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Legislative Majority Leaders back home in the Bitterroot

Montana House and Senate Majority Leaders Representative Ron Ehli, Republican from Hamilton, and Senator Fred Thomas, Republican from Stevensville, talked to the Star last week about the accomplishments of the Legislative Session which just ended. M. Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

In terms of representative influence at the recent legislative session in Helena, Bitterooters had a bit of a boot up as both the Senate Majority Leader and the House Majority Leader hailed from Ravalli County. Back at home Senator Fred Thomas and Representative Ron Ehli took time out to tell the Bitterroot Star what they considered most noteworthy about the last legislative session.
Senator Thomas said he was pleased with the session overall.
“We were able to balance the budget with very little increase in overall spending,” he said, “and with no general tax increase of any kind.” He said they “killed” a list of sales tax proposals from the Governor’s office and then were able to pass a package with close to $500 million of infrastructure projects for the next two years.
“We did it without any bonding, without any debt,” said Thomas.
Tomas said some nice things were done for sportsmen and for public access as well. He mentioned the expansion of the Block Management program, a weed treating program for the benefit of wildlife, and the purchase of easements to access privately land-locked public lands.
Representative Ehli said that one of the most important accomplishments was the budget stabilization that was achieved through the establishment of a “rainy day fund.” He said it takes the highs and lows out of the budget.
Ehli said many of the tax proposals, like increases in the cigarette tax, and the tax on wine and alcohol, that were shot down in this session are particularly burdensome on people in the lowest income bracket.
“We were able to back-fill the Health and Human Services budget without increasing taxes,” said Ehli. “The funding for Child Protection Services is higher than ever. Senior long term care and basic services were also backfilled.”
Thomas said that the legislature did what it could to address the aquatic invasive species issue and have an aggressive plan in place to address the zebra mussel invasion.
“But it will take individual people buying into it to make it work. People will have to take some initiative to clean their boats properly,” said Thomas. He said the actions taken to address problems at the Montana Developmental Center at Boulder were a good move. It will reduce the number of patients at the facility from 50 down to 12 by placing the other patients back into the communities with the appropriate care.
Thomas said the disappointing development was that they did not get to address the nation’s new health care initiative. He said it meant that Montana would need to hold a special session of its legislature if the US Congress passes a health care bill in order to react in a timely fashion.
Thomas was also critical of Governor Bullock, saying he needed to look at the permitting system and make some changes to bring back mining and logging jobs. He said state departments lack good management generally.
Both men agreed that by constant communication on a daily basis they were able to connect and coordinate House and Senate committees and avoid a divided caucus.

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