Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Two of the biggest legislative priorities to start the 2023 session in Montana – addressing housing and prison space and upgrades – came down to a flurry of work done in the final days to try to find compromises, though leadership from both parties said they feel the body could have done more specifically to try to fix Montana’s housing issues.

House Bill 819, sponsored by Rep. Paul Green, R-Hardin, during the final weeks of the session became the lone vehicle for several bills that had either died or languished along the way dealing with workforce housing for the prison in Deer Lodge and the hospital in Warm Springs, a housing infrastructure loan program, a land trust use study, and a multi-million-dollar bump toward the low- and middle-income housing program run through the permanent coal tax trust fund.

But all of it nearly died in the House less than half an hour before the Senate voted to adjourn, as members of both parties voiced opposition to various parts of the bill and voted the conference committee report for the bill down 49-50.

Some Republicans said they were opposed to parts of the bill about using land trust parcels for possible state employee housing and to the last-minute changes to the bill, which contains around $175 million in spending. Democrats said the conference committee made the bill worse and disregarded amendment proposals they said were reasonable to ensure some of that money would be used for long-term affordable housing instead of just extra general housing built by private companies.

But several lawmakers said at the late hour – the House would vote to adjourn about six hours later – the bill was the last option lawmakers had to go home and tell their constituents that they did something to addressing housing needs, which were seen by many lawmakers as their top priority this session because of the lack of affordable housing and skyrocketing property taxes.

“We’ve spent the last four months massaging this thing, bringing it together. It was a bipartisan problem that affects every single part of the state, and I feel very blessed to have been able to carry this bill, to be able to work with people from both sides of the aisle,” Green told the House in his closing remarks on the conference committee report.

“This helps everyone and it’s a great opportunity for us to look at our constituents when we go back and say, ‘I’ve done something; we’ve done our part. Now let the free market reign.’ There is a provision in here that does exactly that. The free market has that opportunity to build itself. We’re giving them the vehicle; they’re going to put the fuel in it,” he added.

The House would reconsider its action on the vote, and would pass the conference committee version of the bill on second reading later that afternoon, and then on third reading in a final 58-38 vote – with a mix of Republicans and Democrats opposed to it.

The bill creates a $106 million revolving loan fund that the board of investments will invest that could go toward infrastructure development to try to create more housing with a minimum gross density of 10 units per acre; puts $50 million toward a community reinvestment plan account so community reinvestment organizations can buy down mortgages for workforce housing; sends $6 million toward deed-restricted state workforce housing near Deer Lodge and Anaconda and sites of other state-run prisons and hospitals; and adds another $50 million toward the middle-income affordable housing program through the coal trust.

The bill also allows the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to study whether there are state trust lands that could be used to try to build more workforce housing.

The final product was a mix of pieces of bills, and there was both bipartisan support and opposition to the final measure in the end.

“It’s not perfect. I had a bill I brought this session that I liked better, that I thought could have been incorporated. Didn’t happen. No big deal. This is our chance to invest in Montana and to invest in housing at a critical time, and a no vote on this bill would be a real shame just because it’s not perfect,” said Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, during the final floor discussion on the conference committee version of the bill.

“We came out of conference committee with a bill that actually did less to guarantee affordability for Montana communities than when we went in,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena. “I’m starting to get the sense that this needs Democratic votes to pass, but Democratic compromises were not included in it, and so I don’t know what to say about that other than we’re no on the conference committee report. The bill’s a different thing.”

“It’s the one that’s left,” added Rep. Marty Malone, R-Pray.

At post-session news conferences, leadership from both parties said while they were happy they passed at least something to address the workforce and affordable housing needs to an extent, they left some on the table.

Along with HB819, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, also lauded zoning changes passed by the legislature but also said he wished the body “could have done more.”

“I think something is better than nothing, without a doubt,” he said. “So, I think we really moved the needle at the end of the day.”

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, said she felt like lawmakers had streamlined some housing regulations despite some in the party questioning whether the government should have any role in addressing the affordable housing crisis.

“I think that by removing and streamlining regulations for housing, that’s going to bring costs down as a builder,” she said. “I know that as much as we can streamline the process, it’s going to benefit those folks that are out there wanting to purchase homes, and I think we did accomplish some really great things for housing across Montana.”

Abbott and Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, said Democrats had hoped to have another conference committee on the bill to try to get some of their requests into the bill.

Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, who was a member of the conference committee, reiterated that she felt the Democrats’ requests were not considered during the committee, but that the caucus can still find a win in that it had a voice in the housing discussion throughout the session and perhaps shifted measures along the way.

“I think a lot of stakeholders that we trust, and folks in our community, would say that yes, it is in some ways better than nothing,” she said. “Especially to add money into the coal trust homes, I think we can all feel really proud going back to our communities.”

Flowers was less positive about where the Republican supermajority-controlled legislature ended up on housing.

“We provided no immediate solutions to the housing crisis. There’s nothing for renters that came out of this session,” he said. “I’ve worked on it all session; you’re probably tired of hearing about it. We offered solutions in both the House and the Senate, as Democrats, and none of those moved forward. So, we’re going to go home and tell our friends and neighbors, ‘Sorry, we couldn’t help you out.’”

Funding for 120 prison beds included in final prison infrastructure package

Through HB819 and House Bill 817, lawmakers approved $25 million for workforce housing that both parties have said is needed to house employees at the Montana State Prison and Montana State Hospital.

The latter bill is a $200 million infrastructure upgrade package for the state prison that includes upgrades to the perimeter fence, an emergency notification system, new low-security housing and other renovations.

It also contains one of the more contentious pieces of law from the whole session – the $8 million in funding over the biennium to house up to 120 Montana prisoners – which in the final days of the session was removed from and added back to bills several times, then saw the requirement the contract go to private prison company CoreCivic removed from the language.

The Department of Corrections will still be able to contract the beds to CoreCivic under the language that was passed in HB817 and an accompanying bill that died on the final day of the session, but the language no longer mandates the state contract with the company specifically.

Prior discussions and appropriations would have sent the money directly to CoreCivic so Montana prisoners could be shipped to its prison in Arizona.

Lawmakers from both parties have acknowledged the shortage of prison beds in Montana, but there has been disagreement for months as to whether additional beds were needed or if tweaks to community corrections programs and other diversion efforts could alleviate the backlog of more than 200 people awaiting transfer from local jails to prison.

Despite the death of Senate Bill 95 from Sen. Barry Usher, R-Billings, which would have made property theft worth $1,500 or more punishable by up to 10 years in prison and contained jail time for theft of under $1,500, several other bills that passed increase criminal penalties or add new ones for various offenses, leading Republicans to say the extra beds are necessary right now.

Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, who had fought against funding the extra beds when the funding was discussed in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, had said on the Senate floor in response to Majority Leader Fitzpatrick calling projects in a separate bill “pork” that the funding for private prison beds was “the biggest piece of pork you’ve ever seen.”

But Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, who sponsored HB817, told lawmakers on the final days of the session that it should support the bill because he believes there are few other short-term options.

“It’s really unclear in the department’s mind as to how many people we’ll be able to move out of the prison without them being backfilled from other locations in the state. The legislature has passed several pieces of legislation which increase the length of sentences and add to the number of crimes that will relate to incarceration at the Montana State Prison,” Fitzpatrick said. “You combine that with a growing population, you’ve simply got a math problem that cannot be resolved simply be releasing prisoners into the community.”

HB819 had been returned from the enrolling process as of Wednesday, while HB817 was still being enrolled, meaning both are still awaiting action by the governor.