As the session began it became obvious that this was going to be a unique experience for all concerned. The year leading up to this session had been one of meetings on Zoom to the point everyone was tired of the remote learning. Most legislators wanted to meet in person but some chose not to so a hybrid version was enacted. This greatly increased the work for our wonderful staff, but they persevered through it all. Enough credit cannot be given to them for their work.
Wherever possible, social distancing was implemented. In Approps we separated mask wearing legislators from those who did not wear a mask by a plexiglass partition and insisted anyone testifying in person wear a mask. Leadership, Llew Jones, myself and the minority vice-chair all wore masks out of respect for others.
Other committees did not have the same rules but managed to work through the session without severe spread of Covid-19. I do not know of a single case of COVID being spread from legislator to legislator. Staff was not even in the committee room, so we communicated by Microsoft TEAMS.
The first six weeks of the session in Approps is spent in sub committees where we heard from the departments assigned to that committee. I chaired the Section C subcommittee where we heard from DNRC, DEQ, FISH, WILDLIFE AND PARKS, DEPARTMENT OF AG, DEPARTMENT OF LIVESTOCK AND DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION.
The departments came before the committee to explain what their department did and then give us an in-depth look at why they needed the funds they were asking us to appropriate. Most of their asks were for continuation of programs so we heard a lot about how they worked. There were a few new proposals but since we knew we didn’t have a good handle on the revenue that would come in new proposals would have to be really necessary to even be considered.
Going into the committee’s work we knew that two programs would need funds to continue, Good Neighbor Authority and Conservation Districts. Good Neighbor Authority is a cooperative agreement between the Federal government and Montana to clean up the national forests to enhance timber sales and lessen the severity of fires. To my surprise, no funding was asked for to continue that program. The funding we gave them last session allowed them to have sufficient timber sales to cover the cost of the program. Truly a success story in the making for both Montana and the feds.
Conservation Districts are an extremely popular section in our subcommittee They do great work but the primary source of funding for them was through coal taxes and coal has been especially hard hit during the last few years. We worked the budget to get them all the extra funding we could, but it still wasn’t enough. We knew there was going to be a shortfall in their budget. It turned out to be two million dollars, half of which DNRC covered. I carried a bill to put one million dollars of general fund financing to cover them this year but that is not sustainable. I also carried a study bill to work on finding a more acceptable funding source. The bill passed but the ranking of the studies has not been completed so it isn’t known of the study will be done during the interim.