The Billings Outpost

Billings Wolves kick off football season Saturday

By JEREMY WOLF - For The Outpost

Once again the Billings community is getting the opportunity to see the lightning-fast, hard-hitting game play that is the Indoor Football League. With owner Ron Benzel, The Billings Wolves are the city’s brand new team, and are hoping to light up the field in the IFL’s 2015 season.

Under the leadership of Billings Outlaws former IFL five-time champion and three-time MVP Coach Chris Dixon, the Wolves are in capable hands to come out fighting in the IFL. All eyes will be set on the Wolves at 7:15 p.m. Saturday night in the MetraPark Arena on the EFX Sports Field as they set to “Defend the Den” against the West Coast Nationals in their season-opening bout.

The Red and Silver new logo of the team is a vicious display of what the team hopes to show on the field, and fans are encouraged to reflect those colors in the stands. And fans can also show up early to the fun with some brews and barbecue, as the parking lot will have its own tail-gaiting section kicking off at 5:30 p.m.

Tickets to see the action for all home games can be purchased online at billingswolves.com starting at $11.50 and include various promotions and deals for groups or parties, accommodating all those wishing to see the games unfold. There is also a single birthday party suite available for up to 15 people during home games.

Alongside the football action will be various happenings that occur on the field, before or during the game’s breaks. During the home games’ halftime, fans can get a chance to compete in a beer pong tournament with the champion’s prize of a four-day, three night trip to sunny Las Vegas. Those who wish to compete need to enter into the Peppers Bar and Grill’s preliminary competition to qualify. 

Before every home game veterans will also be recognized for their service. Anyone who wishes to show their appreciation for a veteran can visit the Wolves’ website or visit the American Legion Bar to sign them up. Also, be sure to bring young Wolves fans to the game. Forty-five minutes before kick-off, 6- to 13-year-olds can display their own skills of throwing, kicking, and punting in the Youth Skills Competition.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 February 2015 12:37

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Juneau calls for early education; tax cuts pass

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

In her address to a joint session of the Montana Legislature last week, Superintendent Denise Juneau praised Montana’s schools and called for more investment in them.

“We have a lot to be proud of in this state,” she said.

Juneau listed accomplishments like the highest graduation rates in the state’s history and growth in organizations like the Future Farmers of America.

She also called for investment in Gov. Bullock’s so-called Early Edge preschool plan, which would offer voluntary preschool to Montana’s four-year-olds.

“It’s time for us to provide our earliest learners with an early edge,” Juneau said.

Juneau also spoke about bills she supports aimed at increasing graduation rates, and said she was proud to be a top advocate for public schools.

The Friday before Juneau spoke, House Bill 322 entered the House Education Committee. The bill would create an education savings account for special needs students, the first state funded school choice bill to be introduced this session.

Juneau’s office opposes that bill, and other efforts to divert funding from the public schools.

“Public education proves that America is still the land of opportunity,” Juneau said.

In other news last week:

Bill to end human trafficking

Attorney General Tim Fox is supporting House Bill 89, which aims to end human trafficking.

Human trafficking happens when someone is forced or coerced into sexual exploitation or slavery. Incidents of trafficking have become common in South and North Dakota, where girls are forced into prostitution and sold on the internet, Fox said. But, he added, the crime has happened across Montana as well.

“We must open our eyes to what’s happening in plain sight,” Fox said at the bill’s hearing last week.

House Bill 89 is a long, comprehensive bill that would allocate money for education on the issue and aid for victims.

Victim’s rights organizations, a church group and a member of the Missoula Police Department backed the bill. No opponents spoke.

Tax cut bills endorsed

The Montana House last week endorsed a cut in the school equalization mills collected in property tax.

House Bill 201 would reduce the number of state school equalization mills a county collects in property tax by five – from 40 to 35. A mill is a unit for property taxation.

The bill would reduce property tax revenue by about $12 million next year. It would also mean that some school funding would have to come from other state sources to make up for the loss.

Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, compared property tax to a mortgage that never ends, and said the budget surplus the state has gained over the last few years means the state could afford to take in less in taxes.

Rep. Kathleen Williams, D-Bozeman, said the bill would benefit large companies and not the average person, saying the average homeowner would see a break of around $11.

“We should be thoughtful when we look at these kinds of proposals,” Williams said, adding that cuts like this create inconsistency in the general fund.

The bill passed on a 58-42 vote.

The bill joins two other tax cut bills the House sent to the Senate this week, House Bill 166 and House Bill 169, which would cut tax revenue by a little less than $120 million over the next two years.

Also this week, the Senate saw its own tax cut bill.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, is sponsoring Senate Bill 200, which would cut income taxes by more than $50 million a year by lowering the rates in each tax bracket.

Ankney’s bill simplifies tax brackets, having them stair step in $3,000 intervals with two exceptions, and cuts the rates on the lowest bracket by 0.1 percent. The other brackets would be cut by 0.2 percent.

Ankney said that because of the budget surplus, it was time the state gave money back to taxpayers, especially the “working man.”

“The state has no money,” he said. “They have your money.”

Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, said the bill sacrifices revenue and would create a problem in the future of where to find money. He also said there are too many tax bills.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, the chair of the Senate Taxation Committee, said tax cut bills would help the legislature negotiate the budget with the governor later on in the session. He added that SB 200 was the only tax cut bill that would pass out of his committee.

“This will be the best tax cut bill,” Tutvedt said.

Guns on campus bill

A bill to allow guns on college campuses narrowly passed the Senate this week.

Senate Bill 143 would prohibit the Montana Board of Regents from regulating gun possession on college campuses, asserting that any regulation the board imposed would be a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights.

Supporters said guns would help prevent campus shootings and other tragedies. Opponents said guns and college students don’t mix.

The bill was sent to the House on a 26-23 vote, with three Republicans voting with the Democrats.

It’s not the first session the Montana Legislature has had this debate – one legislator compared the proposal to a common cold that keeps coming back.

Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a similar bill in 2013, and other bills to allow guns on campus have died in the process in sessions before that.

Bill to limit drone use

Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings is carrying a bill to limit drone activity related to outdoor recreation.

House Bill 278 would prohibit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for purposes related to hunting and fishing, and over certain places.

In a committee hearing, Todd Eames told a story about fishing the Boulder River south of Big Timber when he noticed a drone flying 10 feet above him.

“It was just a very, very uncomfortable situation,” Eames said, adding that he didn’t know who was using it or why.

Wildlife groups, angler and outfitter groups all backed the bill, saying the use of the devices would lead to harassment.

The only opponent was John MacDonald of the Montana Newspaper Association, who took issue with language in the bill that prohibited using the devices to photograph someone on public land.

MacDonald said on public property, a person doesn’t have an expectation of privacy.

(Note: The Montana Newspaper Association helps fund the UM Community News Service, which produced this report.)

States’ convention resolutions

Resolutions urging a Constitutional Convention to amend the U.S. Constitution are popping up in the Legislature.

Calling a convention requires 35 states to apply to Congress. Ratifying an amendment to the Constitution requires the support of 38 states.

House Joint Resolution 4, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Monforton, R-Bozeman, seeks to add a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“This will fix the problem we have in this country of fiscal bankruptcy,” Monforton said.

Monforton’s resolution is part of a national movement to pass a balanced budget amendment, and 24 states have already passed similar resolutions.

Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, is sponsoring House Joint Resolution 3, which calls for a convention to address the issue of “free and fair elections” by proposing amendments related to the Citizens United decision.

Opponents of both resolutions said calling a convention is an untested and dangerous way to amend the Constitution. Both resolutions seek to limit the conventions they call for, but opponents say there’s no way to guarantee the limits will be followed.

“There is no way to assure a convention would obey,” said Ed Regan of Townsend, a self-described lifelong Republican, speaking against Monforton’s HJ 4. “Personally, I don’t believe all the special interests in America are going to sit on the sidelines.”

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, 12 February 2015 14:04

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State of the State, infrastructure divide parties

By Michael Wright - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

In the middle of the fourth week of the 64th Montana Legislature, Gov. Steve Bullock took the rostrum in the House of Representatives with a big smile.

“The state of our state is strong,” Bullock said, beginning his State of the State address.

Bullock touted his fiscal discipline and pushed his big legislative priorities, getting multiple standing ovations from Democrats and occasional claps from a few Republicans.

He called for investment in infrastructure, early education and mental health care. He urged the Legislature to pass his “Healthy Montana” plan, which would expand Medicaid to as many as 70,000 uninsured Montanans.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Moore, R-Miles City, gave the Republican response in the Senate chambers shortly after the Bullock’s speech. Moore criticized the governor for wanting to expand “broken” government programs, and said the Healthy Montana plan would give free health care to “able-bodied, childless adults.”

The official response wasn’t the only Republican pushback on the governor last week.

In a press conference Thursday, Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, announced a Republican plan to split Gov. Bullock’s infrastructure plan, the “Build Montana Act,” or House Bill 5, into separate bills.

Republicans didn’t like that the governor stuffed all of the infrastructure projects in one bill, and want to pay for them with cash instead of borrowing money by selling bonds.

Cuffe announced the introduction of five bills that include some of the projects from the HB 5, funding them with existing cash. Preliminary numbers say the Republican plan will use slightly less cash than Bullock’s did, but the bills don’t include all the projects.

Cuffe said all the projects are important, and will be included in bonding bills that will come later.

House Bill 5 has been in committee for more than two weeks. People from across the state came to testify on the bill in support of projects affecting their areas – like rebuilding roads, updating water systems and improvements to university buildings. With the new Republican bills, those who testified may have to take another trip to Helena to support their projects.

In other news last week:

Otter Creek Water Bills

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, introduced three bills dealing with water quality standards in specific southeastern Montana waterways, including Otter Creek and other tributaries of the Tongue River.

Representatives of Arch Coal supported the package, along with the Montana Contractors Association and the Montana Mining Association. Arch Coal has made plans to develop a mine in the area, but the project has been stuck in the permitting process.

Ranchers, farm groups and conservationists opposed the package, saying it would allow mining companies to pollute their water sources.

“We view this as a blatant attack on agriculture,” said Clint McRae, a rancher in the area.

The supporters mostly claimed the bills would expedite the permitting process.

Senate Bill 112 would give the Department of Environmental Quality 180 days to develop a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for a stream that a mining company wants to dump waste into. TMDLs set the amount of the pollutant that can be discharged into the stream and still meet water quality standards.

“There’s nothing harder for an applicant … than not knowing a road map to follow,” said Tammy Johnson of the Montana Mining Association.

Opponents said the bill would rush the DEQ’s studying of the waterways. Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Council said measurements done in that time frame wouldn’t be complete.

“It will be a piece of garbage,” Hedges said. “It won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.”

Senate Bill 159 would ensure that the amount of pollutants in some of those Tongue River tributaries wouldn’t be higher than natural. Senate Bill 160 makes it harder for someone to challenge pollution discharge permits by increasing the burden of proof in court. A person would have to prove the definition of the stream’s natural condition was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Guns on campus makes a return

The Senate Judiciary committee is considering Senate Bill 143, which would allow guns on campus by prohibiting the Board of Regents from making rules against guns.

Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, the bill’s sponsor, said the right to bear arms was a basic right that the Board of Regents doesn’t have the authority to abridge.

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said the list of exceptions in the bill would give the board enough authority to maintain safety on college campuses. A recent University of Montana student and a current Montana State University graduate student also supported the bill.

Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Kevin McRae said because the Legislature hasn’t made carrying guns legal in other government buildings, it would be wrong to do so only in state universities.

“Campuses are, in our view, very safe but sensitive places,” McRae said.

J.C. Weingartner of the MEA-MFT also opposed the bill.

The committee also heard Senate Bill 165, which would increase the fine for driving without a seatbelt from $20 to $100.

“The intent is to increase the deterring effect of the current law,” said Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, the bill’s sponsor.

Marbut made another appearance on this bill, in opposition and representing only himself.

Marbut called seatbelts a “great invention,” but opposes seatbelt laws because he doesn’t believe the government should legislate to prevent someone’s bad decisions.

“People have to be left to make their own mistakes,” Marbut said.

Identity theft affecting children came up  in the House Judiciary committee last week.

Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, introduced House Bill 232, which would increase maximum fines and prison terms for identity theft if the victim is a minor.

Dudik said children are easy targets for identity theft because they haven’t used their social security numbers to get credit cards, driver’s licenses or loans. Dudik called a child’s identity a “blank slate.” Criminals could steal the numbers and use it to get loans or credit cards.

Bryan Lockerby, an administrator for the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, spoke in support of the bill. He said adults whose identities are stolen often notice within two months, but a child might not find out until they are 18 and try to take out private loans.

Marriage equality bill

Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, is carrying a bill that would eliminate Montana’s prohibition of same-sex marriage.

“What we’re asking to do with this bill is strike the words,” Bennett said.

House Bill 282 would solidify a recent Ninth Circuit Court decision that allows same-sex marriage in Montana. Through court precedent – and some state law – more than 30 states allow same-sex marriage.

The Supreme Court hasn’t acted on the issue yet, but has said it will take up cases on the issue later this year, which some opponents said was a reason not to pass this bill.

Pat Plowman, a nurse from Carbon County, said the bill was pointless because the Supreme Court said it will hear same-sex marriage cases later this year.

“Why this exercise in futility?” Plowman said.

Bennett addressed that in his closing statement.

“Betting the Supreme Court will side with the states who haven’t affirmed marriage equality is a bad bet,” Bennett said.

FWP presents fee increases

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is facing a potential $5.6 million budget shortfall, and one solution is increasing fishing and hunting license prices.

House Bill 140, sponsored by Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, would raise prices mostly on in-state licenses, with a couple of out of state increases as well. Welborn said the increases are necessary to maintaining FWP’s functions.

“Existing fish and wildlife management programs will have to be cut to balance the budget,” Welborn said.

Resident hunting licenses would be increased by $8, resident fishing licenses by $3. Non-resident fishing licenses would go from $60 to $86, which Welborn said wouldn’t be unreasonable compared to surrounding states.

“Montana’s high quality opportunities are currently undervalued,” Welborn said.

Ranchers, sporting goods store owners and wildlife groups supported the bill.

Opposition came from student lobbyists from the University of Montana, who said the bill would unjustly penalize out-of-state students by eliminating discounts on the licenses.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke calls for better public land management, less bureaucracy

With a hoarse voice after his first month in Congress, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke became the latest Montana political figure to address a joint session of the Legislature.

He told a story of trying to hang a picture in his new office. He was stopped, and instead three other people showed up to hang the picture for him.

“In that one small act, we’re drowning in bureaucracy,” Zinke said. He went on to say that bureaucracy was one of the problems with public lands management in Montana, saying that local forest rangers were controlled by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

He said it was time to explore more state management of land with pilot projects, but said he doesn’t support privatizing the land.

“I will not tolerate selling our public lands,” he said, getting a standing ovation.

He closed by saying the nation’s problems are fixable, and he intends to be a part of it.

“This Congress is going to go from a Congress of ‘no,’” he said, “to a Congress of ‘go.’”

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 February 2015 16:29

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Billings Depot plans ‘elegant, luxurious’ event

ED KEMMICK - LastBestNews.com

A week from Saturday, Billings Depot Inc. is throwing a black-tie Taste of Billings celebration that depot director Jennifer Mercer hopes will be “the most elegant, luxurious event Billings has ever seen.”

That’s quite a claim, and it’s all the more remarkable considering that the setting, the old Northern Pacific Railway Depot on Montana Avenue, was in wretched condition just 20 years ago, and had nearly been demolished 25 years ago.

The Taste of Billings — which will actually be a two-day affair, with a somewhat smaller soiree on Friday, Feb. 6, followed by the black-tie party on the 7th — is the latest in a series of fundraisers that have helped keep the depot going and growing since it came back from the brink in the mid-1990s.

The depot’s biggest fundraiser was the Horse of Course auction in 2002. Artists transformed life-size fiberglass equine statues into unique works of Art, and the auction brought in nearly $350,000.

Other fundraisers included Depot Days events, a Polar Express party, the Trailhead Brew and Chew and a visit by Thomas the Train in 2009, the centennial of the depot’s completion. Mercer hopes the Taste of Billings event, after this inaugural affair, will become a twice-annual event, with one party in the winter and another in the summer.

The Friday event will feature food from a dozen of the city’s top restaurants, paired with wine and locally made microbrews, and with live music by The Wench. On Saturday, there will be a cocktail hour, followed by a succession of small plates created by some more top chefs. After that will be dancing to the Magic City Big Band, put together for this event. Professional ballroom dancers will be on hand to give demonstrations.

Mercer, who has been the director of the depot for the past 3½ years, said a lot of people still don’t know that the depot complex is a nonprofit, publicly owned enterprise, which is why fundraisers have always been so important. The complex includes four buildings and two parking lots, all of it stretching along 4½ blocks of Montana Avenue.

The depot was in pretty good shape until Amtrak ended passenger rail service on the southern line through Montana in 1979, a year after the depot was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. By 1981, a Gazette headline announced that “Wreckers ball looms for depot.”

It avoided that fate but fell into deeper disrepair until the early 1990s. At that point, members of the Billings Preservation Society, which had already restored the Mass Mansion, took on the depot as another historic preservation project.

Things were so bad then that proceeds from the first fundraising efforts were used to seal off access to the depot buildings, to keep transients and vandals out. Dennis Deppmeier, an architect who has been involved in the depot renovation almost from the beginning and still serves on the Billings Depot Inc. board, said most of the money was used to install “burglar bars” on the windows.

One hesitates to start naming other supporters, since there were so many of them, but one can’t omit Harry Gottwals, a banker who was one of the leaders of the planning effort that evolved into the Downtown Framework plan. On the side, Gottwals started working on the depot, too, and as Deppmeier said, “he became very instrumental in our ability to secure some of the larger grants.”

Those included $1.5 million in two appropriations secured by then-Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and a $500,000 grant from Phillip Morris, which the depot kept even though the tobacco company’s plans to sponsor a nationwide “Marlboro Train” promotion eventually fell apart.

The tobacco money was used to clean up the exterior and re-roof the complex, while the federal appropriations were used for extensive interior work, mostly in the seriously run-down passenger station.

Billings Depot Inc. came together in 1995. One very complicated, difficult aspect of the whole process was securing permission from the Burlington Northern Railroad and Montana Rail Link to use the buildings at all. It took a long time to arrange for the city of Billings to agree to be the nominal owner of most of the property, which was necessary if the depot was to apply for federal funding.

But the city put no money into the project and Billings Depot Inc. has been entirely responsible for managing and financing the operations. After years of renovations, the depot was opened to the public in 2000, for the first time in more than 20 years. Over time, the entire complex filled up.

Billings Depot Inc. leases out both of its parking lots, as well as the two buildings to the west of the passenger station. The old postal building is occupied by Better to Gather, which offers do-it-yourself arts-and-crafts sessions and also does special-events decorating. The old lunchroom, also known as the Beanery, is occupied by Trailhead Spirits, a distillery and bar.

An office building to the east of the depot, formerly used by BN, now houses the city’s Public Works Department. Thanks to the convoluted nature of the ownership and management arrangements at the depot complex, the only building actually owned by Billings Depot Inc. is the one leased to the city.

Gottwals, who ran the depot for many years on a small stipend before Mercer was finally hired as the first full-time director, said a local artist created a watercolor painting of the depot complex before any of the renovation began, just to show people what they were aiming for.

“Then, as it came together, it looked exactly like that rendition,” Gottwals said with some pride. “It was perfect.”

Mercer said that when she took over, the depot had no money in the bank, hosted few events and had a long list of deferred maintenance projects. She came up with a business plan that would make money for Billings Depot Inc. while making the public building accessible to the public.

“We’re trying to be affordable for the whole community, not just the elite,” she said.

The depot now plays host to about 125 events a year, including corporate parties, fundraisers by other nonprofit groups and lots of weddings.

“The thing that keeps our doors open is weddings,” she said.

The big space is the renovated baggage room on the east end of the building. It is 90 feet long and 42 feet wide and will accommodate slightly more than 300 people. The passenger station, on the west end, is 46 by 44 feet and can hold up to 150 people.

Proceeds from the Taste of Billings fundraiser will go toward repairing the original gutters on the depot buildings, a project that could cost more than $50,000.

Gottwals and Deppmeier had nothing but praise for Mercer, who they said has re-energized the depot and put it on a solid financial footing.

“She’s doing a super job,” Gottwals said. “She’s just a ball of fire.”

“When Jenn came on, she saw fairly quickly that this thing was really a gem in the rough,” Deppmeier said. “From the day she came on, we just gave her plenty of rein.”

Mercer, for her part, described Deppmeier as “the guardian of our building,” the one who checks every project for compliance with building codes and with historic preservation guidelines.

And as important as the depot is in its own right, Gottwals and Deppmeier agreed that its real importance is that it served as an example for the rest of the downtown, inspiring and encouraging first the renovation of Montana Avenue and then of the central business district.

Gottwals said he told people at the time, after shifting from the Downtown Framework to the depot, “What I want to do now is save this property down on Montana Avenue and make it a demonstration project for the downtown plan. If we keep it, it’ll make a huge difference in how quickly the downtown rejuvenation will occur.”

Deppmeier said much the same thing. As much pride as he takes in helping to preserve and restore the depot, he said, “I look at Montana Avenue in general. I look at how the depot complex was the focal point for reinvigorating that whole part of town … . I get more satisfaction from that.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 January 2015 13:00

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Medicaid, taxes, schools discussed in Helena

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

In the third week of the 64th Montana Legislature, Gov. Steve Bullock held a press conference to release the much awaited “Healthy Montana” plan.

The plan, House Bill 249, accepts federal funds available under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid to people who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Bullock said the plan will cover as many as 70,000 more people.

In front of a raucous crowd that filled his reception room, Gov. Bullock talked about how thousands were “left out in the cold” in the gap between the insurance exchange and Medicaid. People who earn less than $6,000 are eligible for Medicaid, and people who earn more than $11,500 a year can buy insurance on the exchange.

Republicans have said they will have their own bill ready for release soon. Their plan likely won’t use the available federal money. They say they want reform of the entire Medicaid program, and would instead like to implement a form of managed care.

Tester visits Legislature

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester spoke to a joint session of the Montana Legislature, where he once served.

“It’s good to be back home,” Tester said. He called for increased investment in infrastructure, and higher pay for teachers, which garnered a round of mostly Democratic applause. 

He finished his speech by praising the idea of Montana’s citizen Legislature, where presumably no one is a professional politician.

“No state has a better system than we do,” Tester said.

That system was hard at work last week, and here’s some of what they were up to:

Subpoenaed state workers testify

Republican leaders of two committees subpoenaed two workers from the state Office of Public Assistance and one former worker to testify about their work with Medicaid and other state programs.

The workers didn’t testify directly on a bill and only provided informational testimony. Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, and Rep. Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, issued the subpoenas. Wittich said the people were afraid they might lose their jobs if they testified on their own accord.

“If they’re concerned about their jobs, the way to do it is with a subpoena,” Wittich said.

Democrats criticized the move as an attempt to distract from Gov. Steve Bullock’s “Healthy Montana” press conference, which happened on the same day.

The three workers from Libby and Kalispell spoke last Monday to the Joint Subcommittee on Health and Human Services about problems with the computer system they use in welfare cases. Each of the three workers said fraud exists in the state welfare programs, but said they’d mostly heard about it from co-workers, which Democratic lawmakers harped on.

“In the testimony, we’ve heard quite a bit of hearsay,” said House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena.

Education fills committee rooms

Two education hearings last week brought droves of people to the Capitol.

Many people watched the closed-circuit television outside of the hearing on Senate Bill 14, which would raise the high school dropout age to 18. The current dropout age is 16, a law that has been in place since 1921. Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau spoke at the hearing.

“Our 21st century realities cannot be sustained by our 100-year-old laws,” Juneau said.

A parade of parents, educators and other education officials followed Juneau in support of the bill.

One opponent of the bill was Ty Belcourt, a student at the Willard Alternative School. Belcourt said transferring to Willard Alternative School was a boost to his education – not being forced to stay in a traditional high school until he was 18. 

“I am not a statistic; I have the right to choose,” Belcourt said.

The committee didn’t immediately vote on the bill. Similar bills have failed in the last two sessions.

The Senate Education Committee also heard a bill last week that would allow three elementary school districts to expand to K-12 districts.

Senate Bill 107 would affect school districts in Billings, Helena and Missoula. Hardly a seat was available in the old Supreme Court chambers, which the hearing was moved to from a smaller room. Superintendents from each district spoke in support of the bill.

Bills seek parole board changes

A long line of people spoke in support of House Bill 43, which would give the governor more power to pardon convicted criminals.

The bill would allow the governor to give someone a parole hearing without the approval of the Board of Pardons and Parole. Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, said that in at least 30 states the governor has the power to pardon someone without a board.

“It would bring Montana’s executive clemency process into the mainstream,” MacDonald said.

More than 10 people spoke in support of the bill, saying the board needed oversight from the governor to work more effectively. Amber Foster spoke about her husband, who is in prison for statutory rape. She was the alleged victim in the case, and she said her husband deserves to be pardoned.

“I have tried and tried to get the board to listen to me,” Foster said.

The only opponent of the bill was Mike McKee, a former parole board member. McKee said the bills seeking changes to the parole board are a result of the Barry Beach case. Beach is in prison for a 1979 murder and has long claimed he is innocent. His most recent parole application was denied by the board last summer.  

“I don’t think, personally, that the system is broken,” McKee said.

Electronic cigarette bill

A bill requested by the Attorney General’s Office aims to ban the use and possession of electronic cigarettes by minors.  

Senate Bill 66, introduced by Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, refers to electronic cigarettes as “electronic smoking devices” and would classify them as tobacco products, which would put them under the same laws governing traditional cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

Doctors, educators and representatives from non-profit groups spoke in favor of the bill, saying that if kids get their hands on these devices they’re more likely to become addicted to nicotine.

“These things exploded on the scene a few years ago, well ahead of any research,” said Robert Shepard, a Helena doctor.

But a parade of opponents also showed up, saying they supported a ban on sale to minors but don’t want the devices to be considered tobacco products. Many said they’d used electronic cigarettes to quit smoking.

“It’s something that worked for me,” said Patrick O’Connell. “To say that I’m smoking again, I cannot agree with.”

Traditional party policies

Bills on two issues that seem to emerge every session saw their first hearings last week – tax cuts and raising the minimum wage.

Rep. Art Wittch, R-Bozeman, and Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, each had tax cut bills in front of the House Taxation Committee last week.

Wittich’s House Bill 169 would be a one-time property and income tax cut. Joe Balyeat of Americans for Prosperity spoke in support of the bill, saying it would spur wage growth and help the “working man.” For some, the bill didn’t go far enough. Bob Story, of the Montana Taxpayers Association, said he was against the bill because it isn’t permanent.  

Regier’s House Bill 166 would cut income tax rates by 0.1 percent in each income bracket.

Americans for Prosperity again spoke in support of the bill, as did the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

“Reducing taxes increases revenue,” Regier said.

Department of Revenue Director Mike Kadas spoke against both bills, saying they would actually deplete revenue and would require dipping into the budget surplus the governor has insisted on. Kadas said he’s seen legislatures that didn’t leave a budget surplus each year.

“We used to cut it way too close and we’d end up here in special sessions trying to scrape together a budget,” Kadas said.

Heather O’Loughlin, of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, also spoke against both bills, saying the cuts only benefit the wealthy.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats began pushing for a higher minimum wage last week. Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, introduced Senate Bill 2, which would raise the minimum wage to $10.10. The current minimum wage is $8.05.

“Realistically … what’s before you here is an economic development bill,” Windy Boy said, adding that if people earned more they’d spend more.

Proponents said minority groups such as women and Native Americans were more adversely affected by the lower minimum wage, and that raising it would help those groups.

 Opponents said the proposed raise was much too high, and would stifle job growth and small business.

“Minimum wage is misguided,” said Glenn Oppel of the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

Grizzly bear conflicts

The House Agriculture Committee last week heard House Bill 145, which would create some prevention funding for the Livestock Loss Board to give out to prevent grizzly bear conflicts with livestock.

The board pays farmers and ranchers for the animals they’ve lost if they can prove the animal was killed by either a wolf or a grizzly bear. The bill would give the Livestock Loss Board $400,000 to be used for measures to keep the bears away from livestock, like building electric fences around property.

Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said the bill was a rerun from the 2013 session. In 2013, Cuffe introduced the bill that added coverage of livestock losses caused by grizzlies to the Livestock Loss Board. Included in that bill was the same $400,000 allocation, but it was ultimately line-item vetoed by the governor.

The bill had support from ranchers and conservationists.

Sen. Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive, introduced Senate Bill 122, which would create tax breaks for ammunition manufacturers to set up shop in Montana.

Rosendale and the supporters of the bill called it a jobs bill, saying that the companies would create many jobs in the ammunition business for Montanans.

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, 29 January 2015 12:58

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Civil rights fight still on, speakers say

By STEPHEN DOW - For The Outpost

Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.” Indeed, several speakers at Not In Our Town’s annual interfaith worship service in honor of King declared that we still have a long way to go before we can achieve his dream of equality for all people.

“It is a long road ahead of us,” said Khenpo Yoga Dhatta of the Billings Dharma Center. “We have come a long way, but we must not pause because there is a long way to go. The road to fairness, social justice and equality of opportunity is not a super-highway. It twists and turns. It has many rocks and many ruts. But it is the high road and one worth pursuing.”

Around 100 people attended the hour-and-a-half event at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. Representatives from Billings’ Islamic, Ba’hai, Jewish, Native American and Buddhist communities spoke at the event.

One of these speakers was Reno Charette, the director of American Indian Outreach at Montana State University Billings. Like Dhatta, she emphasized that Dr King’s dream had not been fully achieved yet.

“On the eve of celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King’s message and all that he stood for, we have to recognize that we are still in the struggle,” she said. “American Indians are still in that struggle. My grandchildren’s generation has inherited the effects of bordertown racism including an academic achievement gap, over-representation in prisons and under-representation in all the usual measures of economic prosperity.”

In her emotional speech, Charette recalled the prejudices that she had experienced as a child.

“Over time, I learned why Dr. King’s message was so important,” Charette said. “I wasn’t black, but white people set me apart as different. I wasn’t from the South, but I was from an Indian reservation. I didn’t attend a segregated school, but I experienced prejudice at school.”

Other speakers encouraged audience members to embrace the message of rejecting prejudice that Dr. King preached more than 50 years ago.

“Other people’s prejudices may hurt us, but our own prejudices will destroy us,” Dhatta said. “Like thieves, our prejudices steal our opportunities to truly know our neighbors and appreciate them … . Let’s trace within ourselves the roots of hate and anger and that most toxic of illusions: self-superiority. Let’s free our own hearts and then shine forth our light so that we can light the path for those who are stumbling along the way.”

Jerry Clark of the Baha’i faith echoed another of King’s key beliefs: All men are created equally by God.

“Many remember Dr. King as a champion of civil rights,” Clark said. “Dr. King was actually a champion of human rights. Civil rights are rights granted to certain people who are citizens of a nation. The Baha’i faith teaches, and Dr. King recognized, that people should not be treated fairly just because of their citizenship. Those of spiritual insight know that we should treat all of the children of God with love, respect and justice because we’re all part of one human family.”

The event was capped off with Eran Thompson’s passionate performance of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, for which he received a rapturous standing ovation.

Before the speech, Thompson acknowledged that King’s words are just as relevant today as they were 52 years ago during the March on Washington.

“We’ve had some big setbacks in this community during this past year, but this speech has something to teach all of us,” Thompson said. “It can teach something to those of us who didn’t show up to speak out; those who did show up to speak out and spoke out with anger; and those of us who spoke out to segregate part of our community.”

Thompson added, “This has quickly become my favorite part of the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend. The spirit that fills this room on this day is exactly how we want to honor Dr. King: people of every race and religion coming together and talking about something as simple yet revolutionary as love.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 January 2015 15:25

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Oil spill cleanup beginning

By DEBORAH COURSON SMITH - Big Sky Connection

GLENDIVE – An oil pipeline leak into the Yellowstone River last weekend still is being assessed, but a Bridger Pipeline company spokesman says it’s estimated that about 50,000 gallons of Bakken crude spilled into the water upstream of Glendive.

Dena Hoff, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, ranches and farms downstream from the spill. The river runs along the edge of her property.

“It’s a fourth of a mile from my house and you can smell it, even though it’s under the ice,” she says. “How are they going to clean it up?”

In 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline leaked into the Yellowstone River, spilling about 63,000 gallons. Cleanup costs for that spill totaled about $135 million.

Hoff says this spill should be a clear sign the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is too risky, as it would also cross the Yellowstone River. And as was the case in 2011, Hoff says there are many questions about the damage in the latest spill that will likely take months to answer.

“For the people in Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District, what’s going to happen to their irrigation water?” she asks. “What’s going to happen to the paddlefish at the intake diversion, where the paddlefish come up every May?”

Hoff was out of town when the spill happened Saturday morning. She says even though she lives near the spill zone, she was not informed about what was going on until she started asking questions about why there were “so many lights down by the river,” and heard from a friend the water coming out of the faucet “smelled like oil.” The city of Glendive gets its water from the Yellowstone River.

A Department of Environmental Quality news release said late Tuesday that oil spill response workers recovered approximately 240 barrels of crude oil from the Poplar Pipeline Tuesday. Workers recovered the oil from the south side of the Yellowstone River.

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 January 2015 15:20

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Gov. Bullock launches his ‘Build Montana’ act

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

In the second week of the 64th Montana Legislature, two initiatives from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget were opened up in joint appropriations subcommittees.

Bullock’s infrastructure bill, the “Build Montana” act, got its first hearing in the joint subcommittee on long-range planning. Rep. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, the bill’s sponsor, said it would invest more than $380 million through a mix of cash and bonding, which he and other proponents of the bill lauded as a smart business decision.

“We do infrastructure, it’s our job to do infrastructure,” said Dan Villa, Bullock’s budget director.

Contractors, architects and bankers spoke in support of using a mixture of bonding and cash to fund the bill. Many said Montana’s good credit rating and low interest rates make this the right time to borrow.

Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, vice chairman of the committee, said the biggest debate over House Bill 5 will be whether the funding comes from borrowing money in the form of bonds or spending cash.

“I think bonding will be one of the biggest issues. I’d just as soon pay for it up front if we can,” Ripley said.

The bill includes projects across Montana. More than $68 million is allocated for projects in Eastern Montana. In 2013, Bullock vetoed a bill that would have provided around $35 million in infrastructure projects to Eastern Montana in.

Parts of the measure require a three-fourths majority vote on the House floor. That could lead to projects being split into separate bills if some legislators don’t support parts of the bill.

Villa urged the committee to leave the projects in one bill.

Hearings on mental health programs also opened this week, and brought in a line of people who urged legislators to put money into local care options instead of the state institutions like the state hospital in Warm Springs and the nursing home in Lewistown.

Gov. Bullock’s budget allocates money for updates to both of those facilities, and does include some funding for local mental health care.

State of judiciary

Montana’s Chief Justice Mike McGrath gave the State of the Judiciary address to a joint floor session of the Legislature during the second week, saying a decreased budget had hurt the judiciary.

He said budget cuts had led to a personnel shortage in some departments, a court backlog and inadequate staff training. He also spoke about the value of having three branches of government for a system of checks and balances.

“An independent, adequately funded judiciary is key to a constitutional democracy,” McGrath said.

Aside from that, the judiciary committees in both houses saw a lot of action this week.

The Senate Judiciary Committee looked at a bill that would strengthen the law that prohibits secretly filming or watching someone who has an expectation of privacy, even if that’s in public.

Lewis and Clark County Deputy County Attorney Luke Berger gave an example of a local case in which a man had hidden cameras in a women’s bathroom and had more than 90 videos of women.

However, media organizations raised concerns that the statute might be too broad, and may prevent reporters from doing their jobs. Some language prohibited loitering around someone’s home without their knowledge.

“It’s sometimes important for them to be in front of somebody’s house,” said Dewey Bruce, president of the Montana Broadcasters Association.

The Attorney General’s Office requested the bill, and the office’s legislative liaison, Jon Bennion, said he would be willing to work with the media on that concern, but didn’t think it was a big problem.

“Often it’s easy to see a boogeyman where there isn’t one,” Bennion said.

A bill to include electronic communication in the indecent exposure statute drew support from prosecutors and victims’ advocates in a Senate Judiciary hearing Wednesday. The bill would criminalize indecent exposure by e-mail and other electronic communication and strengthens the penalty in cases where the victim is a minor.

The House Judiciary committee heard a bill that would create a voucher program to help get housing for people on parole who might not have other options at the time of their release.

“The idea of getting people into good housing situations is critical,” said Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, the bill’s sponsor.

Supporters testified that finding a new home for paroled criminals helps ensure they won’t be repeat offenders. 

Changing election laws

The Senate State Administration committee saw two campaign bills Wednesday.

One would prohibit the placing of campaign signs on private property.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said campaign sign placement is a frequent complaint his office hears.

Another bill seeks to update Montana law to match a 2012 court decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court struck down a 1935 law prohibiting political parties from endorsing judicial candidates and making independent expenditures in those races. The decision left in place a ban on direct contributions.

The bill matches what the court decided in 2012 – allowing parties to endorse judicial candidates and make independent expenditures in those races, but leaving in place the ban on direct contribution and coordination with the candidates.

“What’s on the books needs to conform with the courts,” Motl said. His office requested both bills.

Hiking off-road fees

The House Fish and Game Committee heard a bill to bump up the fees on out-of-staters who ride off-road vehicles in Montana.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, would raise the fee for an out-of-state off-road vehicle permit from $5 to $25, similar to fees charged by other states. Proponents of the bill said the proceeds would be used for trail maintenance and possibly noxious weed control.

Another bill would increase penalties on hunters who hunt from the road and landowners harassing hunters.

“This bill attempts to cut both ways,” said Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, the sponsor of the bill.

Flynn added that the bill comes after a hunting season marked by an increasing problem of hunters who chase large herds of elk along roads and sometimes even block roads to shoot into the center of the herd.

Wildlife organizations and sportsmen spoke in support of the bill. Lawrence Sickerson, a sportsman, spoke against the bill, saying it didn’t have enough teeth against landowners.

Sickerson told a story of going hunting with his son on public land and being harassed by a nearby landowner. He said the man who harassed him was fined $135 and was allowed to go on his way, a penalty Sickerson thought was too little.

“They have a vested interest to bully and buffalo people away from hunting,” Sickerson said.

Another bill, to allow electronic signatures on hunting and fishing licenses, passed out of the Senate.

Honey sales, police horses

The House Judiciary Committee took up a bill Monday to offer protection to police horses.

Livingston police officer Jessika Kynett spoke to the committee about her horse Larry, the only police horse in the state.

“Larry does have his own badge,” Kynett said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, would criminalize harming a police horse and fine the offender thousands of dollars. It would protect horses to the same degree dogs and police officers themselves are protected.

The bill was tabled in committee after representatives asked if the fine was strong enough.

The Senate Agriculture Committee also had a little fun this week when it heard a bill to allow raw honey to be sold at farmers’ markets.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Lea Whitford, D-Cut Bank, would simply add raw honey to the list of unlicensed products that can be sold at farmers’ markets in the state. It corrects a discrepancy between federal and state law. Federal law says raw honey is OK for sale, while the state law doesn’t directly address it.

“In state law, the word honey is missing,” said Cort Jensen, representing the Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services was in support of the bill, and says there aren’t health differences between raw and processed honey.

Montana has about 200 registered beekeepers, according to the Department of Agriculture. Beekeepers with fewer than 10 colonies aren’t required to register, and therefore aren’t included in the count.

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, 22 January 2015 15:11

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UM students cover session

Two students from The University of Montana’s School of Journalism have been chosen to provide news coverage of the Montana Legislature’s 2015 session for scores of newspapers and radio stations across the state. The session begins Jan. 5.

Michael Wright will provide weekly coverage for interested newspapers across the state. Wright, a senior, hails from a dairy farm in southern Idaho and has written for the Montana Kaimin, Big Timber Pioneer and Montana Journalism Review. The Montana Newspaper Association helps fund Wright’s coverage.

Madelyn Beck, who has worked with Montana Public Radio, In Other Words, and Public Radio Exchange, will provide daily reports to more than 50 Montana broadcasters. Beck came to the University of Montana from a ranch near Manhattan, Mont. Her coverage is made possible by grants from the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Broadcasters Association.

The students’ work this session will be supervised by UM Adjunct Professor Courtney Lowery Cowgill, a former Associated Press reporter and editor and the current managing editor of the online news site PBS MediaShift. The 2015 session marks the 12th time journalism students have covered Montana’s regular biennial legislative sessions for newspapers and the fifth time they have provided coverage for radio stations.

Boulder Monitor Editor Jan Anderson said while community newspapers like hers can get to Helena to cover the Legislature occasionally, only a reporter covering the Capitol day in and day out can fully cover the complexity of the issues playing out there. That’s where the UM program comes in.

“The best way for our readers to know how well the state lawmakers they elected are representing their interests is to have a reporter at the Capitol watching,” Anderson said.

It’s also invaluable experience for the students, said Associate Professor Denise Dowling.

“This project is a win-win for citizens of Montana and our journalism students,” Dowling said. “The people of the state get coverage of the goings-on at the Legislature, coverage they would otherwise not receive. Students gain excellent experience covering Montana’s legislative body and producing professional work for media outlets under deadline.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 January 2015 16:17

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Low enrollment causes MSU Billings budget woes

MSU Billings News Services

It’s been four years since Montana State University Billings saw its record high enrollment of 5,335 students.

Today, Montana’s third largest institution serves 4,781 students. The drop in enrollment is a fraction over 10 percent and returns MSUB to numbers not seen since the start of the previous decade.

“Understanding our 10 percent decline in student enrollment can’t be emphasized enough,” remarked first-year Chancellor Mark Nook.

In a message to faculty and staff this week, Nook announced that the initial FY 2015-16 budget estimate yields a revenue gap just over $4 million, approximately 10 percent of MSU Billings’ general operating budget.

“You can quickly see how the 10 percent decline in enrolled students has echoed through our FY 2015-16 budget forecast in the form of a 10 percent general operating budget shortfall.”

As a state supported institution of higher education it is important to note there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to forecasting a definitive working budget. But make no mistake, the biggest woe MSUB has to overcome is enrollment.

Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services, Terrie Iverson, has held the top fiscal position at MSU Billings for more than 20 years, witnessing first-hand the ebb and flow of university budgets. 

“Given how early we are in the budget process, we must stay focused on what we as a university can control,” Iverson said. “What we can control right now is our expenditures.”

Senior campus leaders will be holding a series of campus-wide Budget Briefings to inform and engage students, faculty and staff in finding a solution to the roughly $4 million shortfall.

Briefings will be held throughout the spring semester and summer until the university reaches a balanced budget.

“We have held these types of briefings in the past but never this early in the budget process,” noted Collins. “Starting the process in early December instead of mid-February – when we typically start to look at next year’s budget – will certainly give us more time to make the strategic fiscal decisions necessary to resolve our revenue gap.”

Communication with key internal and external stakeholders will be an integral part of MSU Billings’ budget process. The university’s Budget Office maintains a website for communication but this year they are in the process of developing a separate site solely focused on FY 2015-16 and beyond.  University officials intend to have the site finished by the end of the week.

“We are a university committed to meeting the educational and professional goals of our students, Nook said.  “During the budget process we must first and foremost minimize the impact on our students and invest in their long-term success.”

In order to keep this commitment to students MSUB will:

• Work diligently within its shared governance process and current contracts.

•  Involve and engage the entire campus community in balancing its budget.

•  Ensure strategic reductions and reallocations are not unilateral or opportunistic.

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 December 2014 11:55

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