HELENA — The Montana House held its first floor session since the transmittal break Friday, and members got right back to work on some big issues.
In a 57-43 vote, representatives gave initial approval to House Bill 380, which would set aside $2 million over the next two years for grants to organizations that serve Montana’s homeless population. It would support mental health and substance use treatment, family care to keep families together, and programs serving older Montanans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
“This bill is asking for a relatively modest amount to help out with that – help get these folks back on their feet,” said Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, who sponsored the bill.
Supporters said there’s clearly a growing need for these services in Montana, and the organizations that provide them need assistance.
“I'm telling you loud and clear: Our community and our partners in the community that serve the homeless population – they're begging for help,” said Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte. “Let's give them this little bit of help so they can continue doing the yeoman's work that they do each and every day to keep these people off of our streets, to help get them back as productive members of society.”
But opponents said there’s already a lot of funding going toward these services, and they questioned whether there were sufficient “sideboards” on the proposal.
“I would argue that we already have a significant amount of money being spent in this population, and I'm not sure that this bill is the right way to continue to meet those needs,” said Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman.
Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, said he believed most local families in need in his region – Flathead County – would be able to get help from churches and other community resources, and he claimed the demand for services was driven by homeless people from outside the state.
“I would like to see this million dollars spent on bus tickets to get them out of here because they're not the ones we want to help,” he said. “We can take care of our own Montana people.”
The House also endorsed House Bill 189, which would significantly increase how much benefit Montanans on a fixed or limited income can claim through the Property Tax Assistance Program. The bill, sponsored by Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, passed 81-19 on a preliminary vote.
PTAP currently allows qualifying residents to get a reduced tax rate on the first $200,000 of their home’s value, with three categories of discounts based on their income. HB 189 would raise the ceiling to the first $350,000 of value, and it would raise the incomes that qualify for each discount level.
During the floor session, lawmakers voted 59-41 to restore the $350,000 figure. In the Appropriations Committee, it had been amended down to $300,000. Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, who proposed that change, said PTAP is a “tax shift” from qualifying residents to other property owners.
“We are still making a positive move in this direction to ensure that people are covered, but we have to draw the line somewhere, and the higher that line is, the more of a shift you are doing across the other segment of property tax payers,” he said.
Nikolakakos said they chose the $350,000 value so that 80% of the people who qualified for PTAP had the entire value of their home covered. He said that was how the program worked when it started in 2015, before the state saw such a dramatic increase in property values.
‘The shift already happened; all we're doing is pushing the shift back down,” Nikolakakos said. “Is that a long-term fix? No, but it's what we need to do now. It's the right thing to do now.”
Additionally, the House endorsed House Bill 355, sponsored by Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, on an 86-14 initial vote. That bill would allocate $267 million of the state’s budget surplus to provide grants for local governments to maintain roads, water and sewer systems and other infrastructure.
For the first time this session, the House will hold a floor session on a Saturday morning. Saturday sessions are likely to be more common as the end of the Legislature’s 90 days of work approaches.