The Billings Outpost

Infrastructure bill dies in Montana Legislature

By MICHAEL WRIGHT - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

On the last day of the 64th Montana Legislature, leaders in both houses lauded compromises made on the budget and other major pieces of legislation, even though the final measure died in the House after a five-day political standoff.

“Montanans should be proud,” Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said at a press conference after adjournment. “I am pleased with what we got done.”

Bullock listed off the his priority bills that passed - the Flathead Water Compact, Medicaid expansion and campaign finance reform. Those bills were all carried by Republican senators and passed both houses with the support of Democrats and groups of moderate Republicans.

Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, who didn’t support any of those measures, said they showed who controlled the session.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that Republicans were in the majority, but conservatives were not,” Moore said.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 April 2015 11:04

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Medicaid expansion: A riddle and a risk in Helena

By MICHAEL WRIGHT - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

Middle ground on Medicaid expansion eluded the Montana Legislature in 2013, and since then Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, has studied the issue, talked to hospitals and members of the other party and others to get to where he was last month: standing in front of the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee.

“This is a riddle we’ve been trying to solve,” said Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, during the committee hearing on his Senate Bill 405. “I believe the solution is in your hands.”

He dubbed it the Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership Act, HELP for short. The bill – which accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act and includes programs that attempt to get people out of poverty – might be the one that has the best chance to expand Medicaid in Montana. Three other Republican-sponsored Medicaid bills died on the House floor last week, thanks in part to several Republicans themselves.

Buttrey smiled confidently as he watched dozens of supporters speak. Turnout wasn’t as big for this hearing as for Gov. Steve Bullock’s Medicaid expansion bill earlier this month. After that proposal died, he - and Senate Democrats - have thrown their support behind Buttrey.

The bill passed the Senate, 28-21, and is awaiting action in the House.

Buttrey grew up in Great Falls, but hasn’t spent his whole life there. He comes from the family that ran a chain of grocery stores in Montana, but his dad didn’t want him to be a part of the family business. When Buttrey was in third grade, an astronaut who was also an electrical engineer visited his class.

“I came home that day and told my parents I wanted to be an electrical engineer and work at Boeing,” Buttrey said.

That’s pretty much what happened. Buttrey went to West Point for a bit but ended up at Montana State University studying electrical engineering and ultimately landing a job at Boeing.

He loved the work. He worked on weapons systems and with complicated problems.

“A lot of what I did was problem solving,” Buttrey said. “Whether it was dealing with stealth aircraft or new weapons, we were always trying to solve the impossible.”

Though it was his dream career, he found himself wanting to come back to Montana.

“Like most Montanans, I spent a lot of my life trying to get out of the state,” Buttrey said, “and then eventually decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life trying to get back to the state.”

In the late ’90s, he moved to Bigfork and launched Cable Technology, a manufacturing business that made electronics for aircraft, serving mostly “aerospace and military customers.” He also became an assistant coach for the Bigfork High School football team, alongside Todd Emslie.

In 2010, Buttrey ran for and won a Senate seat and served in his first legislative session in 2011.

“I’ve always said who you align yourself with when you first enter into the legislature is the most important thing in your legislative career,” Buttrey said in an interview early last week.

He was a little overwhelmed, but he found friends in the moderate faction of Republicans, like Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.

One day during the last session, Jones told Buttrey to come to a meeting and told him that he was going to be the Medicaid guy.

The product of his work is Senate Bill 405. The bill accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act – a point of contention for many Republicans – and expands coverage to people earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

It also asks recipients to pay small premiums for their Medicaid coverage and creates a program through the Department of Labor that’s meant to help those on Medicaid get out of poverty and buy insurance on the federal exchange. It would include a workplace assessment survey and a job placement program.

Parts of the bill require waivers from the federal government, which Buttrey is confident will get approved, although the process could take several months after the bill is signed.

It’s the third attempt this session to expand Medicaid. Gov. Bullock’s plan to cover as many as 70,000 uninsured people died earlier in March. Measures from the more conservative sect of the GOP estimated to cover around 10,000 people failed last in March.

Buttrey guesses his bill will cover around 45,000 people, but some supporters say it has the potential to cover the 70,000 in the so-called gap between eligibility for Medicaid and being able to afford to buy insurance on the exchange.

Along with Bullock, hospital and physician organizations are pleased. Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said his party will also back Buttrey’s plan.

“The fact is that the bill fulfills a couple of the threshold criteria,” Sesso said. Those criteria are the federal money and covering those earning up to 138 percent of poverty.

Sesso did say Democrats are uncomfortable with parts of the bill, like asking poor people to pay premiums for Medicaid coverage, but that it was a good compromise.

Not all Republicans are ready to support the bill, though.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Moore, R-Miles City, voted against the bill, seeing potential concerns in its use of federal money. He wanted to see a plan in case the federal money runs out.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who chairs the House Human Services Committee that voted down the governor’s bill to expand Medicaid, sees no positives in the bill.

“It’s awful,” Wittich said. “It’s worse than the governor’s bill.”

He said that it expands government too far by creating the work program under the Department of Labor. Government sponsored work programs have never worked, Wittich said.

George Paul, the chair of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee, which is in Buttrey’s district, said it appears to be another step away from the conservative Republicans for Buttrey.

That party committee is an example of how the well-known split in the Republican party even manifests itself on a local level. Since last summer, when Paul became chair of the committee, Buttrey and a few other moderate Great Falls Republicans - like Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick - have distanced themselves from the central committee.

The central committee recently censured Fitzpatrick, who has a bill that would gut the Republican lawsuit to close Montana’s primary elections. Paul doesn’t have a censure for Buttrey, but he said his work on Medicaid makes him - like Fitzpatrick - a “Republican-in-name-only,” or RINO.

“They’re looking pretty much like they would fit that description,” Paul said. “In general, the party doesn’t support the Medicaid expansion” available under the Affordable Care Act.

Buttrey said his work as a senator isn’t about following the party line wherever it leads, but about finding solutions. His work on Medicaid shows that.

On his campaign website for the 2014 election, he said he would support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but also makes the concession that it is law and pledges to work within the law to find a solution.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world for a legislator to do to spout rhetoric and vote no on everything,” Buttrey said. “You’re popular, you can defend your positions, but do you get anything done?”

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2015 10:00

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Bill wants fee to close coal plants

By MICHAEL WRIGHT - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

The Senate passed a bill last week that would force companies to pay a hefty fee for shutting down coal plants in Montana.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, crafted a bill as fast as he could once he heard about a pair of bills in the Washington Legislature aimed at shutting down the coal plant in his hometown. He noted that one of those Washington bills has since been tabled, and the other has been amended to be a study bill instead.

Ankney said his bill was still needed because of a growing anti-coal sentiment in the country. He said he wants people to know that if they want to shut down a coal plant “you’re going to have to pay up some money, dude.”

The impact fee would bring tens of millions of dollars into the county.  

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, the bill’s co-sponsor, said the situation reminded him of what happened when mines in Butte were closed, and he and hundreds of others lost their jobs.

“The state of Washington don’t care about us,” Keane said. “If the state of Washington wants to fight, let’s fight.”

Opponents of the bill said it unfairly penalizes utility companies for making a business decision.

The bill passed on a 28-19 vote.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2015 09:57

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Zinke blames woes on bureaucracy, political strife

By STEPHEN DOW - For The Outpost

Even though his town hall meeting on March 13 focused on homeland security, Congressman Ryan Zinke spent just as much time discussing threats coming from within our country as those coming from ISIS and Iran.

“The most dangerous threat we face is our own doing,” Zinke said to a crowd of nearly 75 people at Rocky Mountain College’s Prescott Hall. “It isn’t Russia. It isn’t China. It isn’t a natural disaster that’s causing havoc. It’s our own doing. We just let the government go. We thought it was going to run on its own and we got too busy. We didn’t pay attention. We didn’t get involved in politics and we let it go.”

According to Zinke, one of the threats coming from within our own government is an abundance of bureaucracy.

“What worries me is a bureaucracy that doesn’t let America do what America does best: innovate and think outside of the box,” Zinke said. “When the bureaucracy has become as heavy as it is, then it adversely affects the way that we as Montanans live our lives, and it prevents America from achieving economic prosperity.”

As an example of this overwhelming amount of bureaucracy in D.C., Zinke pointed out that the Chinese are able to complete a weapon-making process in anywhere from three to five years. Meanwhile, in the United States, the average weapon-making process takes anywhere from 12-19 years. Zinke said that the F-35 aircraft (a $400 billion investment) will be completely obsolete by the time it’s completed.

The freshman legislator from Whitefish also expressed concern about the divisions between America’s political parties that have made passing any legislation nearly impossible.

“We need to put our country first above political bantering,” he said.

For his part, Zinke expressed an interest in working across party lines in order to get his job done.

“I don’t look through the lens of either red or blue,” he said. “I look through the lens of red, white and blue. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat. What matters to me first and foremost is that you want to be part of a solution to fix this country.”

In addition to these threats coming within our own government, Zinke also discussed the dangers posed by ISIS, which he described as a “truly evil” organization and one that the U.S. should be fully committed to fighting.

“I’ve been to more funerals than there are people in this room,” Zinke said. “I understand the consequences of war and, to me, war is the last resort. But to think that we’re going to win the battle against ISIS through air operations alone is unrealistic. Our stated mission is to degrade and destroy ISIS, and it’s going to take people on the ground to do it.”

The congressman continued by saying that, while the fight won’t require the same capacity as the two Gulf Wars, it will still take a “significant amount of effort and resolve.”

Part of that effort will involve making sure that our soldiers are equipped with everything they need to win decisively over ISIS.

“I don’t want to see our sons and daughters fight unless we’re willing and able to give them everything they need to win decisively,” Zinke said.

Rep. Zinke also expressed concern about claims that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon.

“Make no mistake,” Zinke said. “If terrorist organizations are willing to run commercial aircraft into our towers and kill 3,000 Americans, they are certainly dedicated to bring a nuclear weapon into this country.”

Zinke said that it is only logical that other Middle Eastern countries would follow Iran’s lead if it developed a nuclear weapon. This would lead to a “nuclear proliferation” in an area of the world that is notoriously unstable.

“That scenario alone, in my judgment, should dictate that unless the deal with Iran says ‘no’ to nuclear weapons, we shouldn’t take it,” Zinke said.

Zinke quoted Ronald Reagan when he said that the best way to fight Iran is by “punching them in the face with the free market.” One way to do this is through becoming energy-independent.

“Being energy-independent provides options for this country,” Zinke said. “If we become energy-independent, we can blockade and control the export of oil from Iran and, if necessary, cripple their economy to a point where a nuclear weapon is no longer a possibility.”

While energy-independence once seemed to be merely a dream for the U.S., Zinke stated that the dream is close to becoming a reality through the process of fracking.

“Fracking is a game-changer,” Zinke said. “It has helped change the U.S. from being dependent on a foreign country for energy needs to being an energy-independent country that could be the next great exporter of energy. That makes a big difference in the Middle East.”

Zinke dismissed many of the controversies surrounding fracking by declaring that there had “never been one documented case of a mix between a frack and an aquifer.” He added that the development of alternate energy technologies is insufficient to meet our country’s needs.

“To think that we’re going to power our country and the world on alternate energies alone is tantamount to pixie dust and hope,” he said. “It’s not going to happen – not in your lifetime and not in your children’s lifetime.”

In addition to homeland security and energy independence, Zinke also discussed other subjects affecting Montanans during the hour-and-a-half long meeting.

One of these was a need for improved technological infrastructure across Montana.

“Did you know that the cellphone coverage in Iraq is better than the coverage in Montana?” the former Navy SEAL commander asked. “If we can’t compete with a Third World country, then how do we think that we can compete with Idaho or Wyoming or the world? A lot of the economy in Montana is made up of small businesses and not having cellphone coverage can affect business. It can also affect our children’s education. Infrastructure is an area where Montana needs to take a giant step forward.”

Zinke also discussed the Affordable Care Act controversy and expressed hope that that federal subsidies that pay for coverage under the ACA would be ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court as early as June. He said that Congress would then develop a much smaller insurance plan that could be created and administered regionally so that “the voices of Montanans could be heard.”

Zinke acknowledged that he and his fellow legislators have a long road ahead of them and that the problems plaguing our country couldn’t be fixed quickly.

“We’re going to have to learn to accept that running a few yards up the field is better than staying where we are,” he said.

The congressman also acknowledged that all Montanans had a role to play in the future of their state and country.

“What I’m asking all of you to do is get involved,” Zinke said. “It’s your country. It’s your state. Get involved. Be informed. The problems facing our country are fixable, but it’s going to take all of us working together to make it happen.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 12:16

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Legislature debates paying for coal litigation

By MADELYN BECK - Legislative News Service - UM School of Journalism

Montana legislators are considering a bill that would give $1 million to the Montana Department of Justice for a potential lawsuit against states that hinder Montana’s coal trains from getting to larger markets. Namely, markets like China.

While House Bill 244 doesn’t specify exactly what cases the money would fund, it’s about making sure ports in Washington and Oregon are open to coal traffic.

Currently, those ports are under construction, but opposition from environmental groups and local governments is stalling that construction.

This leaves Montana in a bind. Republican Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, home to four coal-fired power plants, is one of the strongest proponents for funding litigation to open the Washington and Oregon ports.

“This is very important to Montana. Our future in the coal markets is in the international market. It’s very important that we have access to those ports on the West Coast,” Ankney said.

Opponents of the bill, like Republican Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman, aren’t too keen on spending $1 million with so much uncertainty.

“We don’t even know what the litigation would be, who the parties would be, what the issues would be … so until we know all those things, I just, I don’t see the value of setting aside a million dollars of taxpayer money to think about it,” Wittich said.

To arguments that this money would be wasted if court cases don’t happen, Jon Bennion of the Montana Department of Justice says all of this money would then flow back into the state coffers.

“This money, as we see it, is restricted for this sole purpose. If it is not used, it will be refunded at the end of the next biennium,” Bennion said.

The bill faces opposition from groups like Greenpeace, the Blue Skies Campaign and Bozeman Climate Alliance, which have participated in rail rallies to stop coal traffic in Missoula and Helena, largely protesting the negative climate impacts of perpetuating coal use.

Helena resident Mike Lee has another issue with fighting to open the ports. He said if those ports open, it’s going to likely double the yearly rail traffic, meaning longer wait times at the tracks.

“How many hours of idling automobile traffic associate with 1,000 and maybe more hours of blocked vehicular traffic at all of Helena’s railroad crossings,” Lee said. “Not to mention those blocked crossings in other Montana cities.”

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that the state needs to fight for these ports or face missing out on jobs as others capitalize on growing coal demand overseas.

University of Montana Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research Patrick Barkey said the U.S.’s coal demand is stagnating and could actually drop. But if coal can be exported through western ports, Barkey said it will likely find a long-term market as China’s economy and its hunger for coal grow rapidly.

Currently, coal trains largely use ports in British Columbia, which are reaching maximum export limits.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jeff Essmann, said the basis of the potential court case would rest in the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause, by which the state can’t inhibit transportation through another state.

However, others argue the clause has more to do with commerce between nations, and one state can’t just force another state to build a port.

Opponent Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center doesn’t agree with using state funding to fight another state’s decisions and said they should focus on working together.

“What this bill really seems to do is try to force economic development through litigation. And to me, that’s not how you get economic development,” Hedges said.

Montana is not alone in trying to fund these litigation efforts. Wyoming’s legislature passed a similar bill last year at about half the size of Montana’s $1 million proposal.

The Montana Finance and Claims committee will likely vote on this bill in the next few weeks, deciding whether to pass it off to the full Senate, or kill it where it sits. The bill passed the House 53 to 45 last month.

Madelyn Beck is a reporter for the Legislative News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 12:08

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Legislative session mostly amicable – so far

By MICHAEL WRIGHT - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

Winter at the Capitol has been a bit calmer in 2015.

“Last time, by now things were fairly heated up,” said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.

During the last legislative session in 2013, a clear divide in the Republican majority at the Montana Legislature influenced major bills and made headlines for more than a year afterward. The split hasn’t dominated headlines so far, but a few major votes show it’s alive in both chambers and may prove influential in the second half of the  session.

It all started with a group of moderate Republicans – Jones being one of the most prominent –  joining Democrats to move major bills onto the governor’s desk, such as a school funding bill and a state employee pay plan.

Carroll College political scientist Jeremy Johnson said he doesn’t think that sort of divide has been as big of a factor in the early goings of the session. Johnson has taught at Carroll since 2011, and has watched the legislative sessions closely, especially since the Capitol is just down the road from his office.

He remembers 2013 as a year where every news story included something about the split in the Republican Party.

“I don’t think it’s been as extreme,” Johnson said, adding that he doesn’t think the conservative wing of the party is as strong as it was before.

Some votes in the last few weeks have shown a willingness among some Senate members to join with Democrats to pass bills. Senate Bill 289, Gov. Bullock’s major campaign finance reform bill, passed on a 28-22 vote. Senate Bill 262, the Flathead Water Compact, got through on a 31-19 vote.

The water compact is a contentious agreement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and state and federal governments. It’s divided the state for the most part, with opponents saying it takes away water rights and proponents saying it prevents costly litigation. 

Inside the Senate, it’s been no different. It is carried by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, who has fought members of his own party on the bill at every step of the process. There have been reports of him clashing with party leadership at different points in the process, but for the most part, senators say the party has far more civil than in 2013.

“The first half, I think, has gone probably smoother than many people anticipated,” said former Sen. Jim Peterson.

Peterson, a Republican from Buffalo, was in the Senate in 2013. He saw the split firsthand.

“There was just too much rancor last time,” Peterson said.

Last session’s split even bled into the 2014 primary elections, with leaders of the party’s conservative wing trying to find candidates who could unseat the more moderate Republicans.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, said he thinks the party leadership is more focused on keeping the party together this session.

Key figures in last session’s Senate leadership – former Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, and his Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman – have crossed over to the House, where the split has been more pronounced in 2015.

The first week was dominated by a rules fight, which saw a group of Republicans helping Democrats fight against rule changes they thought were to keep the majority party in control. The fight ended in a deal that gave Democrats six chances to save bills from dying in committee.

Some of the more conservative Republicans said the moderates forced the leadership to make the deal. Other than that, there aren’t many votes to point to that show a definitive split in the party.

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said  no one vote really shows the House Republican split just yet because it’s not always the same lawmakers who join with the Democrats. But he did acknowledge that if a bill has wide Democratic opposition, it seems easier to stop those bills.

“I can’t believe how many bills have gone down on the floor,” Fitzpatrick said. “If the Democrats lock up, it’s easy to kill it.”

The Democrats also have two more seats in the House than they did in 2013.

House Minority Whip Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said that has likely helped them block more bills this session. They only need nine Republicans to cross over, and on more than a few occasions have been able to do it.

“I don’t think we can be taken for granted as a caucus,” Eck said.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said he wouldn’t attribute it directly to gaining two seats, but to a blend of that and “thoughtful folks on the other side of the aisle.”

In the second half of the session, the split in the Republican majority will likely be more influential. Bills like the Flathead water compact and the governor’s campaign finance reform that split the party in the Senate will move over to the House. Major issues like Medicaid expansion will move through the system as well.

Johnson, the political scientist, said those are the reasons the session will be worth watching in the second half.

“All the big decisions still have not been made,” he said. “Stay tuned.”

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 13:18

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Legislature’s plate full

By MICHAEL WRIGHT - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

At his transmittal press conference, Gov. Steve Bullock told reporters what grade he would give the Montana Legislature for its first 45 days.

“Incomplete,” Bullock said.

That sentiment was echoed by political scientists and lawmakers, former and current. While the governor has signed more than 60 bills, including a school funding bill, the 64th Montana Legislature has yet to resolve some of the biggest issues facing the state.

Former Republican Sen. Jim Peterson - who served six legislative sessions, his first in 2003, his last in 2013 - said the “warm-up period” is over, and the second half of the session is where “the rubber meets the road.” Following the news from his home in Buffalo, Peterson said he’s noticed big issues like Medicaid expansion have mostly avoided debate so far.

Both sides of the aisle introduced their version of Medicaid expansion in the first half of the session, but the full House hasn’t debated either proposal.

House Bill 249, carried by Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, is the governor’s plan to expand Medicaid to as many as 70,000 people using additional federal money available under the Affordable Care Act. The federal government would pick up the bill for the next two years, and the state would start paying some of the cost in 2017.

That bill will get its first hearing in a House committee in early March.

Republicans who are against the plan say it covers too many people, and a number of “able-bodied, childless adults,” and want to focus Medicaid expansion to only the most vulnerable people. Their bill to address that has already had a hearing.

House Bill 455, carried by Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, would expand Medicaid to poor families, some veterans and the disabled – estimated to be around 10,000 people – without using the available federal money. The state would spend about $60 million on the program over the next two years. That bill was pushed out of the House Human Services committee in February, but hasn’t been debated by the full House yet.

The contrast between the two ideas is obvious. Each covers different numbers of people and uses different money to do it. Peterson, who served in 2013 when a Medicaid expansion proposal died in the process, said he hopes the two sides can find a middle ground.

“I think it is something that can happen,” Peterson said.

During his mid-session press conference, Bullock said he’d met with “some Republican legislators” about Medicaid, but he didn’t elaborate further.

Many bills have already made it through the system. Leaning back in his chair in the last row of the Senate chambers, Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, listed bills he’s happy have already gotten through the Senate – like House Bill 27, an increase in school funding, something many have said they’ve never seen clear the Legislature this early. He also mentioned shoring up funding for university extension programs – bills he said the Legislature needs to pass.

“They’re not the headline bills, but the work bills,” Jones said. “But I tell you what, it will all come back to the revenue estimate,” Jones said.

The revenue estimate has been a point of contention lately. Both the governor’s budget office and the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Division project how much money the state will bring in over the next three years, and the Legislature adopts a projection to know how much it can spend during the session.

The estimates from the governor’s office and the Legislative Fiscal Division  from January were around $350 million apart, a much larger difference than usual. 

Jones said there’s usually some wrangling over projections, but never about a sum this large. He said the danger is in overestimating how much money will flow into the general fund – if the estimate is wrong, there won’t be enough money for everything in the budget.

At that point, the Legislature might have to return for a special session to cut spending, which Jones said the governor won’t want to do.

“He certainly doesn’t want to call the Legislature back to town to clean up the blood in the streets,” Jones said.

Jones and Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, both said the major difference between the two projections is how they project wage growth in the next few years. The governor’s office says growth will be high, the Legislative Fiscal Division is less optimistic.

Despite not having a revenue estimate, Republicans have pushed a tax cut to the governor’s desk, House Bill 166. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, cuts tax rates in each bracket by 0.2 percent. The plan would cost the state around $80 million over the next two years.

Democrats bash this move, calling it irresponsible. Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said in a press conference that the governor is more or less forced to veto it, because it hurts the process of balancing the budget.

“He’s got no choice but to say, ‘No, this isn’t ready for primetime,’” Sesso said.

Several education measures are still moving through the system. Democrats have pledged to do whatever they can to get Gov. Bullock’s $37 million plan for publicly funded preschool into the budget, though some think the request is doomed since Republicans will oppose it at every turn. On the Republican side, a couple of publicly funded school choice proposals and a set of bills aimed at eliminating Montana’s Common Core standards still have life.

Funding for infrastructure development is still somewhat in question, with Gov. Bullock’s nearly $400 million Build Montana plan sitting in the House Appropriations committee. That plan includes building projects like roads, sewer and water systems in places across the state. Republicans have countered with a group of bills that fund some of the projects included in Bullock’s plan.

Montana State University political scientist David Parker said the end of the session might be “veto heavy,” like the last session was. Bullock vetoed more than 70 bills in 2013.

 Parker added that Republicans will likely continue trying to stop the governor’s major proposals.

“I suspect Republicans are going to be very leery of creating any wins for Bullock’s people,” Parker said.

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.


Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 13:12

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Bills on water rights, tax cuts advance in Helena

By MICHAEL WRIGHT - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

As the first half of the Montana Legislative session wound down, debate on some of the most heated and closely watched issues only wound up as both chambers tried to move things across the hall.

Senate Bill 262, a water agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, dominated Capitol conversations as it moved through the Senate and on to the House late in the week. The agreement lines out water rights for the tribe on and around the reservation. Supporters say the agreement also secures rights for existing water users, but most of the opponents dispute that and some say it might be unconstitutional. 

A Senate committee attempted to amend the bill – something the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, specifically urged against in the bill’s committee hearing. Vincent said any changes to the agreement would have to be approved by the tribe and federal government, as well as the state.

Vincent, who was in another committee while the bill was being amended, showed up at the meeting after two amendments had been passed by a significant margin. Vincent was given the chance to speak, and he asked the committee to table the bill so he could “blast” the bill to the floor, which would strip the amendments off the bill.

That sequence set up Wednesday’s afternoon drama, with Senate Bill 262 listed as the final bill for debate. Vincent knew the amendments would be coming back, and implored the Senate to resist them in his opening speech.

Three amendments were tried and failed, and Republicans Jedediah Hinkle and Jennifer Fielder made their final appeals to the other senators to vote the bill down.

Hinkle said he’d researched the bill as thoroughly as he could during the session, and criticized the bill as intimidation legislation.

He added that he wouldn’t vote “Nancy Pelosi-style” for permanent legislation, a comment that got Democrats pounding on their desks and crying “out of order.” Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, the chairman of the day, ruled the comment out of order, and Hinkle later apologized.

Fielder said she didn’t like the position the state was in when it negotiated the agreement.

“The state of Montana never started from a position of strength,” Fielder said.

The bill passed through on a 31-19 vote. The only Democrat to vote against the bill was Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda.

Shakeup in procedures

A bill allowing state political parties to appoint local committee members passed through the House last week.

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, is carrying House Bill 454. Fitzpatrick said it’s hard for local parties to find someone to run for positions on local party committees. He also said the bill would gut the Republican party’s lawsuit to get closed primaries in Montana.

In a closed primary system, only political party members could vote in that party’s June primary election, when the party selects candidates for the fall general election. Montana is one of only 11 states with completely open primaries.  

“This will be a step toward preserving open primaries,” Fitzpatrick said, noting the bill would effectively eliminate one of the central claims of the lawsuit.

Rep. Matt Monforton, R-Bozeman, a lead lawyer on the lawsuit to close Montana primaries, excused himself from the debate and didn’t vote on the bill, which he said was unfortunate because he wanted to correct several “misstatements” Fitzpatrick had made.

A group of Republican central committees sued to close Montana’s primaries last year. A district judge ruled against the lawsuit in September, but Monforton filed an appeal in January.

Fitzpatrick said attorneys for the suit have said that because actual officers of the party are elected in primaries, primary elections should be closed to only party members. He said by passing this bill, that claim would fall flat, and make the lawsuit harder to win.

Fitzpatrick said voting for this bill should center on whether the person wants open or closed primaries.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, said bills like this shouldn’t be before the Legislature.

“It’s to rig a lawsuit,” Wittich said. “Is that what this body has come to?”

Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, spoke in favor of the bill, saying he faced a primary opponent who had been giving money to the Republican Party.

“That’s OK. He’s allowed to do that,” Woods said. “And I was OK with that as well because the people will figure it out.”

Woods added that it’s important to trust voters.

Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, said the bill, despite what it might do to the Republican lawsuit, would actually help local party committees find members because convincing people to run in a primary is challenging.

The bill passed the House 53-46.

Tax cut bill passed

A major Republican tax cut bill is headed to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk.

House Bill 166, sponsored by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, cuts tax rates by 0.2 percent in each tax bracket. The bill spends $80 million over the next two years.

Regier’s original proposal – which passed the House in early February – cut tax rates by 0.1 percent, but a Senate panel amended the bill to increase the cut. The Senate passed the bill out on a party-line vote.

When the bill came back to the House, Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, said the bill was politically motivated, and that the point was to get a tax cut bill to the governor’s desk so he’ll veto it.

Woods said the governor won’t sign it at a time when the revenue estimate isn’t even final. The governor’s budget office and the Legislative Fiscal Division have yet to resolve a more than $300 million difference in their revenue estimates.

“A smart and responsible governor would not cut revenue at this point when we still don’t know where we are in terms of revenue,” Woods said.

Regier said the governor should approve the cut to give Montanans a break.

“A smart and responsible governor will recognize who’s funding the government and give them a break,” Regier said.

The bill passed the House easily.

Campaign finance clears Senate

Gov. Steve Bullock got a win late last week, as one of his campaign finance reform proposals cleared the Senate.

Senate Bill 289, carried by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, would require more groups and individuals to report their spending in political campaigns, and adds another reporting period for candidates. It’s aimed at shedding light on so-called “dark money” groups.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 12:53

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Transmittal deadline looms in Helena

By MICHAEL WRIGHT - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

With the halfway point of the Montana Legislature quickly approaching, lawmakers are trying to get bills across the hallway to the other chamber.

The first transmittal deadline is Feb. 27, the last day for general bills to get sent from one house to the other, but already several bills have died in committee and on the floors of both chambers.

Rep. Nick Schwaderer, R-Superior, was carrying House Bill 333, which would regulate state use of security cameras. It died on the House floor on a tied vote two days in a row.

Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, saw a similar fate with his House Bill 182, which would require zoning to be adopted on county land before the government could regulate its use. That bill got a 50-50 vote on second reading in January, effectively killing it until he got a motion to reconsider. Then the bill died 59-41.

With the deadline looming, last week was filled with legislators pushing new bills in front of committees, hoping to get them through.

Water compact to Senate floor

Three Republicans joined with Democrats to get the contentious water agreement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state and federal governments out of committee last week.

Senate Bill 262, sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, is a bill that lines out specific terms of a negotiated water agreement between the Tribes and state and federal governments. All the Democrats on the committee supported it, as did Vincent and two other Republicans - Sen. Nels Swandal of Wilsall and Sen. Doug Kary of Billings.

Busloads of people came for a standing-room only hearing on the bill earlier in the week.

Ranchers, tribal members and others came in on both sides of the issue.

Vernon Finley, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, backed the bill, saying it represents a significant compromise on the tribe’s part, “in the spirit of being good neighbors.”

“I stand here to urge the committee to move the process forward,” he said, adding that the bill would prevent the “long arduous process of litigation.”

Without the agreement, the tribe could sue for water rights across the state.

Cory Swanson, representing the Attorney General’s office, also backed the bill, saying it protects existing water rights.

“This is a good agreement that guarantees water for every opponent in this room,” Swanson said.

Some of Montana’s major agriculture groups supported the compact as well, including the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. 

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, led off the opposition. Ballance said the bill came too late for legislators to read it and fully understand it, and that she doesn’t like the “forever nature” of the long-term agreement.

Other opponents said the bill was unconstitutional and doesn’t guarantee water rights for existing users.

Greg Hinkle, of Thompson Falls, said the threat of litigation made this “legislation by intimidation.” Hinkle’s nephew is Sen. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Bozeman, one of the four Republicans who voted against the bill in committee.

Jon Metropoulos, representing Dixon Melons and the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association, said his clients didn’t like the deal.

“It’s just not a good deal for Montana” he said.

This was only the beginning of what will be a key debate in the rest of the session.

Physician-assisted suicide bill

House Bill 328, sponsored by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, died on the House floor last week on a tight vote.

Ten Republicans joined with the Democrats to vote down the bill, which would have criminalized physicians who prescribe aid-in-dying medication. The practice has been legal in Montana since a 2009 state Supreme Court decision. 

One of the Republicans who voted it down was Rep. David “Doc” Moore, who told an emotional story about his wife, who recently died of cancer. He said that they’d done everything they could to help her, “but there’s only so much you can do.”

“This body doesn’t need to get in the way of what doctors and patients decide,” Moore said.

Republicans who backed the bill said the practice is too similar to homicide, and legalizing it leads to abuse by doctors.

It failed on a 51-49 vote.

In the Senate earlier this month, a bill to protect physicians who prescribe aid-in-dying medication was tabled.

Daines complains about feds

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines railed against the federal government in an address to a joint session of the Montana Legislature last week.

“D.C. is more concerned with its own self-interests than the well-being of the American people,” Daines said.

Daines talked about the Keystone XL Pipeline, saying it would be a “lifeline for Montana families looking to bring something home.”

“It’s time to stop debating and start building,” Daines said, getting a standing ovation from the Republican side of the aisle, along with a handful of Democrats.

Daines also backed keeping public lands public, getting a standing ovation on both sides of the aisle, but said state control of public lands would be better than federal control, sticking with the main theme of his speech.

“Washington, D.C, is the problem, Montana has solutions,” he said, and repeated variations of it throughout the speech.

Animal cruelty bill filed

Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, is carrying Senate Bill 285, which would require people to report incidences of animal cruelty within 24 hours.

Moore said the bill is meant to prevent animal rights groups from getting footage of cruelty and releasing it when it would best help them raise money. He cited incidents from other states in which groups had released video to media organizations.

“This evidence shouldn’t come out six months later,” Moore said.

Nicole Rolf of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation backed the bill, saying that reporting abuse quickly is important to the agriculture industry.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who cares more about their animals than farmers and ranchers,” Rolf said.

Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana Veterinary Medical Association also backed the bill.

Nanette Gilbertson, of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was the lone opponent to the bill. Gilbertson said events like Moore described hadn’t happened in Montana, and that requiring reporting within 24 hours would hinder investigations.

Gilbertson also said the bill would create an unusual exception for animal abuse in Montana law.

“There’s not another place in statute that requires a witness to a crime to report it within 24 hours,” Gilbertson said.

Speed limit increase gets hearing

Car organizations and the Montana Highway Patrol are opposing a bill that would increase Montana’s speed limits, the second bill in that vein heard this session.  

House Bill 480, sponsored by Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, would raise interstate speed limits to 80 mph from 75 for cars, and to 70 mph from 65 for semi-trucks.

“There’s no reason Montana can’t go to 80,” Miller said, adding that parts of Idaho and Wyoming had passed similar increases.

The bill would also increase the speed trucks can go on state highways from 60 to 70 mph, the same speed as cars. Miller said that also has worked in other states and would cut down on dangerous passing situations when several cars are lined up behind a truck going much slower than them.

Nicole Rolf of the Farm Bureau Federation said that organization supports eliminating the truck speed limit on state roads and having cars going the same speed, but is neutral to Miller’s proposed interstate change.

Dave Wood, a Helena-area man, said that speed limits are only enforced by a state to raise revenue through writing tickets.

“Speed limits really have nothing to do with highway safety,” Wood said.

Along with AAA and the Motor Carriers of Montana, the Montana Highway Patrol came out against the bill.

Jason Hildenstab, operations major of the Montana Highway Patrol, said the bill was too broad, and that he wanted to see fine increases along with any speed limit increase.

Major privacy bills heard

Bills aimed at protecting digital privacy got their first hearings last week.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, is carrying several privacy bills, one of the biggest being House Bill 444. That bill would require a search warrant for investigators from government agencies to get electronic data from third-party servers.

Zolnikov said the bill better protects a person’s emails and text messages.

“Emails and text messages are today’s papers and effects,” Zolnikov said. “When you email someone, you no longer have an expectation of privacy.”

Zolnikov said 28 groups from around the country had endorsed the bill, including Google, the California tech giant. At the hearing, supporters included the Montana Shooting Sports Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, who said federal law hasn’t kept pace with the advancement of technology.

Montana’s Department of Justice and the Montana County Attorneys Association opposed the bill, saying current law is strong enough and already protects electronic communication. Mark Murphy, of the County Attorneys Association, said Montana’s privacy guarantee in the constitution is “so well-evolved” that the bill isn’t needed.

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.


Last Updated on Thursday, 26 February 2015 16:52

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Yoga pants briefly take center stage in Helena

By MICHAEL WRIGHT - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

In an interview after a hearing on his bill to revise indecency laws, Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, told the Associated Press that he thinks yoga pants should be illegal in public.

Moore maintains that he was joking, but the Associated Press ran with the comment and the story quickly went viral. Soon headlines across the country, like one in Time, read, “Montana Lawmaker Wants to Ban Yoga Pants.”

“The bill had nothing to do with clothes or yoga pants,” Moore said.

The bill, House Bill 365, would have redefined indecent exposure to mean someone commits the crime if they knowingly expose their genitals, nipples or any simulation of those parts in public, and “disregards whether a reasonable person would be offended.”

Moore said a recent nude bike ride in Missoula raised the concern, and that someone in his district had asked for the bill.

But it was Moore’s comment on yoga pants that set off a storm of social media comments and garnered national attention, focused mostly on the idea that Moore wanted to ban yoga pants.

Moore said the most irritating part of the attention was his being labeled a Tea Party Republican, when in fact he feels he is more moderate.

In the first month of the Legislature he has voted with Democrats against his party on several bills.

The bill was killed in committee the day after the hearing.

Moore said it was a shame that the issue distracted from the real issues before the Legislature.

Texting and driving

Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings, is carrying House Bill 297, which would ban cellphone use while driving across Montana.

“We need to put down the phone and we need to focus on the task at hand,” Court said.

Leona Schneemann, of Forsyth, told a House panel about her son who died in a texting and driving accident. She said three letters that ended his life: “lol.”

Supporters of the bill included Schneemann, the Montana County Attorney’s Association and police organizations.

Opponents included some local ham radio operators, who worried the bill might limit their freedom to use their devices.

Mike Fellows, of the Montana Libertarian Party and a 2014 candidate for the U.S. House, opposed the bill, calling it a “revenue enhancement bill.”

State of the Tribal Nations

Gerald Gray, Chairman of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, told a joint session of the Montana Legislature he and his tribe had been waiting for more than 100 years for recognition from the federal government.

“That day is coming,” Gray said. “We will persevere.”

He also urged the legislators to pass Medicaid expansion and fund Gov. Steve Bullock’s “Early Edge” Pre-K plan.

He said great disparities exist between Indian and non-Indian health care, saying white men on average live 19 years longer than Indian men, and white women live 20 years longer than Indian women. Gray said expanding Medicaid is a crucial part of ending the disparity.

On early education, he said that is one of the keys to giving Indians the same chances as others in Montana.

Concerns over land transfer

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, drew opposition from conservation groups and the state government for a bill that she said addresses the concerns those groups have about a state takeover of federal lands.

The transfer of federal land to the state has been a contentious issue, with supporters arguing that states could manage the land better and opponents arguing that the state would sell the lands to the highest bidder.

Senate Bill 215 would prohibit the future sale of federal lands transferred back to the state.

But John Tubbs, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the bill would harm his daily work. He said he transfers land on a daily basis, and that the amount of state-owned lands is not a fixed number.

Nick Gevock, of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the bill oversimplified land management.

“This bill implies that land management is simple, and that is just not the case,” Gevock said.

Joe Balyeat, of Americans For Prosperity, backed the bill. He said it would solve the concerns about the danger of a federal land transfer leading to public lands being sold to private landowners. He said the transfer of federal land to the state isn’t about selling it off to the highest bidder.

“It’s about local control,” Balyeat said.

Right to die

Two bills from Missoula lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle that address aid in dying drew a throng of testifiers.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, is carrying House Bill 328 to criminalize the prescribing of drugs to end someone’s life. Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, is carrying Senate Bill 202 to protect doctors who do choose to prescribe that sort of medication.

The same arguments echoed in each hearing.

Chris Gilbert, a physician from Missoula, spoke against providing aid-in-dying, saying it violated the Hippocratic Oath all doctors take and “destroys the foundation of healthcare.”

One woman, Bobbie Hafer, spoke about the death of her mother. Hafer said her sister decided to take her mother off of dialysis, which led to her death. Of her mother, Hafer said, “I know for a fact that this is not the course she would have chosen.”

On the other side of the issue, Eric Kress, a physician also from Missoula, supported the practice. Kress said he’s prescribed such medication to about 10 patients.

“People want to be in control of when they die,” Kress said.

Ethel Byrnes told the story of her husband, who chose to end his life after struggling with Parkinson’s disease. She spoke fondly of the day of his death, on St. Patrick’s Day in 2014, with her whole family in attendance.

“There was no fear or pity in the room,” Byrnes said. “Just love.”

GOP health plan

Republicans announced a package of health care bills in the Legislature’s sixth week, including their alternative to Gov. Steve Bullock’s “Healthy Montana” plan.

“Our plan is not conditional on any new federal programs,” Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said.

The announcement included several bills in different areas, including bipartisan legislation on providing community mental health care and reforms to different areas of Montana’s health care system. 

House Bill 455, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, is directly aimed at Medicaid reform. It would expand Medicaid coverage to people who earn up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level if they are parents or veterans. Only people earning up to 50 percent of the poverty level are Medicaid eligible now.

This contrasts with Gov. Bullock’s plan, House Bill 249, which accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act and expands Medicaid coverage to anyone earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

Bill to increase speed limit

Discussion on raising the speed limit percolated before the Legislative session even started, and recently, a bill to do just that brought considerable opposition in a committee hearing.

Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, is carrying Senate Bill 228, which would raise interstate speed limits to 85 mph and state highways to 80 mph.

Major James Moody of the Montana Highway Patrol spoke against the bill, saying the increase would be higher than what the bill says, since passing speeds tend to be higher than the speed limit. In some cases, he said, the appropriate speed may end up being 90 mph.

Moody said he couldn’t say if it would increase car accidents, but did say that accidents that happened would be more severe if drivers were going faster.

Kelly Flaherty-Settle, a Helena-area rancher, said the increase doesn’t make sense on winding roads, like Lincoln Road near where she lives, because animals and farm equipment are often crossing the road for daily work. She said she “can’t see any reason for an increase.”

No immediate action was taken on the bill.

Lawmakers debate death penalty

Church groups and civil rights organizations are backing a bill to abolish the death penalty.

House Bill 370, sponsored by Rep. David “Doc” Moore, would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Supporters said death penalty cases cost the state more money than life imprisonment because of lengthy appeals often filed by convicts on death row. Some said execution wasn’t an ethical punishment.

“Violence by an individual never justifies violence by the state,” said Jessica Crist, a Lutheran bishop from Great Falls.

Three state lawmakers testified against the bill, saying they’d been affected by homicide in their lives, and that execution would offer them peace of mind.

Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, said his father was killed when Hollandsworth was only 6 months old. The killer worked on the family’s ranch. He tried to kill the rest of the family, but stopped when Hollandsworth’s mother gave him the keys to their car and he drove away.

The man was convicted, but let out on parole years later, which bothered his mother and brother, survivors of the attack.

“My mother and oldest brother lived in terror that he was going to come back and finish the job,” Hollandsworth said.

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 February 2015 13:26

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