Preparing for the future: HB 156 and Stillwater County
Try, for a moment, to imagine Stillwater County without the mine in Nye.
Populations would fluctuate, budgets would be leaner.
The existence of the Stillwater Mine has created employment opportunities for hundreds, and brought money into local economies and school districts.
“The county is very fortunate to have Stillwater Mine, but it will live with the impacts of our mine forever,” Stillwater County Commissioner Maureen Davey testified at the House hearing in Helena last month.
While mineral reserves are forecast for at least 20 more years, there will come a day when the mine will close.
It is for such a future time that HB 156 is preparing.
House Bill 156, sponsored by Stillwater County’s own Representative Forrest Mandeville, protects the payment process from the Hard-Rock Mining Impact Trust Fund to counties.
The Hard-Rock Mining Impact Trust Fund is funded by the Metal Mines License Tax paid by the mines in the state (see “Explanation,” page 1).
After funding the Hard Rock Mining Impact Board and maintaining a reserve amount, the remaining balance is distributed among the counties that are impacted by the contributing mines. This money goes into the county’s Hard-Rock Mine Trust Reserve Account to be used during a mine closure or reduction of its workforce by 50 percent or more.
In 2009, this payment to the counties was given the distinction of becoming a statutory appropriation. That makes permanent by law a certain designation for money that is being used for a specific purpose.
The procedure for allocating funds by the state government, even if the money has only one purpose, can be long and complicated, but funds that are statutory appropriations have a faster, more streamlined process.
Typically, when the state government devotes money of any kind to a purpose, a periodic review of usage is ensured by the insertion of a type of expiration date known as a “sunset” date. The law making county payments from the Impact Trust Fund a statutory appropriation (MCA 90-6-331) sunsets June 30, 2019.
In order to maintain the payment’s status as a statutory appropriation and to ensure an easier distribution process, HB 156 makes payment to counties from the Impact Trust Fund a statutory appropriation permanently. Thus, sunset dates will no longer affect the payment.
If HB 156 were to not become law and the sunset date passed, counties would continue to receive payments into their Hard-Rock Reserve Accounts because the money cannot be used for any other purpose. However, the process of allocating the money would become more complicated and potentially slower.
“It’s a simple bill, but it’s an important bill,” explained Rep. Mandeville as he opened the bill’s hearing in the House.
At the House and Senate hearings for HB 156 combined, there were more than 15 proponents for the bill and no opponents.
Proponents included Commissioner Davey and Columbus Schools Superintendent Jeff Bermes, as well as letters from Reed Point Schools Superintendent Mike Ehinger and Absarokee Schools Superintendent Dustin Sturm.
These proponents testified to the importance of the funds received from the Metal Mines License Tax, which have been used for everything from school building maintenance to the creation of a county-wide Economic Development Department.
Harold Blattie, current executive director of the Montana Association of Counties and former Stillwater County Commissioner, explains that the Hard Rock Impact Fund is so important because, unlike other natural resource industries, a safety net for the counties is provided by the mines through their taxes. He describes the three mining impact laws as “a model of the way things should be.”
Both the Stillwater Mining Company and the Montana Mining Association support HB 156.
Some representatives warned against losing a measure of oversight over statutory appropriations by making them permanent rather than allowing a review process as a sunset date nears.
Despite the reservations of a few, HB 156 passed its third reading in the Montana House of Representatives with a bipartisan 79-20 vote.
Currently, the bill is waiting for executive action in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. If HB 156 passes out of the committee, it will undergo its second and third readings in the Senate. Then, if successful, the bill will move to the governor’s desk.