MY VOTE AND HOW THE TAX IS BENEFITING EASTERN MONTANA
In part one of this article I detailed how the bill came to be as HB 473 in the 2017 session. In this part I will discuss my vote and in part three will give some examples of how money from this tax is being put to use in three Eastern Montana areas-Custer County, Garfield County and Richland County as well as Miles City, Jordan and Sidney.
MDT is one of the departments that is included in the Appropriations sub committee I’m on and chaired during the 2019 session. As such, we see their budget in great detail and have the responsibility of questioning and approving the budget the Governor has submitted to the legislature. The numbers we saw in their 2017 budget indicated a major problem for the state where highways were involved. The Federal government gives state a 6.8 to 1 match on funds designated for highway work. Each state is given a maximum figure they can get on a yearly basis. These funds represent the vast majority of monies available to maintain or replace our highways and bridges. The problem was that MDT’s funds to do the match had been depleted to the level that they couldn’t get sufficient funding from the Feds to do the necessary work to maintain our highway system.
Why was this a problem? Consider what would happen to the highways if they couldn’t be maintained. Potholes would develop, since asphalt has an estimated life expectancy it would soon begin to deteriorate, bridges couldn’t be repaired, and thousands of Montanans would not have work. You can begin to see what we saw when we worked on their budget.
The figure of the shortfall was estimated to be near $850 million annually with the Federal money included. We, as a sub committee, worked hard to find ways the cover the shortfall, looking at cutting funding for open positions and requiring more transparency from the department but the figures just didn’t provide the dollars needed for the match.
In spite of what the detractors had to say, we were left with two options- do nothing and allow the roads to deteriorate and not fund the work already planned or look at an increase in the gas tax. Neither were seen as great options but the latter was preferred over the former.
We were inundated with lobbyists from both sides including from the Montana Infrastructure Coalition and groups representing highway construction companies. The input I got from local citizens was slightly in favor of the increase when they understood the problem. Of course there were plenty groups, including several legislators, many of whom had signed a no tax increase pledges and were therefore committed no matter what the reason for the increase.
As I expressed in part one of this article, I was on the committee working on the gas tax issue. We brought the tax down from a suggested 10 cent a gallon to 4.5 cents and made it fit the need. House Bill 473 was born and the real work began.
I will complete the article series with part three later this week. There is a lot of explanation required to begin to understand what transpired so a third part is required. As always, please contact me if you have questions or comments. Call me at 406-951-6764 or stop me if we cross paths.