage of I-155 sending a clear message to their state and local government that the health of Montana’s children should be taken seriously. HB 157 sponsored by Rep. Chuck Hunter (D – Helena) implements the funding for I-155. This bill narrowly passed the House with the strong support of every Democrat, however it recently failed to pass the Joint Appropriations Health and Human Service Subcommittee with a 4 – 4 tie vote, with all 4 Republicans voting no. This is unconscionable to me. Montana voters were very clear in their intentions and I will continue to fight for this bill and uphold our end of the deal.


Expanding Medicaid Eligibility

I’m proud to have sponsored House Bill 214, short titled “Revising Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women.” This bill overwhelmingly passed the House the week of Feb. 9, and was transmitted to the Senate. HB 214 will help to insure critical health care for pregnant woman and for infants.

This bill will not burden Montana tax payers in any way. HB 214 simply clarifies and standardizes language describing eligibility requirements only. The language change will not expand eligibility above the budgeted level, consequently, there would be no fiscal impact.

I proudly presented HB 214. Women with access to healthcare are half as likely to terminate a pregnancy. The overwhelming support in the House is another example of the 61st legislature caring for our fellow Montanans.


Increasing Montana’s Energy Independence

Fuel costs are on the rise again, and while they haven’t reached the levels they were at last summer, they no doubt have an impact on our financial health. I have proudly sponsored two bills this session, both of which aim to help Montanan’s offset the cost of imported fuel. HB 415 “Regulate micro-processing of biodiesel” and HB 416 “Exempt certain biodiesel from state tax” promote local sustainable use of Montana’s resources. These bills will promote a more energy independent Montana and reduce the burden of rising fuel costs on smaller farmers and ranchers throughout the state by allowing them to produce their own fuel.


Legislation Status Update

Sponsor, HJ 16: Analyze state implementation of pay related to equal pay for comparable work and develop guidelines to eliminate pay discrimination. Addressing comparable worth for women in the workplace addresses one of the root causes of poverty and confronting issues like this head on will help to lift many families out of poverty in the state. Heard Feb. 17th.

Sponsor, HB 407: Protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse. Heard Feb. 18th.

HB 478 and HB 290: Promote local food production and marketing by raising exemptions for small producers for produce and nursery plants.

More legislative updates at www.mtcapitolreport.org


Protecting our kids from online predators

February 17, 2009

Keeping our Billings community safe is a top priority for me. For years, I’ve worked through community organizations like the PTA and the Montana Association of Churches to improve our quality of life. That’s why when I heard that one in every five children who uses the Internet is sexually solicited online, I decided to see if more could be done to keep our kids safe. Many children use online networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, and these kids are frequently contacted by strangers – girls more often than boys. Tragically, kids are sometimes lured into meeting with the predators who contact them.

I was asked by the State Attorney General’s office to sponsor HB 407, a bill that strengthens our current law relating to internet predators and ensures that dangerous criminals can be held accountable. The first section of HB 407 tightens laws to make it easier to prosecute predators who travel to meet children after enticing them online. The second section of the bill requires officers to report findings of child pornography to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to make it easier for us to track children and prosecute crimes.

HB 407 is a straightforward bill to help prosecute serious crimes against children. Protecting our communities from online predators is critical to the health and safety of our children.

HB 407 was heard in committee last week. I will keep you informed as the bill passes through committee and makes its way in the legislative process. As always, please contact me at anytime by calling 444-4800. I look forward to hearing from you and working with you to strengthen our community.

Sincerely,

Rep. Margie MacDonald (HD 54)

Biofuels Bills Promote Montana’s Energy Independence

February 12, 2009

Representative Margaret MacDonald (D – Billings) is bringing change to the bio-fuel industry for small business’ and industry throughout Montana. In a press conference on Monday, MacDonald described hurtles that small farmers face when trying to process and use their own biodiesel. These bills “will make it possible for farmers and ranchers to form small business ventures and cooperatives” and thrive in Montana she said.

camelinaIn an effort to promote local sustainable use of our resources HB 415 will remove hurtles in the law, both legal and financial that discourage micro-processing of biodiesel. Sending a strong signal to all farmers throughout the state, biodiesel processing “could be done in virtually every county in the state” Rep. MacDonald said.

HB 416 would exempt certain biodiesel produced from waste vegetable oil feedstock from the special fuel tax. This would benefit many farmers throughout the state by allowing them to produce their own biodiesel fuel for a potentially cheaper cost then what they are currently paying at the pump. Many farmers in Montana already grow one or more of the “bio-fuel” crops and both bills will help farmers and ranchers throughout the state to become more energy independent. Rep. MacDonald also noted that these bills will promote “good rotation of crops for our wheat producers.”

In the times of an unstable economy and rising fuel costs, these bills help to promote Montana’s energy independence and present a “strong economic package for rural Montana” Rep. MacDonald said.

Access for hunters and anglers

February 12, 2009

During the last election cycle, part of my campaign promise to you was to work in a bi-partisan manner in Helena, to guarantee hunting and fishing access across the state. For too long the Montana Legislature has bogged down on stream access wasting precious opportunities to pass legislation that guarantees the rights of outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen to access their publicly owned waters. This Monday, January 26th, HB 190 sponsored by Representative Kendall Van Dyk, of Billings, looks to finally ensure our inherent rights to stream access as citizens of Montana. I strongly support this bill.

HB 190 seeks to clarify Montana law on public access to state waters from county roads and bridges. For the past 16 months a broad coalition of interests from across the state to have worked together to craft this bill. The only opponents to HB 190 represented wealthy landowners who are trying to close off access to Montanans who want to float or fish. It is not Montana tradition to allow wealthy part-time residents to lock up our public lands and fisheries from ordinary Montanans. Access is not for sale in Big Sky Country.

The bill would settle questions related to a 2000 attorney general’s opinion that held that using a county road as an access point from one public right-of-way, like a road, to another public right-of-way, like a stream or river, is consistent with the public’s right to travel on county roads.

Under the proposed legislation, a person may gain access to state waterways for recreational use by using a public bridge, right-of-way or abutment and a county road right-of-way. HB 190 also provides specific examples of legal fences and creates a public protocol for landowners and the state to resolve disputes related to fencing and public access.

As always, it’s my pleasure to serve you as the Montana House Rep. in HD 54. I’m thrilled to be able to vote yes on this piece of legislation with broad bi-partisan support. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact me. Here in Helena, we are looking forward to guaranteeing, through law, the rights of outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen to access Montana’s wealth of fishing waters.

Sincerely,
Rep. Margaret MacDonald

Juneteenth National Freedom Day

February 9, 2009

On Friday, I introduced legislation creating a civic holiday to commemorate African-American emancipation. HB 340 would designate the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth National Freedom Day.

This tribute will allow us to instill a deeper appreciation and understanding of our history in a new generation of Montanans.

Our nation paid an enormous price to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence by bringing the scourge of human slavery to an end in our country.

In Billings, and in many other Montana communities, we have continued to make a concerted, intentional, and bipartisan effort to fight against racism. Yet messages of hate, anger, and terror still spread. As a community, we have learned that it is important to take every opportunity to make unambiguous statements that we are committed to an inclusive and welcoming community.

By passing this legislation, we can say to such hate: Not in our towns, not in our state.

HB 340 would let our state join 27 others who have honored this holiday, allowing us to recognize our history. When Wilmot Collins testified at HB 340’s hearing, I think he put it best:

“This will be a day of education, this will be a day of celebration.”

What it means for Montanans: American Recovery and Reinvestment

February 9, 2009

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

For the People of Montana: Creating Jobs, Investing in Our Country’s Future, and Cutting Taxes

We are confronting the most severe economic problems in generations as millions of Americans are struggling. There is much work to do and no time to waste. That’s why our plan strengthens the economy now and invests in our nation over the long-term. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which the Senate will consider the week of February 2, will create good-paying jobs; make investments in America’s future; and cut taxes for working families. Our plan also delivers transparency and accountability to guarantee that all taxpayer money is invested responsibly.

What does this mean for Montana?

According to the Senate Committee on Appropriations, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is estimated to provide approximately $698.3 million in the following benefits:*

Montana’s Infrastructure and Science

In order to rebuild our weakening economy, these investments in our physical and cyber infrastructure will put Montanans immediately to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, and will also enable the creation of a stronger and more efficient infrastructure for the 21st century economy.

  • $19.7 million through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to address the backlog of drinking water infrastructure needs
  • $19.5 million through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to address the backlog of clean water infrastructure needs
  • $168.3 million in Highway Funding to be used on activities eligible under the Federal-aid Highway Program’s Surface Transportation Program and could also include rail and port infrastructure activities at the discretion of the states
  • $20 million in Transit Formula Funding for investments in mass transit
  • $4.5 million through the Public Housing Capital Fund to enable local public housing agencies to address a national $32 billion backlog in capital needs—especially those improving energy efficiency in aging developments – in this critical element of the nation’s affordable housing infrastructure
  • $6.1 million in HOME Funding to enable state and local government, in partnership with community-based organizations, to acquire, construct, and rehabilitate affordable housing and provide rental assistance to poor families
  • $3.8 million through the Homelessness Prevention Fund to be used for prevention activities, which include: short or medium-term rental assistance, first and last month’s rental payment, or utility payments. As such, most of this funding will go directly into the economy of local communities, as the funds will be used to pay housing and other associated costs in the private market

Education and Training in Montana

In order to compete in the 21st Century, we must have a well-educated workforce, capable of adapting to an ever-changing economic environment. Investing in education now will ensure that the next generation of Montana’s workers is ready and able to meet the challenge of global competition. In the near-term, millions of workers have seen their jobs disappear, and find themselves unable to match their skill sets with existing opportunities. Providing job training in new and expanding fields will help to lower the unemployment rate and help today’s workers better compete against foreign competition.

  • $196.5 million through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to local school districts and public colleges and universities in addition to incentive grants as a reward for meeting key education performance measures and additional funding for other highpriority needs such as public safety and other critical services, which may include education
  • $77.6 million for school modernization to repair, renovate and construct public schools in ways that will raise energy efficiency and provide greater access to information technology
  • $11.2 million for higher education modernization of facilities and instructional equipment, with a priority on minority-serving institutions and to projects that increase energy efficiency
  • $39.7 million for Special Education Part B State Grants to help improve educational outcomes for individuals with disabilities, raising the federal contribution to nearly 40 percent, the level established when the law was authorized more than 30 years ago
  • $4.8 million in education technology funds to purchase up-to-date computers and software and provide professional development to ensure the technology is used effectively in the classroom
  • $44.4 million for Title I Education for the Disadvantaged to help close the achievement gap and enable disadvantaged students to reach their potential
  • $2.9 million in State Employment Service Grants to match unemployed individuals to job openings through state employment service agencies and allow Montana to provide customized reemployment services
  • $1.4 million in Dislocated Workers State Grants, particularly for grants that support immediate strategies for regions and communities to meet their need for skilled workers, as well as longer-term plans to build targeted industry clusters with better training and a more productive workforce
  • $1.2 million for Department of Labor’s Adult State Grants
  • $2.9 million for Department of Labor’s Youth State Grants
  • $1.9 million for Vocational Rehabilitation to help individuals with disabilities prepare for and sustain gainful employment

Montana’s Energy

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 would provide investments in areas critical to the development of clean, efficient, American energy, including modernizing energy transmission, research and development of renewable energy technologies, and modernizing and upgrading government buildings and vehicles.

  • $4.1 million through the State Energy Program
  • $16.3 million through the Weatherization Assistance Program

Protecting the Vulnerable in Montana

The current economic crisis has affected all Montanans, but none more so than the most vulnerable among us. The spending proposed here will serve to lessen the blow of the current recession, providing immediate relief for children, the poor, and others who may find themselves struggling to put food on the table or a roof over their heads. It will also address the urgent need to provide safe and secure places to live, even in neighborhoods that are struggling with high unemployment and surging foreclosure rates.

  • $494,921 for National School Lunch Program Equipment Assistance
  • $261,650 through the Emergency Food Assistance Program
  • $35.6 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly Food Stamps)
  • $172,693 for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which provides grants to nonprofit and faith-based organizations at the local level to supplement their programs for emergency food and shelter to provide for the immediate needs of the homeless
  • $5.7 million in Child Care and Development Block Grants to provide quality child care services for in low-income families who increasingly are unable to afford the high cost of day care
  • $2.1 million for Head Start to allow additional children to participate in this program, which provides development, educational, health, nutritional, social and other activities that prepare children to succeed in school
  • $902,493 in Community Services Block Grants to local community action agencies for services to the growing numbers of low-income families hurt by the economic crisis, such as housing and mortgage counseling, jobs skills training, food pantry assistance, as well as benefits outreach and enrollment
  • 5 million for Senior Meals Programs to help senior meals programs cope with steep increases in food and fuel costs. Many programs are reducing meal deliveries to seniors or closing meal sites

Law Enforcement in Montana

  • $3.8 million in Byrne/JAG grants to support law enforcement efforts
  • $222,847 for crime victims compensation and assistance
  • $403,670 in Internet Crimes Against Children Grants to help law enforcement agencies enhance their investigative response to offenders who use the Internet, online communication systems, or other computer technology to sexually exploit children
  • $1.4 million in Violence Against Women Grants for victim services programs to improve the criminal justice system’s response to violent crimes against women and to assist victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking who are in need of transitional housing, short-term housing assistance, and related support services

Unemployment Benefits in Montana

According to the Department of Labor, Montana could receive $19.6 million in new funding if Montana fully enacts the UI modernization incentives that the legislation would provide.

Tax Cuts for Montana Families and Businesses

According to the Senate Committee on Finance, the following are an example of provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that will help Montana businesses and families, create jobs and get Montana’s economy moving:

  • Up to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for married couples for the Making Work Pay Tax Credit
  • $300 to Social Security beneficiaries, SSI recipients, and disabled veterans
  • $2,500 for the American Opportunity Tax Credit (an increase in the tax credit for higher education and allowing the credit for four full years)
  • Up to $7,500 for the Improved First-Time Homebuyer Tax Credit for those who purchase a home between January 1, 2009 and August 30, 2009
  • Extended Bonus Depreciation and Small Business Expensing through 2009, allowing businesses that make capital investments to immediately deduct one-half the cost. Small businesses can immediately deduct 100 percent of the cost of these investments
  • $1.6 billion for grants to schools and hospitals for energy efficiency and combined heat and power system projects

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 would protect over 26 million working families across the nation from the Alternative Minimum Tax, representing thousands of dollars in additional income taxes. According to the Congressional Research Service, 54,000 Montanans would be protected from the Alternative Minimum Tax in 2009. 

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families in Montana

According to the Congressional Research Service, Montana would receive $1.1 million in TANF supplemental grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. These supplemental grants provide additional assistance to states with high population growth and/or increased poverty. Seventeen states qualify and currently receive these grants, which would expire in June 2009. The legislation would extend these grants for Fiscal Year 2010.

* The benefits described in this fact sheet represent estimates of highlights of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It is not a complete listing of all the programs included in the legislation. Due to rounding, the sum of the programs may not equal the estimated total.

Back Home in Billings!

We are citizen lawmakers in Montana which means that I am home in Billings, for the most part, except for periodic interim committee meetings in Helena. You can call me at 652-6625 and leave a message. I like to hear how laws that we pass make a difference or impact you. I also like to hear your ideas on how to make our communities stronger and better. I will be attending community meetings and events to keep my ear to the ground for the needs of our neighborhoods and city. Please come up and say "Hello" when you see me around town.

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