Lawmakers in Helena heard a bill Tuesday that its sponsor said is aimed at keeping counties from falling into financial trouble, and providing a way to investigate and hold officials accountable.
Proponents say it will help fix a problem that's plagued one county in the state and prevent other counties from the same situation. Opponents argue it's spurred by racist motivations and that a law passed in 2017 needs time to prove if it will provide remedy.
The bill is related to what's happened in Glacier County, in northern Montana on the east side of Glacier National Park. The county, which contains part of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, has failed to perform regular audits for years, leading to a group of locals paying their taxes under protest.
A case related to the issue reached the state Supreme Court and the county's finances have caused citizens and the local school district to worry about the ramifications.
The county recently completed audits for the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years, according to the Cut Bank Pioneer Press. Those reports show the county is operating more than $3.9 million in the red. A line from the audit raises concerns about the continued operation of the county because of financial crisis and cash flow issues.
Senate Bill 19 is carried by Sen. Roger Webb, a Republican from Billings. It was drafted at request of the Local Government Interim Committee, which took up the issue between the 2017 and 2019 sessions.
Webb said the bill would let state agencies including the Department of Justice, the Department of Revenue and the Department of Administration all play a role in making sure counties perform audits and take action if they don't.
The bill would require the state attorney general to perform investigations and bring actions under some circumstances, require special audits under some circumstances, allow a stop on state money flowing to local governments, let the state appoint a receiver if necessary and provide taxers with an independent cause of action against a local government.
"This is nothing but a request to help other government agencies help themselves," Webb said. "… We're not standing here trying to condemn anybody. We're not pointing fingers at anybody. All we're asking is to give the tools to let the state do its job."
Several people from Glacier County traveled to speak in support of the bill. That included former state Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, as well as representatives of local schools who said they are not able to do their jobs because of a lack of accurate financial information from the county.
State Rep. Llew Jones, a Republican from Conrad, also spoke in support of the bill.
Jones said he's concerned the county might not be able to operate because of its finances and that there is no way for locals to respond.
"What are you going to when an entire county goes bankrupt?" Jones asked. " … What happens when one day in the middle of February your school teachers have no money to be paid, your snow plows have no money to run? Whose problem is it then? That’s where we’re headed. Two major schools are going to flat run out of money, because that’s where we’re headed. … We have to choose to do something, to say that we will step up and do something when our normal recourse via local control simply doesn’t work. We simply can’t say our recourse is to move out of the county."
Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it was a part of the anti-Indian movement. Carroll Rivas said local activists began targeting Glacier County after all three county commission seats were held by Native Americans.
She said those groups use the term "taxpayer" as a "racist dog whistle" and are seeking to capitalize on the racist stereotype that Native Americans don't pay taxes.
Representatives with local government groups, such as the Montana League of Cities and Towns and the Montana Association of Counties, also spoke against the bill. They said another bill passed in 2017 was meant to address the same issues and should be given time to see if it can be effective. They also raised concerns about collateral consequences to other small local government groups like fire departments, which they argue cold face a huge burden under the bill.
The next step for the bill is a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which can defeat the proposal or move it onto the Senate floor for debate.