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Working for the Flathead

One of us is a member of an elected endangered political species in northwest Montana and the other, the supermajority party. While we differ in areas, the two of us strongly believe in supporting legislation that can improve the lives of all Flathead County residents. In discussions with you, our constituents, it is common to hear sentiments that the political gulf between the two parties is too wide to bridge. In some cases, this may be true. However, while the competition of ideas is essential for democracy to thrive, common ground also exists for greater goals.

In the 68th session of the Montana Legislature, many important, commonsense solutions were found to address major issues in the state – some that have been compounding for decades. This was accomplished while balancing the budget, paying off state debt, reinforcing emergency funds, and providing a historic $1 billion dollar tax cut. While Republicans and Democrats may not have agreed on the percentage of return versus investment, without question, much good was achieved on behalf of all Montanans in the process.

The following highlights examples of legislation that enjoyed wide bipartisan support in the 68th session of the Montana Legislature.

Starting with the basics, two different infrastructure funds were formed which, altogether, will be used to secure $1.5 billion or more in federal funds to improve and maintain Montana’s roads and bridges. Additionally, an electric vehicle tax and registration fee was developed; this advanced planning ensures that all road users are equally responsible to care for our roadways.

Knowing many Flathead residents are concerned about rising crime rates, we both supported a $300 million, generational investment in Montana’s mental health system. This mental health package will update the state hospital, create regional facilities, and improve local and online options across the state. Simultaneously, enhancements to increase capacity at the state prison, develop new pre-release centers, and improve inmate rehabilitation programs were all prioritized; bills to tackle human trafficking, fentanyl distribution, and domestic violence passed with bipartisan support.

There were also wins for our schools in the 68th session. While much funding for schools comes from local property tax, a portion is provided by the state from income tax revenue. This session, the legislature supported an increased state allocation of funding per student, increased starting teacher pay, expanded career technical opportunities, and dedicated one-time-only dollars to establish a statewide healthcare insurance program for school staff.

In addition to infrastructure, safety, and education, tremendous strides were made for Montana’s hardworking families. In the childcare arena, we reduced costs for working parents through the Best Beginnings scholarship program and established practical, pro-family legislation through an adoption tax credit. For housing, low-interest loans issued through Montana’s Coal Trust Fund and an innovative mortgage program will empower more working Montanans to buy a home. Local governments will also now have access to funds for new infrastructure such as water, sewer and sidewalks in neighborhoods zoned for ten or more housing units per acre. Equally important was finding a way to appropriately fund care of our state’s most vulnerable residents. An important agreement was reached to fund the recommended rates for long-term and nursing home care based on a study commissioned by the Governor’s office.

Depending on political philosophy, the legislature should have sent more money back or invested more generously in the aforementioned programs. As always, there remain contentious issues that await work in a future session to be tackled by a different mix of personalities and party proportionality. This session, we found common ground and collaborated with many others to move forward significant legislation for Montana. That, and a lifelong friendship forged, have made our work worthwhile.

This column was originally published in the Daily Inter Lake and Flathead Beacon by Dave Fern (D-Whitefish) and Courtenay Sprunger (R-Kalispell).

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