Commissioner Downing discusses goals for 2023
WILL BRIGGS Reporter
Though he has just one job title, Troy Downing wears a lot of hats in his role as Montana’s Commissioner of Securities and Insurance. Aside from his role in financial and insurance regulation, Downing is one of five people to sit on the state’s Land Board and serves as the state auditor.
“We cover so much under our umbrella,” Downing said. “I don’t think people realize the breadth of what we do in this office.”
Downing visited Lewistown last Tuesday for a meeting of the state’s Hail Board and to hold a “coffee with the commissioner” event. He also updated the News-Argus on some of the plans he and his office have for the next year, including plans to increase income from state trust lands and tighten regulation on the bail bond industry
Land matters and bond reform
One of Downing’s largest responsibilities is helping oversee the state’s 5.2 million acres of trust land. The income from the lease and sale of those lands is earmarked for public schools in Montana and Downing has a proposal for how to grow that fund: ensuring lessees can’t cancel land sales when there’s a competitive bid on the table.
“This is one of the problems that stuck out to me early on in my time as commissioner,” Downing explained. “The way it works now is almost all land sales go for the minimum bid price because lessees just cancel a land auction when another bidder registers for the sale.”
This situation is why Downing is supporting a bill, SB 49, that ensures lessees cannot cancel a land sale within ten days of auction when a competitive bid has been registered.
“The only way we discover the true value of the land is through the auction process. This bill will encourage competitive bidding,” Downing said. “We have a constitutional duty to maximize the value of state land. Last year, there were five acres of land in the Gallatin Valley that sold for just $270,000. That’s land in Gallatin Valley, there’s no way it was only worth that much. We want to make sure we’re being stewards of the land, but if we’re swapping out land for money to go into a pot to pay for other land, we need to maximize those funds.”
The Commissioner would also like to see some stricter regulation of the bail bond industry following a bounty hunt in Butte that resulted in a fatal shooting at the end of 2021. One bill Downing supports to that effect is HB 62.
“There are so many abuses in fugitive recovery,” Downing said. “We want to put in sideboards on that industry, like requiring bounty hunters to have licenses and be trained, to not be felons, and to notify law enforcement prior to attempting an arrest.”
Downing sounded optimistic about the prospects of both SB 49 and HB 62. The former bill passed the Senate by a 47-3 vote in February, while the latter passed the House 83-17 in January.
“With the bail bonds bill, the hallway conversations I’ve had sounds like it’ll be fine. Same with the land bill,” Downing said. “We’re feeling good about our bills.”
Related to his duties on the Land Board, Downing was happy to have voted in favor of the Big Snowy Mountain Wildlife Management Area last year. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks purchased nearly 5,700 acres in Golden Valley County for the WMA in 2022, connecting two large stretches of public land in an effort to provide better access to public lands and improve elk management in Central Montana.
“FWP did their homework and the lower elevation portions will still be used for grazing,” Downing said. “It was a win-win between land access, habitat creation, and grazing. That was just a slam dunk.”
Securities and outreach
With the recent spate of bankruptcies in cryptocurrency, Downing has also had his hands full with securities regulation. He urged potential investors to do their homework before investing in crypto.
“We’re dealing with all these cryptocurrency companies. Take BlockFi. Montana was part of a multi-state action against BlockFi for selling unlicensed securities. We were awarded $900,000 from the case. We got the first payment, but the second payment was affected by the FTX collapse and the third was affected by Silicon Valley Bank going under,” Downing said. “I encourage people to do their due diligence and look for red flags when you’re thinking about crypto.”
Downing is also monitoring developments in the crop insurance industry.
“Re-insurance companies are now pricing higher and requiring more skin in the game and unfortunately, some local crop insurers are having to shut down,” Downing said. “It’s something we’re looking at.”
He also urged the public to consider their flood insurance needs before snowpack turns into runoff in the spring and summer.
“With this late winter, early spring moisture, there’s more threat of runoff. We saw what happened last year in the southern part of the state,” Downing said. “Home insurance doesn’t cover floods, but you don’t have to go to FEMA. Private insurance agents should be able to find flood insurance for you, but it takes 30 days for flood insurance to kick in once you buy it.”
But perhaps most importantly, Downing is encouraging the public to keep the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance in mind the next time they might have a consumer complaint.
“When people have an issue, they don’t usually think, ‘Let me call the auditor!,’” Downing joked. “But we are a consumer protection agency. If you have a question about insurance, call us. If you’ve been defrauded, call us… We prosecute folks doing Ponzi schemes and investigate and prosecute crimes against seniors.”
The Office of the Montana State Auditor/Commissioner of Securities and Insurance can be contacted by going to the following web address: https://csimt.gov/contact_general-inquiry/
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