Montana House of Representatives 2023
The Montana House of Representatives meets during a floor session on Thursday, Jan. 26. The number of constituents each House member represents varies from approximately 9,200 people to nearly 18,000 people. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

This story is excerpted from Capitolized, a twice-weekly newsletter that keeps an eye on the representatives you voted for (or against) with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday? Sign up here.

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, are teaming up on legislation that would transfer $115 million from the General Fund to the state’s coal severance tax trust fund for use developing and maintaining affordable housing in Montana. 

Regier’s House Bill 927 would authorize the state Board of Housing to administer the funds as revolving loans “for the development and preservation of homes and apartments to assist eligible low-income and moderate-income applicants.” It passed out of the House Taxation Committee shortly after its Tuesday hearing on a unanimous vote. 

Regier presented the bill as one of several possible options this session to address Montana’s housing crisis as lawmakers assemble the state’s budget. 

“As that puzzle comes together toward the end we need to make sure that all the pieces are on the table and that we can put that together,” he said in the bill’s hearing Tuesday. “If it’s not, then we’re just going to be short on the conversation.” 

Lawmakers entered the 2023 session with a more than $2 billion budget surplus, and have spent much of the last three months debating how to spend, save or return that money in a way that best serves the state’s needs, housing among them. 

One of those proposals was Butte Democratic Sen. Ryan Lynch’s Senate Bill 346which would have transferred $2 billion to the coal trust. Money in the coal trust is invested, generating interest that flows to uses including water and sewer projects, job creation grants and public school facilities. More than $1 billion is in the trust currently.

The bill attracted more than 40 sponsors on both sides of the aisle, but came into conflict with Republican leadership’s desire to spend the surplus on property and income tax rebates and cuts, and died. Lynch signaled at the time that a new coal trust bill could be coming in the second half of the session. 

“I’m thankful that the speaker was willing to put this in to keep the conversation going on what we do with a generational opportunity with the surplus,” Abbott testified Tuesday. “I think there’s a tension in this building about how we address it, how much we give back to taxpayers — I think we all want to give targeted tax relief back to taxpayers — how much we spend immediately and how much we save or invest, and this is the third part … where we’re putting money from the surplus into a revolving loan program that will continue to reinvest in our communities.” 

Democrats have repeatedly critiqued their majority-party counterparts this session for failing to make meaningful long-term investments in affordable housing. Abbott said she and Regier are still not totally aligned, but that he is interested in the concept of saving and reinvesting state dollars. 

How far the bill makes it in light of the governor’s own housing proposals is an open question, though. 

“My sense is the governor’s office isn’t thrilled with it,” Abbott said. “So my hope is that we can sort of keep it in the mix down the stretch, because it is a missing piece of the multiple-pronged housing solution we’re trying to push.”

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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.