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City plays defense

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When Missoula city officials hired lobbyist John MacDonald to represent their interests in Helena, city spokesperson Ginny Merriam described MacDonald’s job as “more reactive than anything else.”

The 61st Legislature adjourned April 28 and MacDonald, who was in Missoula May 6 to talk to the Committee of the Whole, confirmed that the city spent much of the session playing defense. 

“Municipalities and counties really have to watch to make sure there aren’t efforts underway to take away what they have,” MacDonald says. In that sense, the city’s legislative success can be quantified by the number of bills that didn’t pass as much as those that did. In his report to the city, MacDonald lists 10 onerous land use bills alone that the city helped defeat. 

“We’re still a rural state,” he explains. “So a lot of the issues that are important to the rural lawmakers are not issues that are going to be important to urban lawmakers.”

MacDonald’s biggest disappointments occurred when SB 506, the local option sales tax, and HB 472, Rep. Dick Barrett’s sidewalk maintenance bill, both failed. MacDonald knew the local option bill would be an “uphill” battle, but Barrett’s bill, which MacDonald calls “fantastic,” died after strong opposition from the Montana Department of Transportation.

MacDonald is the first lobbyist the city has ever hired to represent its interests and City Administrative Officer Bruce Bender says Macdonald’s service proved invaluable.

“In my 20-plus year of being involved in [legislative sessions], it was a real benefit,” Bender says. In the past, city officials had to weigh the benefits of testifying at a 10-minute hearing against the four-hour time commitment in travel time. Having a lobbyist, Bender says, solved the problem and also provided the city a much more consistent presence in Helena. Bender says the city plans to hire another lobbyist next session

“And hopefully,” he says, “it’s Mr. MacDonald. He was very good at it.”

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