Town hall in Big Sky
State Sen. Pat Flowers visited to discuss legislative progress and hear community concerns
There is an uncommon approachability to Montana politicians. When the legislature is in session, the reserved parking for legislators at the state capital regularly houses a handful of old beat-up farm trucks. Many legislators are proudly generationally linked to the state they serve.
Functioning with a true citizen legislature, Montana is in the minority. North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming are the only other states in the union to qualify as such. In these low population places compensation is marginal, less than $20,000 a year per data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures, but authenticity ranks high according to Democratic state Sen. Pat Flowers.
“I think we as citizens should be pleased with the bipartisan work of the legislature. In my experience, all the legislators are there for all the right reasons – to do the best by the state and the people who live here,” Flowers said. “I think that is one of the great values of having a citizen legislature, is that people are there for the right reasons: it is certainly not for wealth or fame.”
When Flowers first ran for office, he pounded the pavement, shook thousands of hands and engaged in discussions with constituents from every walk of life, narrowly beating Republican incumbent Jedediah Hinkle.
What he earned with his victory was the responsibility for an expansive district: from the campus of Montana State University (MSU), to Belgrade, south through the canyon to Big Sky and on into West Yellowstone.
“It’s a really diverse district and it’s really spread out, so trying to stay in touch with people across the district is a challenge. All I’ve come-up with are having these town halls and going to as many community meetings as I can,” he said.
Town halls were held at the MSU campus, in Gallatin Gateway and most recently in Big Sky. Next, he will head to West Yellowstone. The meeting in Big Sky held more the appearance of a round table discussion. This kind of approach seems second nature to him. He takes his job of being a voice for the people seriously and pushes for increased government transparency. Flowers heard from various community leaders of the distinct challenges to the community while they sat around a large table at the Wilson Hotel. They spoke of the need for affordable housing, concerns about infrastructure and roads, potential to use the additional 1% project specific resort tax option made possible during the last legislative session and for the wastewater treatment facility upgrade.
Another key issue is the mitigation of increasingly high property tax.
“The legislature in the interim is studying how we could restructure our tax system and what kinds of options we could explore,” he said. Montana is one of a handful of states that does not currently have a sales tax, which is one of the options some committees are looking into, he said.
He also provided a progress report on the legislature: a comprehensive infrastructure bill to repair roads, bridges and Romney Hall; HB 553 that creates clear guidance and structure for future bills; expanded Medicaid; a state reinsurance act “that should lower insurance premiums for all of us by 10-20 percent”; the passing of a law to make pharmacy benefit managers more accountable, which should lower pharma costs for consumers; presumptive illness coverage for firefighters, which he described as “a longtime coming and way overdue”; the freezing of college tuition for another two years to help Montana college students; the appropriation of $1 million to go toward easement negotiation and allow public access to public lands surrounded by private land.
He discussed the legislative effort that Big Sky Resort Tax was behind: the increase of the threshold for Resort Tax from 3% to 4%.
“It is up to each resort community if they would like to use that funds from that 1% for local infrastructure and if they do, they have to take that out to the community. It has to be tied to a specific project, voter approved and then sunsets at the conclusion of the project,” he said.
Resort Tax chairman Kevin Germain expressed respect and appreciation for Senator Flowers.
“He has been a big supporter of the Big Sky community and a big supporter of the 1% for infrastructure. I appreciate him taking the time to come to Big Sky and holding a conversation with us,” he said.