Last Tuesday’s annual Top Ten Track and Field meet was conducted in Laurel under a gray sky offering periodic sprinkles of rain flavored by a persistent cold breeze.
Nothing unusual about this, on the last day of April in Montana, and this weather did not seem to faze the 150 or more athletes competing in 17 running, jumping or throwing events.
Top Ten is my favorite high school meet of the year, although the excitement of the two-day state meets (on the last Friday and Saturday of May) can rival it. The local Top Ten sponsor, the Billings Roundtable, conducts this meet with brisk efficiency: Starting at 3:30 in the afternoon, it always is ending about four hours later.
My only critique is that, if you’re watching pole vault and high jump, there is no way to know the height of the bar that competitors are trying to propel themselves over. Why not follow what is done at most state meets I’ve attended and place a large sign that can be rotated to show spectators the height being contested?
Why not use the big electronic scoreboard at Laurel, across the field from the grandstand, to do more than list what competitors have done at the end of an event? Why not also use it to note current leaders in various events, particularly long jump, triple jump and the three throwing events? (But that may be asking too much.)
From schools large and small
One very good thing about Top Ten is that athletes from schools of all sizes are invited to compete, as long as they have attained results, in any of the 17 events, which place them among the ten best in the region, to date.
The region for this Top Ten is any Montana school, large or small, within a radius of 150 miles from Billings. Several other Top Ten Meets happen around the state — Glasgow, Helena, Missoula, possibly elsewhere — and operate the same way: Ten invited competitors in each event compete for five medals. The big schools, of course, send the most athletes and tend to dominate spots on the podium.
But there are always exceptions. Billings Top Ten includes the four Class AA schools — three from Billings: Senior, West and Skyview — along with Bozeman. Local Class A schools Billings Central and Laurel are joined by Belgrade, Livingston, Lewistown, Hardin and Miles City - then by a host of Class B and C schools.
This means that a javelin thrower from Class C Ryegate named Collin Brosz can qualify in ninth place going into Top Ten, with a throw of 161 feet 4 inches, and if he has a good day and throws the spear 170 feet — which he did — he can end up on the podium with a second-place medal around his neck.
At this meet, on this day, this throw by Brosz was exceeded only by a 185-foot-7-inch toss by another athlete from a smaller school, Ty Bermes of Class B Joliet (which only a few years ago got big enough to move up from Class C). Bermes also won the Top Ten boys’ high jump, clearing the bar at 6 feet 3 inches (he had come in with a 6-4 mark earlier in the season).
So it isn’t just big school athletes who excel. Abby Bymaster of the combined Broadview-Lavina girls’ team came into the shotput competition with the best mark, 38 feet 6 inches. She didn’t quite equal that, but her throw of 37 feet 11 inches was leading the pack until Bethany Rides Horse of Class A Hardin, on her sixth and final attempt, heaved the cannonball (well, that’s what it looks like) 39 feet 6 inches. Rides Horse, like Ty Bermes, was also a double winner, with her throw of 128 feet 3 inches winning the javelin.
There were four other double winners, two girls, two boys. On the boys’ side, like Ty Bermes, the other two also came from Class B schools. Dustin Sobrero of Columbus triumphed in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes, while Ike Zier of Manhattan won both the 110- and 300-meter hurdles.
On the girls’ side, Bethany Rides Horse was joined by two runners from Class AA Billings Senior: Chloe Rector in the 100 and 200 meter dashes and Christina Aragon in the 800 and 1600 meter runs.
Aragon — that name may sound familiar. Christina’s two older sisters, Alexa and Danielle, both excelled in multiple events at Billings Senior High, and last year, as a senior, Danielle obliterated a 39-year-old all-class state record in the girls’ 800-meter run. Both of the older Aragon girls now are running for Notre Dame.
Christina’s just a freshman, but she ran with assurance, hanging with early leaders, then striding out strongly in the final 200 meters to win the 1,600 by three and a half seconds and the 800 by more than four seconds.
Another freshman girl, Baylee Green from Class B Roundup (where I live), ran in that same 800; she finished 16 seconds behind the winner but ran close to her best time in this event. For Class B and C athletes like Green, this week marks the end of competing in meets against athletes from any other classes except their own.
For the smaller Montana schools, last week marked the end of the regular track and field season and the beginning of the second season: the march from District to Divisional Meets, each time winnowing all but the top five or six in each event (this varies) to advance to separate Class B and C State Meets.
So Baylee Green, for example, now says goodbye to another freshman distance runner she’s competed with not only all this season, but for the previous two junior high school track and field seasons, Emma Chandler of Absarokee. Why? Because Absarokee is Class C and Roundup Class B.
Lose some, gain Others
Both girls therefore lose some of their toughest competitors; each, however, will likely gain new tough competitors from Class B or C schools to the west, north or northeast.
This narrowing down doesn’t happen to Class A and AA athletes for one more week. Because there are fewer of those schools, they can dispense with District meets and stage only Divisional meets to qualify athletes for state. (In AA there is another way to qualify for state besides placing in the top five out of the two Divisionals; this is by equaling or exceeding a pre-established mark in an event at some time during the regular season.)
Laurel is the site this year not only for the District Class B Meet that includes Roundup, but also for the Divisional Meet that will bring teams from southeastern and southwestern Montana.
On May 24-25 Laurel will host the Class A and Class C State Meets, held concurrently, while Bozeman does the same for Class B and Class AA.
Last Updated on Thursday, 09 May 2013 01:07
Rimrock Opera will be holding auditions for the summer festival by appointment.
The festival will be held June 15-23, ending with performances on Saturday, June 22, and Sunday, June 23. The festival will include musical theater and opera workshops as well as master classes.
Faculty for the festival will include two coaches from Dallas, Texas, James McQuillen and Jay Gardner, as well as voice teacher Kristee Haney and stage director Matthew Haney.
To audition, contact Matthew Haney at 1-816-872-5032.
Bring a resume, a headshot (if possible) and two contrasting pieces including an art song, arias or musical theater.
The second piece could also be a short monologue.
Last Updated on Thursday, 18 April 2013 13:33
If you are going to watch the bull riding at the PBR Nile Invitational, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office reminds you to be safe on the road. Law enforcement officers will increase patrols on streets and highways this weekend.
“Rodeo is part of the Montana culture, and we want everyone to take pride in this tradition,” said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder. “However, we don’t want people to be bullheaded and get behind the wheel after some drinks.”
The extra patrols will focus on apprehension of impaired drivers. “It is critical to get impaired drivers off the road before they hurt someone,” said Sheriff Linder. He suggested lining up a sober drive if you plan on drinking.
While the extra patrols are focused on drinking and driving, officers will be watching for unsafe traffic behaviors, such as speeding or distracted driving.
The extra patrols are funded by the Montana Department of Transportation Selective Traffic Enforcement Program. More than thirty law enforcement agencies around the state participate in enhanced enforcement to address traffic safety. For more safety-related information please access the Montana Department of Transportation’s website www.plan2live.mt.gov.
Last Updated on Thursday, 04 April 2013 17:38
Jefferson Lines Bus Co. has launched new routes connecting Billings and Missoula. Jefferson also has extended its Glendive run from Fargo, N.D., into Billings.
The routes will include daily service in either direction between the two cities, and will facilitate Jefferson Lines adding bus service to several other Montana communities, including Livingston, Bozeman, and Butte.
Jefferson Lines will continue to connect with existing intercity bus networks like Greyhound and Arrow Stage Lines.
Jefferson Lines is a family-owned company founded in 1919.
Last Updated on Thursday, 04 April 2013 17:17
HELENA – Thanks to a last-minute agreement, Republicans and Democrats have unanimously passed a two-year, $9 billion state budget out of the House.
“This is my fourth term – I’m done,” said Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, in his closing remarks last week on House Bill 2. “What an honor to chair this appropriations committee that has done something for the state of Montana that is historic.”
House leadership had scheduled two full days for debate over HB 2. Lawmakers last week passed the budget out of the House, unamended, in less than an hour and a half.
“Even though I was in the minority, I felt I had a platform,” said Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Butte, who served on the subcommittee that reviewed health and human services spending.
He said both sides made compromises and applauded his colleagues’ efforts to fund early childhood education, services for people with disabilities, meal preparation for seniors and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Although the members of the House demonstrated their ability to reach across the aisle last week, HB 2 still faces a long path to the governor’s desk. It next goes to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, where legislators are expected to renew debate over funding. Democrats want further support for public schools and to restore federal family planning money to the budget.
“We have some priorities that our constituents sent us here to support,” said Rep Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena. “We will be carrying those concerns to our colleagues in the Senate.”
Here’s a look back at other highlights from week 11 at the Legislature:
State employee pay
A modified state employee pay plan is moving to the House floor.
The version of House Bill 13 that passed the Appropriations Committee last week charges the executive branch with determining how much to increase its employees’ salaries. The amended bill urges officials to pay “particular attention” to executive branch workers with low salaries and employees who have not received a raise over the past two years.
Republicans on the committee voted for the change to HB 13. The original Democratic proposal – the product of negotiations between unions and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer – would have established an across-the-board 5 percent pay increase over each of the next two years.
The eight Democrats on the committee opposed the amendment and voted against the bill, which passed on party lines.
The updated plan calls for $38 million less than the $152 million Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock proposed to cover the pay increases.
The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, said the bill’s price tag is not far below where the governor’s office is willing to negotiate. He added that the numbers are likely to change as lawmakers vote on other measures such as the bonding bill and tax relief.
State employees have not seen an across-the-board pay increase in four years, although certain individuals have received raises. Republicans argued that people who have received additional pay should not necessarily receive the same percentage increase as those whose salaries have remained flat.
Board of Regents
Board of Regents appointee Pat Williams addressed a state Senate panel last week, defending his comment to a New York Times reporter where he referred to University of Montana football players as “thugs.”
“Some people took that and thought I was talking about the whole team,” he told senators on the Education and Cultural Resources Committee. “But logically, folks, who would say that about a whole team?”
Williams discussed the remarks during a Senate hearing on his confirmation to the Montana Board of Regents, the seven-member panel that governs all of the state’s university system. More than a dozen people spoke in support of his appointment, but the hearing also drew a handful of opponents.
Former UM Vice President Jim Foley testified against Williams. He previously worked as a top congressional staffer for the appointee, who served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Enough is enough with this name-calling of young men who, in most cases, can’t defend themselves against those words,” Foley said. “Words matter, and I just don’t take those words lightly.”
Committee chairman Jim Peterson, a Republican senator from Buffalo, said the committee will probably vote this week on regents’ confirmations.
The governor’s two bills to fix the $4 billion deficit in the state’s pension system are moving forward after the House Appropriations Committee voted down a third Republican-sponsored measure last week.
The committee tabled House Bill 338, which would have implemented a defined contribution system similar to a 401(k). Instead, the full House will now consider House Bills 377 and 454, which maintain the current system.
The existing defined benefit system pays retired state employees monthly pensions based on a formula that takes into account their salary and years of work.
The two bills ask employers and employees to increase contributions. House Bill 337 addresses liabilities in the Teachers’ Retirement System and draws upon state land revenues and school district reserves.
House Bill 454 focuses on the Public Employee Retirement System while calling for funds from natural resource development.
Montanans could decide to change state legislators’ term limits when they cast their ballots in 2014.
The Senate passed House Bill 277 last week, which would ask voters to amend the Montana Constitution to allow lawmakers to serve in either the state House or Senate for 16 years, at which point they could no longer run for the Legislature. Currently, lawmakers can serve eight years in a particular chamber within a 16-year period.
The bill’s supporters argued that the term limits established by voters in 1992 have led to a lack of institutional knowledge among lawmakers due to their high turnover rate. They said HB 277 would allow legislators more time to understand complex issues and give them greater ability to develop seniority in a particular chamber.
The bill now goes back to the House, and lawmakers must decide whether to accept the Senate’s changes. The bill that passed through the House would allow legislators to run for office again after serving 16 years, provided they take an eight-year break from the Legislature.
Last Updated on Thursday, 28 March 2013 00:07
HELENA – State budget cuts to higher education in Montana are noted in a new report.
The study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities outlines the tough time states have had in funding colleges and universities since the recession.
Montana’s spending per student is down about 17 percent since 2008, according to the report. Even though the state’s cuts are less than those in many other states, said report author Phil Oliff, it’s still a big reason why tuition and fees have been outpacing inflation.
“Keep in mind,” he said, “this spike in college costs comes even as the recession and slow recovery have diminished students’ and their families’ financial resources.”
Every state has cut higher-education funding except Wyoming and North Dakota, according to the report. Arizona and New Hampshire leveled the biggest cuts.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is that if states want to attract employers and develop a strong middle class, they will need a highly educated workforce.”
Restoring the money lost to those cuts is likely to take years, Oliff said. The full report is online at cbpp.org.
Last Updated on Thursday, 28 March 2013 00:05
HELENA – After four years of pay freezes, state employees are still waiting to hear whether they will receive an across-the-board 5 percent raise over each of the next two years.
Roughly two dozen people supported House Bill 13 at a January hearing before the House Appropriations Committee. That measure finally surfaced for a vote last Wednesday when Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, made the motion.
But he was the only Republican who joined Democrats on the GOP-controlled committee. The measure failed, but that didn’t stop the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kathy Swanson, D-Anaconda, from trying to revive it on the House floor the next day.
“Since 4:08 yesterday afternoon, my phone has been blowing up,” she told House members. “I have visited with a single mother of three who sobbed in despair wondering if she should start looking to move, to disrupt her children and try to find work out of Montana.”
Swanson tried to blast the bill out of committee and onto the floor, a procedural move that requires a supermajority. But Republicans said they weren’t ready to vote. Many, including the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, argued that the “freeze” didn’t apply to all state workers.
Ankney said the state paid out more than $18 million in raises over the past four years to certain state employees and it’s taking time to find out who received that money.
“It’s ridiculous when we can give that much money to some employees, and some employees don’t get anything,” Ankney said. “I’m working for those people that didn’t get anything.”
Lawmakers considered several other big-ticket items last week, including possible solutions to the expected shortages in state pension funds, the session’s main budget bill, and the governor’s plan to reform Montana’s campaign finance laws. Here’s a look at those highlights and others from week 10 at the Legislature:
Several competing plans to fix Montana’s pension system are making their way through the session. Last week, the panel tasked with solving the 30-year, $4 billion pension shortfall gave up trying to agree on one solution and advanced three different plans for the Legislature’s consideration.
“You can’t meld those,” said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, chairman of the pensions committee. “These are policy choices the Legislature is going to have to make.”
One proposal, House Bill 338, comes from a Republican. It would change state pensions from a defined benefit to a defined contribution system for new employees.
A defined contribution system would mean that employees participate in a system similar to a 401(k) plan, which would provide them with a payout when they retire based on the amount of money contributed throughout their career and investment gains or losses.
The bill would use money from coal severance tax revenue and state treasury to settle the system’s shortfall.
The Democratic governor’s proposal, House Bill 454, would pay off liabilities in the Public Employee Retirement System with money from natural resource development while maintaining a defined benefit system. Employers and employees would both increase their contribution rates by 1 percent.
A second Democratic proposal, House Bill 377, focuses on the Teachers’ Retirement System. It would make up the deficit by increasing the employee contribution rate to existing defined benefit plans by 1 percent. It would also draw upon state land revenues and school district reserves.
Family planning funding
The battle over funding family planning services is heating up as the House Appropriations Committee approved a $9 billion, two-year state budget last week that cuts federal Title X money that went to community clinics.
Citing concerns over those funds going to clinics like Planned Parenthood that perform abortions, all but two Republicans voted against an amendment to restore that money. A subcommittee had previously cut the $4.6 million provision from House Bill 2.
“Many, many Montana taxpayers have a moral objection to abortion dollars that are spent by some providers that receive this funding,” said Rep. Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton. “Tax dollars belong to the people of Montana. We shouldn’t spend money on anything that they object to.”
Clinics use Title X money to offer contraceptives and cancer screenings to low-income Montanans. Under federal law, the money cannot be spent on abortions, although some Republicans have questioned whether health care providers follow that rule.
After the vote, Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, said Democrats will propose the amendment again when the budget comes to the House floor this week. She said clinics keep scrupulous records to show that the Title X money is not being used for abortions.
“Every single dollar is accounted for. There is no way this money could be misused,” she said. “Instead, (those who voted against the amendment) are going to put the welfare of Montana citizens in jeopardy because of their fear that has no basis in reality.”
Lawmakers are considering the Democratic governor’s bipartisan effort to combat so-called “dark money,” those anonymous campaign contributions often blamed for negative attack ads during the 2012 election.
Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican Sen. Jim Peterson of Buffalo have dubbed Senate Bill 375 the Transparency, Reporting and Accountability in Campaign and Elections (TRACE Act).
The proposal would require that political action committees and political party committees disclose all contributions. It would also raise current donation limits and prohibit contributions from corporations or unions.
“I think Montanans are tired of dirty politics, nasty mudslinging campaigns and personal attacks” said Peterson, the bill’s sponsor. “And I believe they are even more disgusted with the fact that many of these attacks are hidden inside dark money organizations that are unaccountable to the voting public.”
The measure has its critics. Officials from Common Cause Montana and last fall’s I-166 campaign to ban corporate campaign spending supported the bill’s aim to eliminate dark money groups, but they opposed increasing the amount individuals can give to candidates and the total candidates can accept from all PACs.
In addition to the state employee pay plan bill, Democrats tried unsuccessfully last week to revive – or “blast” out – three measures bottled up in GOP-controlled committees.
House Democrats attempted to blast out bills would direct money toward out-of-school food programs for children, combat cyber bullying and require that all boarding schools obtain state licenses.
The House Judiciary Committee’s decision to table the boarding school bill in February prompted a CNN crew to visit the Capitol to produce a story for Anderson Cooper 360. The controversy surrounding the bill stemmed largely from allegations of violence against students at an unlicensed religious boarding school in St. Ignatius.
Democrats argued that a 2007 law created a loophole allowing religious boarding schools to operate without any government oversight. That opened the door for abuse, they said.
Republicans who spoke against the effort to revive the bill said there are numerous success stories from those institutions. They also questioned whether more government regulation would improve the schools.
Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and a legislator from Conrad wants to explore ways to prevent those tragedies.
The House approved Republican Rep. Rob Cook’s measure last week to establish a five-person team to review the causes of suicide and make recommendations on ways to prevent future deaths. House Bill 583includes a one-time $97,000 appropriation from the state treasury to fund the review team’s activities.
The bill now goes to the Senate and must receive the governor’s signature before the review team can start work.
Last Updated on Thursday, 21 March 2013 14:53
HELENA – A panel of lawmakers is set to vote on the state’s budget this week after three days of public testimony on the best way to spend more than $9 billion over the next two years.
“I think that we’ve made great progress,” Dan Villa, the governor’s budget director, told the House Appropriations Committee last week. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an executive and legislative branch be this close this quickly in the process.”
At the moment, the governor’s requested budget and House Bill 2, the Republican-led appropriation subcommittees’ proposal, differ by about 1 percent.
The money in HB 2 comes from many sources, including $3.6 billion from the state’s discretionary cashbox: the general fund. It does not include all spending, though. Such things as potential raises for state employees or money to fund construction projects at colleges across Montana are contained in other bills.
There’s still plenty of opportunity to make changes, and the budget isn’t likely to be adopted until the session’s end. Meanwhile, expect debates over restoring federal money to family planning programs and additional funding for a universal enrollment system and improved veterans’ services on college campuses.
After clearing the appropriations committee, HB 2 goes to the House floor. The budget must then pass the Senate – and any differences nailed out in a conference committee – before reaching the governor’s desk for his signature.
Here’s a look back at other highlights from the ninth week of the Legislature:
Fees and taxes in the Bakken
Lawmakers have one more proposal to consider as they juggle a number of bills aimed at addressing infrastructure needs in cities affected by the oil boom.
House Bill 452, sponsored by Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, would allow cities to impose a $5-per-night fee on lodging, to be used to deal with impacts of the boom.
Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison said his city plans to spend more than $33 million over the next few years on sewage treatment and upgrades to a water plant. He added that other community services have also felt the effects of an ever-increasing population, including the courts, which have seen a 45 percent jump in cases over the past two years.
He urged legislators to pass several of the Bakken-related bills, not just HB 452.
“It’s not the final solution by any means,” Jimison said. “This would be one step forward of many that we would have to take in order to provide all of the services and infrastructure that is needed.”
Members of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association opposed the bill, saying it fails to consider that travelers spend most of their money in retail, gas and restaurants.
“You can call it a fee, you can call it an assessment, but you are imposing a new tax on the small business lodging properties of this state,” said Sandra Johnson Thares, who heads the group’s board of directors.
In other Bakken news, the Senate Taxation Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 295. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, would end the 12- to 18-month tax holiday on oil production. Half the new revenue would support communities affected by the boom, and the remainder would go to a renewable resources trust fund.
Petroleum industry lobbyists opposed the bill, arguing that it would discourage drilling in Montana and isolate oil exploration efforts to North Dakota.
A bill to create a health care database has passed an initial vote in the House.
The House last week endorsed House Bill 489, sponsored by House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, on a 54-46 vote. The measure was referred to a committee for further study before returning to the floor for a final vote.
Hunter said his bill would provide transparency regarding health care costs and could even result in lower prices. The database would collect claims information and other data determined by a board of directors.
Legislators who voted against the measure cited privacy concerns over data collection and suggested that private businesses are best equipped to create the database, not the government.
Lawmakers in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee also heard testimony on another health care measure. House Bill 280, sponsored by Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, would allow out-of-state health insurance providers to offer coverage in Montana.
Smith argued that the bill would reduce health care costs and give individuals greater flexibility in choosing insurance plans that meet their needs. He said the state requires that insurance policies cover a number of services like certain cancer screenings or autism treatments, which might not apply to everyone with that plan. Those people should have other options, he said.
Opponents from the Montana Nurses Association argued that by allowing people to choose plans without those state-imposed mandates, the Legislature would effectively be removing provisions it had already deemed necessary for quality care. The Montana Women’s Lobby said that could open the floodgates to unequal coverage of men and women.
Parks and rec
The state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission oversees Montana’s parks and recreation areas, but that could change under a bill before the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
House Bill 24, sponsored by Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, would establish a separate five-person stae parks and recreation board. Ankney said bison and wolf management take up most of the commission’s time, and a separate board could better address parks and recreation issues. One person spoke in opposition to the bill.
, citing concern over the availability of money to fund a separate board.
Small dairy farmers from around the state drove to the Capitol last week to support a bill that would allow small farmers to sell raw milk.
House Bill 574, sponsored by Rep. Champ Edmunds, would allow members of the public to reap health benefits from raw milk, argued the measure’s supporters. Under current law, farmers can consume raw milk from their own cows but they cannot sell it to others.
Opponents said raw milk could lead to food-borne illnesses, and the state’s entire dairy industry could suffer should an outbreak occur.
Last Updated on Thursday, 14 March 2013 15:49
HELENA – The halls of Congress are more than 2,000 miles away, but when it comes to the debate over guns, the two capitals seem poles apart.
In Washington, the argument is over President Barack Obama’s push to ban military-style weapons and to better investigate those who buy guns.
In Helena, the focus is on bills allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons in more places and defying any new federal laws restricting the kinds of guns Montanans can buy.
To veteran political observers, that’s no surprise.
“Generally speaking, gun control is unpopular in Montana among both political parties,” said Jim Lopach, a political science professor at the University of Montana. “In the Montana Legislature, I’d expect a move more to expand gun rights as opposed to controlling those rights.”
Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved seven bills that would generally expand citizens’ gun rights. Nearly all passed along strict party lines, with Republicans voting in favor. All seven are headed to the House floor soon for a broader debate.
As legislators consider their votes, Lopach predicts they will look at policy and legal discussions taking place in other states.
Some lawmakers have already done that research. The House Judiciary Committee recently heard debate on a measure similar to ones proposed in Arizona and Wyoming. House Bill 302 would prohibit the enforcement of a potential federal ban on semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines.
“This is the response of a sovereign state to the unconstitutional usurpation of power by the federal government,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel. “Not only is it our right to do this, it is our obligation.”
Opponents of the bill called it unconstitutional and yet another example of a bill aimed at nullifying a federal law. Republicans tried unsuccessfully to pass several nullification measures in 2011.
“Which federal laws would you propose we follow and don’t follow?” Missoula Rep. Ellie Hill, a Democrat, asked one of the bill’s backers. “Do they include slavery? Which federal laws could we determine that the state should decide it should follow, and which federal laws do you think we shouldn’t?”
Lopach said that if states were to pass such measures, they would immediately be challenged in federal court. “It would have a slim chance of surviving because federal law is the supreme law of the land,” he added.
As House members determine where they stand on that bill, they also face arguments on a number of other gun rights measures, many of which would change concealed carry laws.
One measure, House Bill 358, would allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons in places like bars, banks and public facilities. Currently, people can only openly carry weapons into those places. Another measure, House Bill 240, would allow students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.
“These (bills) are really independent of the recent rise in interest on the national scene,” said proponent Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. “These were conceived to address issues that were existing well before Obama.”
Indeed, a number of the bills have returned to the Legislature for a second, third or fourth time after failing during previous sessions.
The same people tend to testify for and against the measures, and they often rehash familiar arguments, Marbut said.
At least one opponent, however, said the national debate has heightened fears that the federal government wants to take citizens’ guns away. Those fears surfaced in 2008 when Obama was first elected, said John BowenHollow, a former Navy SEAL who testified against several measures last week.
“I feel like we’re too entrenched now to listen,” he said.
BowenHollow said violence cannot be solved by simply drawing a line in the sand to establish specific restrictions. He added that true change needs to start at the top, with people willing to engage in a respectful dialogue.
“None of our leaders will speak up and say there are limits to the Second Amendment,” he said. “Until we get some leadership that starts to educate the public, you can’t bring about a middle ground.”
Others propose a different method to protect the public.
“If there’s a madman with a gun, all the hope and prayer and hiding under a desk won’t help,” Marbut said. “The only thing that will help is another person with a gun.”
While advocates on both sides acknowledge the tragedy of recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut or the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., they have yet to find the middle ground BowenHollow so greatly desires.
Amid talk in Congress and at dinner tables across America, the debate in Montana’s statehouse will likely continue for sessions to come, just as it has for decades.
“These terrible events happen so frequently that I think the debate is always there,” Lopach said. “But there are so many uncertainties that I think both sides will continue to push until there’s more legal clarity.”
Last Updated on Thursday, 21 February 2013 11:34
HELENA – In the half-hour before Steve Bullock delivered his first major speech as governor of Montana, chatter filled the House chamber as legislators, state officials and members of the media speculated about what he would say.
Bullock spent much of his first State of the State address discussing education. He promised to focus on job training in Montana schools, which coincides with his plan to put 2,500 people to work on construction projects at colleges and universities around the state.
He again called on the Legislature to accept federal money to expand Medicaid to serve nearly 70,000 low-income Montanans currently without health insurance. He also advocated for a $400 one-time property tax rebate, the elimination of an equipment tax on 11,000 Montana businesses, and the end of dark money in elections.
Although he had already publicly addressed many of the priorities outlined in his speech, Bullock made a surprise announcement about a new website to view the state’s checkbook.
“We’ll have a searchable database so that anyone in Montana – or anybody across the world, for that matter – can look at how we spend the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do and it’ll lead to a more effective government.”
He unveiled the website, www.transparency.mt.gov, the next day. Visitors to the site can search for information on state spending and employee salaries. Republicans praised the announcement, which came two years after former Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a bill proposed by a Republican lawmaker to create a similar website.
In the official response to the Democratic governor’s speech, Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, stressed Republicans’ desire to work with the governor, but he also outlined some key differences.
He said members of his party worry about federal funding and cannot trust Washington, D.C., to keep its promises.
Although Knudsen did not mention Medicaid by name, state Republican leaders have expressed concern over the federal government’s ability to uphold its end of the bargain, as outlined in the Affordable Care Act. The expansion of Medicaid would require the state to pick up 10 percent of the tab by 2020.
Knudsen also suggested the Legislature reduce taxes for all Montanans – not just those who own property. He also said he sees opportunity for lawmakers from both parties to agree on how to reduce the business equipment tax.
Last Updated on Thursday, 07 February 2013 20:10