School tax credits, state fund oversight among new laws

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A disputed program that allows tax credits for donations to private schools or innovative public education programs is one of 20 new Montana laws that take effect with the new year.

The tax credit program has been used by school-choice advocates in other states as an alternative to school voucher programs. Montana's new program will allows tax credits for donations of up to $150 a year for scholarships to private schools or for innovative programs in public schools, with an annual limit of $3 million.

Advocates for the tax credit program cried foul when the Department of Revenue imposed a rule that said religious schools would not be able to benefit from the program. Agency officials said the state constitution prohibits appropriations to religious organizations, while the bill's sponsor, Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said the intent of the legislation was to aid all students.

Two lawsuits have been filed challenging the rule, one in state court and one in federal court.

Other laws taking effect Friday:



The state auditor's office will oversee regulation of the Montana State Fund, which is the state's workers compensation insurance fund. The state fund previously was overseen by the Legislature. Bill sponsor Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, said transferring authority to the auditor's office will allow for continuous oversight and treat the fund like other insurance companies.



Retailers will be charged a $5 licensing fee to sell "vaping" or alternative nicotine products, and they are barred from selling the popular electronic cigarettes to children under 18. The new fee is expected to bring an estimated $8,400 in additional revenue to the state.



A tax-credit program meant to provide access to state land that is locked in by surrounding private land is being expanded. The $500 income tax credit to landowners who allow access through their property will increase to $750. It will also include access to federal lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. The expanded Unlocking State Lands credit is expected to cost the state nearly $20,000 in lost tax revenue the first year, and about $10,000 more in each of the following two years.



Pharmacists and retailers will start recording sales of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in a national electronic reporting system. The drugs can be used to make methamphetamine. The system will create a "stop sale" alert if the purchase would exceed the buyer's limit, which is 9 grams a month and now 3.6 grams in any single day.

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