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City plans to watch legislative session closely

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To hear Missoula officials describe it, newly hired lobbyist John MacDonald will be Johnny on the Spot during the 2009 state legislative session.

“His job,” says city spokesperson Ginny Merriam, “is more reactive than anything else.”

At last count, 353 bills have been introduced to the Legislature, which convened Jan. 5, and another 1,700 wait in the queue. Things move fast, Merriam says. And it’s basically MacDonald’s job to be Missoula’s eyes and ears in Helena, while helping to push the city’s key agenda items, such as the local option sales tax.

The Missoula City Council voted 10–1 at its Dec. 22 meeting to pay MacDonald and his firm, Gallatin Public Affairs, $20,000 for their services during the legislative session. Councilmember Renee Mitchell voted against the measure, saying the city and county should share a lobbyist to save some money. Councilmember Bob Jaffe was absent and did not vote.

For his part, MacDonald sees the “reactive” position as quite exhaustive. As a former Associated Press journalist, he enjoyed mining the docket as he covered various legislative sessions in Montana and North Dakota.

“I really enjoy [staying on top of bills],” MacDonald says. “It can be difficult, but I really enjoy that research angle—finding out what legislation is out there, how it can affect the client. A lot of my former journalism friends have ended up in legislative services and I think there’s that innate nature that we enjoy that.”

In that sense, MacDonald sees his role as twofold: “First, we’re there to serve as the eyes and ears of the city and the council, to know the status of legislation as it goes back to the city,” he says. “And second, we’re there to represent the city, to let lawmakers know about specific issues or policies.”

Key among those policies is the local option sales tax, which would allow local governments to create a sales tax no higher than 4 percent for tourist related items, like lodging, meals, bar drinks and vehicle rentals. The Montana League of Cities and Towns will take the lead in pushing for the measure, but as a representative of Missoula, MacDonald will help lobby the issue.

Alec Hansen, director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, says it’s important to give local governments a method to cash in on tourism, the state’s second largest industry behind agriculture. With 10 to 12 million tourists visiting the state every year, and generating some $3 billion for the economy, local officials are hoping to direct some of that revenue into city coffers. Hansen estimates it could generate about $74 million for the state. But, he recognizes, “it’ll take a long time to get fully implemented.”

If approved, the bill would allow cities and towns to place the issue on the ballot to be decided by local voters.

The same idea has been introduced in previous sessions, but had little success due to rural legislators wondering why their constituents should have to pay a tax to visit Montana’s cities. But in Hansen’s version of the bill, 20 percent of the amount collected would go into a revenue sharing fund for surrounding cities and towns. Of the remainder, 30 percent would go toward property tax relief.

“Our hope is that at that point Montana people will get more back in prop taxes than they will ever pay in taxes on items taxed under this law,” Hansen says. “That’s our intent—a net property tax reduction for Montana homeowners.”

For example, Hansen points to the Hell’s Angels’ recent visit to Missoula.

“Last summer, when the Hells Angels were here, the city dedicated $140,000 to police overtime from the city budget,” he says. “Those people came to town and spent quite a bit of money, I imagine. Not one dime ended up in the Missoula city treasury.”

Although the local option sales tax will be Missoula’s highest priority, city officials already have their eye on an ever-evolving list of bills. After the first day of the session, Merriam says the city has taken a position on six bills. Of highest priority is HB 129, which revises flood plain map adaptation laws. The city opposes it because it takes the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation out of the process. The city supports HB 18, a mail ballot pilot project; HB 124, which reopens Guaranteed Annual Benefit Adjustment for firefighters; SB 9, which authorizes funding of transportation systems with revenue bonds; and SB 57 and SB 58, both of which deal with laws regulating special districts.

As more bills take shape in Helena, city officials say MacDonald is well positioned to advocate the city’s interests. The University of Montana graduate worked with the city earlier this year on a citizen survey rating quality of life in Missoula and has a good understanding of local government.

“He did a wonderful job,” Merriam says. “And he’s very familiar with Missoula issues.”

Darryl James, a new Gallatin hire who previously worked with HKM Engineering and was in charge of drafting the firm’s environmental impact statement for the intersection of Russell and Third, will also join MacDonald in Helena. Both will report back regularly to Mayor John Engen.

As the legislative session convened Monday, MacDonald was already hustling to keep track of bills.

“I’m actually going through that wonderful research process right now,” he says. “It’s too early to say for sure [what other bills may affect Missoula.] But I’m headed over to the Capitol in about an hour to dive into it more.”

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