State Legislature 2020: Bill Mercer
I ran for the first time in 2018 because I missed public service. My term as U.S. Attorney for Montana ended in 2009 and, after ten years away from government, I wanted to work on public policy issues again. I am running for re-election to the House of Representatives because of (1) a long-standing interest in public policy and public administration, (2) a concern with the growth in government spending, (3) a general sense that society is worse off today than it was when I started my public service career in Montana (as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1994) or when I grew up in Billings and is on the wrong trajectory, and (4) an interest in creating more and better oversight of the executive branch by the legislative branch. Being effective as a citizen legislator is tough, but my background as U.S. Attorney, my term on the Montana Board of Crime Control, my service on non-profit boards, and my graduate degree in public administration provide a useful perspective on budget and policy questions.
Montana has been less willing to create new government programs than many other states, but there are plenty of voices in the halls of the Capitol that favor new and expanded programs. New and expanded programs require more revenue to fund them, which means higher taxes and less disposable income for taxpayers. I am fairly described as a limited government conservative. My voting record in 2019 is consistent with this view. For the 2021 session, taxpayers should elect legislators willing to reduce government spending because we will not be able to maintain our 2019-20 spending levels and programs given COVID-19 and still balance the budget as required by the Montana Constitution.
I look at these issues by attempting to separate core government responsibilities from programs that are not essential. Merely because a program has been funded over the years does not make it essential.
I am a proponent of funding core government responsibilities. For example, it is crucial that we have the capacity to investigate, prosecute and incarcerate violent offenders, fraudsters, drug traffickers, sex offenders, persistent DUI offenders, and recidivists. I will continue to resist the idea that taxpayers are better off by saving money with these offenders on the streets instead of in cells.
Another core responsibility is education. The Montana Constitution speaks to this when it notes “The legislature shall provide a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools.” Furthermore, the Constitution demands that the State “establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person.” When one looks at available data (standardized test scores, student readiness upon entry in college, etc.), can we say that the system is optimal? In my view, we know that this is not happening based upon the amount of remedial work required when our high school graduates matriculate to the MUS and the college readiness index of the ACT scores of our high school juniors.
I have served on the House Appropriations Committee and the Legislative Finance Committee and believe the experience gained in working on the state budget will allow me to make important contributions to oversight of state agencies and the development of the budget in 2021-2022. My favorite description of the process in the 21st Century is that the Montana Legislature is the opposite of Congress. Congress spends little time legislating, but it focuses on oversight of federal executive branch agencies. In Montana, legislators are fully engaged in developing and passing bills, but do precious little to monitor and evaluate the work of the executive branch during and after the four-month legislative session. To do this will require more active engagement by the Legislature. I look forward to enhancing our efforts in this regard.
On the Appropriations Committee, our decisions involve a zero-sum game where a decision to fund one item will preclude funding another. In 2021, we will balance immediate needs with long-term investments based upon available resources. If I believe that essential services cannot be funded because of expenditures on investments designed to produce positive outcomes in the long-term, I would meet the immediate need in the hope that the longer-term needs could be addressed in the future.
I am not sure that the trustee-delegate description is apt. As candidates, we run under the banner of a particular party, which is a fairly powerful indicator of ideology and philosophy. In addition, we talk to voters and respond to their questions and questionnaires like this one. So, the voters have a good idea about the candidates’ views. When a candidate is elected, the outcome suggests that the majority of the voters agree with the candidate’s views.
Throughout the session, I heard from my constituents and other voters from around the State. With a number of bills, this input was very helpful to understand the issue and its importance. On the other hand, certain input cannot be expected to impact a legislator’s views. For example, I heard from more people who favored Medicaid Expansion than I heard from opponents of Medicaid Expansion. However, I had campaigned as an opponent of Medicaid Expansion. It was a significant issue in the campaign. No amount of input on the bill could have altered my view on how to vote.
Things are fast-paced for the four-months while the Legislature is in session. Among the best ways to communicate with people in real-time is through the weekly video conferences sponsored by the Chamber. I enjoyed participating in those meetings last session and will plan to do so if re-elected. Of course, I am reachable by e-mail and phone as well.
A great thing about the Montana Legislature is that is much more functional than Congress. Members do work with legislators in the other party. There are policy areas on which I am unwilling to compromise, but there are other policy areas where the equivalent of a settlement agreement in litigation is perfectly acceptable. The best and most important example of collaborative work that I am part of is a bi-partisan group of House members focused on Montana’s public pension programs, including the financial risks to the State attributable to the plans as evaluated through stress testing.
I serve on [the Financial Modernization & Risk Analysis subcommittee]. We have done some preliminary work on evaluating the current mix of revenue. One of the observations is the significant reduction over time in the percentage of our revenue attributable to natural resource taxes.
As we prepare for the 2021 Legislature, it seems clear that the overall economic conditions caused by COVID-19 will leave the State with less revenue than forecast before the onset of the pandemic. We have seen projections that suggest tax collections for this fiscal year will be down by 15%. Increasing taxes in this context would be disastrous for economic recovery efforts, and I will resist such proposals.
At the same time, the revenue picture makes it improbable that major tax reductions are likely. If we are able to pursue tax reform in 2021, the business equipment tax would not be a priority for me, particularly given moves by the Legislature to reduce this rate in the recent past.
I have studied the local option tax and do not support its adoption.
I would support such legislation, but I favor some narrowly-tailored exceptions like [willful misconduct, reckless or intentional infliction of harm, or eliminating standing employee protections].
I voted against the continuation of Medicaid Expansion in the 2019 Legislature and continue to believe that we cannot afford it.
[Significant changes like work requirements and asset testing] will prove to be illusory. For example, federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, have already voided work requirements put into place in Kentucky and Arkansas. If Montana’s work requirements are ever approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a lawsuit will surely be filed in the U.S. District Court in D.C. to nullify them on identical grounds. Given the D.C. Circuit’s ruling, it is difficult to see how work requirements will ever be implemented in Montana.
Whatever revenue impacts are incurred at the State level will have an effect on state agencies and local governments. It seems unlikely that any particular entity will be immune from funding reductions, but legislators will work diligently to not burden local governments in a disproportionate way.
From my perspective, the timing of SB 340 [the 406 Impact District bill] precluded legislators from understanding the way it would work. It has some design flaws that may not be surmountable. For example, the impact to the state Treasury would not happen until $300 million in private investment occurred. However, the entirety of the credits to private investors would be felt by the State treasury at one time, the timing of which would be unknown and unknowable by legislators considering a proposal in 2021. In addition, a larger philosophical question is whether the State and communities should favor incentivizing investment in certain areas to the exclusion of others. Given the timing of the introduction of SB 340, this issue did not benefit from significant discussion and debate in the 2019 Legislature.
This is a membership communication paid for by the Billings Chamber of Commerce and provided for the benefit of our members.