The Billings Outpost

Medical marijuana patients await IR-124 vote

By JANE WHITE - The Billings Outpost

Heath Robinson, 36, a medical marijuana patient with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, is a burly young man, his build belying the physical afflictions he suffers. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a medical marijuana T-shirt with text barely visible reading “Code of the West,” he holds a container of balm in one hand and a bottle of tincture in the other.

He looked the part of perhaps an off-duty medical corpsman or nurse. In those containers, active cannabis ingredients help him to relieve muscle spasms, pain and the constant neurological damage caused by MS.

“These bottles get me off seven prescription drugs for MS that have terrible side effects,” he said, citing nausea, restless leg syndrome, chronic muscle pain, tremor and severe nightmares.

He said he dissolves a few drops of the tincture into tea or juice. The drink relieves his pain, discomfort from muscle spasms and other neurological pain that the body’s immune system causes while attacking itself.

In MS, the body’s immune system receives erroneous messages from a gene. Those erroneous messages cause the body to attack healthy muscle and nerve tissue. The attacks result in pain, numbness and neurological tissue damage, according to the National Institute of Health website.

As of press time, Senate Bill 423 remained blocked by a temporary restraining order issued last Friday by Judge James P. Reynolds. Judge Reynolds held that immediate and irreparable harm could fall upon an unreasonable number of the most vulnerable Montanans in the medical marijuana registry.

In support of returning to Initiative 148, the original 2004 voter-approved plan for medical marijuana, Lori Burnam, featured in the film “Code of the West,” wrote a letter to The Billings Gazette, expressing her difficulties in dealing with lung cancer. In her letter to the editor, she said she is too sick to manage her own cannabis crop, one of the requirements that SB423 would likely impose upon her and possibly about 5,500 other medical cannabis patients.

The ability of most medical marijuana patients to cultivate their own medical marijuana is limited. Elderly patients and those with terminal illnesses – such as cancer – may lack the physical strength as well as the mental acuity to be vigilant of molds, spores, aphids, mites and other curses that can decimate a marijuana crop. The complicated schedules of lighting demanded by young plants in order to flower properly require an advanced knowledge of specialized horticultural practices.

“It is not easy to grow your own,” said Mr. Robinson.

After SB423 canceled his and Ms. Burman’s ability to buy medical cannabis from an approved provider, they both were despondent. The medical cannabis roller coaster-like track of legislation continues at least until Nov. 6, when voters can choose SB423, a plan that allows providers no more than three patients and doesn’t allow patients to give anything of value to their providers in exchange for medicinal cannabis, including balms, salves, tinctures and baked goods containing the cannabis. Or they can strike the bill down and return to provisions of the original initiative.

Mr. Robinson said he is off drugs because of the availability of those cannabis products. He is waiting for the results of the Nov. 6 election, before deciding what to do.

He and Ms. Burman said cannabis is the only medical alternative that relieves their pain and does not make them overly fatigued or otherwise impaired by the side effects of pharmaceuticals prescribed by doctors.

Team of doctors

Mr. Robinson said he has a team of about eight doctors at Billings Clinic, none of whom can serve as his prescribing or co-physician for him to receive legal medical marijuana. He said he thinks the law should be changed to allow for more research into MS and the healing effects of cannabis on that disease.

Currently, numbers of medical marijuana patients are now down from a high of 30,000 in Montana in 2009 to today’s number of about 8,500.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 13:08

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Senate candidates battle over ‘real’ Montana

By CAITLYN WALSH - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

Montanans can’t escape the television and radio ads attacking the two candidates for U.S. Senate. Paid for by official groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and murkier organizations like Crossroads GPS, the ads generally assault Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Dennis Rehberg as being out of touch with normal Montanans.

The deluge often leaves Montanans wondering who the candidates are and where they stand on major issues.

This has become a battle of who is the most authentic Montanan, with Rehberg’s website stressing he is “a fifth-generation Montana rancher and small businessman” and Tester’s emphasizing he is “a third-generation Montana dirt farmer who brings Montana values with him to the U.S. Senate.”

Despite these differences, the two agree on many contentious issues facing the state.

Both Tester and Rehberg call for creating jobs in Montana by deregulating small business and cutting taxes, though they often spar vehemently over exactly what taxes and regulations need to be targeted. Both voted for the Keystone XL pipeline and seek to develop more coal and oil resources in the state. And both say they have fought for gun rights in Washington.

Where do the differences lie?

But they pull no punches when describing the other.

“Rehberg is not willing to do the work,” Tester said. “It’s lip service versus getting stuff done. Right now, I’m leading the charge on a sportsman’s bill, and we’re going to stay here until it’s done. I have a record of accomplishment.”

Congressman Rehberg agreed that voters should examine their records but disagrees with what they will find.

“I’ll always put Montana first, standing up to leaders from any party as a check and balance. Senator Tester votes with President Obama’s liberal agenda 95 percent of the time,” he replied via email.

The two also disagree over federal health care reform, women’s reproductive rights, and the extension of tax cuts first implemented by President George W. Bush.

“I support a complete repeal of the Tester-Obama health care act so we can replace it with a bill that actually reforms health care to reduce costs and improve access,” Rehberg wrote. “All the Tester-Obama law did was add more people to a failing system. Costs continue to rise, and the problem keeps getting worse. Montanans deserve better.”

Tester voted in 2009 to pass the Affordable Care Act which aims to expand the number of Americans with health care insurance by increasing the availability of Medicaid, allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until 26 and requiring others to purchase some form of insurance or pay an additional tax.

On reproductive rights, Rehberg voted in 2011 to revoke federal funding to Planned Parenthood and argued for reducing accessibility to abortions. While in the Senate, Tester supported funding for Planned Parenthood.

Both candidates also voted with their party on the extension of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, also referred to as the “Bush Tax Cuts.”

Tester sought to amend the bills by “limiting the tax cuts to the first $200,000 of income for individuals and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly.”

Rehberg voted to keep the cuts the same, reducing the tax rate for households making over $250,000 per year.

Staying on message

Throughout the campaign, Tester has sought to distance himself from the president and national Democratic Party. He did not attend his party’s national convention in Charlotte this summer and has several ads out highlighting ways in which he voted against President Obama.

Attack ads from conservative groups outside Montana and Rehberg accuse him of “voting with Obama 95 percent of the time.”

Still, Tester said the Democratic Party is a party that endorses many Montana values.

“We support the middle class, the working class,” he said. “Support for working families, for farming families, is real. We also support affordable education, not only K-12, but higher education, and veteran’s services.”

For his part, Rehberg argues that his policies represent Montana values of less regulation and lower taxes.

“If they want to bolster job growth and economic recovery by reducing the senseless burden of government, they should vote for me,” Rehberg said in an email.  “If they want to just be left alone to go about their lives without the federal government directing everything they do, they should vote for me.”

Voters count

Come Election Day Montana’s choice may resonate far beyond the Treasure State, according to political scientist James Lopach, a University of Montana professor.

“Montana is (the) state that could give Republicans control (of the Senate),” Lopach said. “Achieving that goal in Montana is far cheaper than achieving that goal in an urban area. I think that’s why we’re seeing so much money coming in on both sides. It’s coming from the party, from the contributors of the candidates and coming in from Political Action Committees.”

The result has been a record number of ads. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Montanans were hit with nearly 45,000 ads in the Senate race by early September, 16,000 more than the next nearest state.

Both campaigns admit the air war of campaign ads from the candidates and outside groups will only intensify as Election Day nears. Tester urged voters to remember that the campaign “is about Dennis Rehberg and Jon Tester and what’s best for Montana.”

But Lopach suggested the struggle is bigger than that. “I think it has less to do with Tester and Rehberg and more about control,” he said. “It’s about setting and enacting an agenda for the nation.”

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 13:05

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Republicans hold edge in legislative battles

By JONATHON AMBARIAN - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

While polls show a tight race for governor, the odds are with Republicans in the statewide battle to control the next Montana Legislature.

On Nov. 6 Montana will elect all 100 of the members of the state House of Representatives and 26 of the Senate’s 50 members.

Jeff Greene, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, said that it is possible, but unlikely, that the Democrats will take back control of either house of the Legislature. But he does expect them to win back several districts that had typically voted Democratic before 2010.

“Just based on the way Montana is,” Greene said, “you’re going to see some of those seats go back to the way they usually vote.”

During the last legislative session, Republicans enjoyed a 68-seat majority in the House and a 28-seat majority in the Senate.

Republicans grabbed control of the House in 2010 by winning more than 18 seats held by Democrats. That swing was the largest in a single Montana election since 1966.

Challenge for Democrats

To gain a majority in the House, Democrats would have to hold 14 seats held by their incumbents, win all 27 races where there is no incumbent, and knock off 10 incumbent Republicans.

In the Senate, the margin is smaller, but numbers favor the GOP. Of the 24 senators who are not facing re-election this year, 16 are Republicans. This means Democrats would need to win 18 of the 26 contested seats to win a majority.

Rep. Ellie Hill of Missoula, co-chairman of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Caucus, said Democrats can win back the Legislature despite the odds.  She said Montanans have had enough of the “extreme” Republican bills that drew a record number of vetoes in 2011.

“We feel confident about picking up seats because our candidates’ agenda is Montana’s agenda,” Hill said. “Democrats take a responsible, balanced approach to job creation. That’s what voters expect from Democrats, versus the out-of-touch, partisan, extreme bills they saw from Republicans least session.”

But Hill’s GOP counterpart, Rep. Gordy Vance of Bozeman, expects that Republicans will not only maintain their legislative majorities but also increase them. He sees the 2011 legislative session as a success.

“We showed people that you are able to stop the incredible growth in the size of state government and still provide services,” Vance said.

Races to watch

Several seats formerly held by Democrats are considered among the most competitive this election.

One race to watch is Whitefish’s House District 4, where the incumbent Republican Derek Skees has decided to run for state auditor. Skees won by only 85 votes in 2010. This year’s race features two newcomers: Republican Tim Baldwin, a Kalispell attorney, and Democrat Ed Lieser of Whitefish.

Another race to follow is House District 63 in Gallatin County. It was there in 2010 that Republican Tom Burnett defeated incumbent Democrat JP Pomnichowski by 71 votes. This year Burnett faces Democratic Rep. Franke Wilmer, who jumped districts to take him on. Theirs is the only race between two incumbent representatives.

Seven House races are rematches of 2010’s elections. In House District 15, which stretches from Arlee to Browning, Republican Rep. Joe Read will again face Democrat Frosty Calf Boss Ribs, a former representative who lost by 72 votes last time.

One of the most competitive Senate races may be in District 2, in Flathead County. Sen. Ryan Zinke gave up his seat in an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor. Vying to replace him are Republican Rep. Dee Brown of Hungry Horse and Democrat David Fern, a Whitefish business owner.

Democratic officials were reluctant to talk about their chances in specific races, but Republicans said they have high hopes they can capture a trio of Billings Senate seats now held by Democrats, including Sen. Kim Gillan, who is running for Congress. They’re also optimistic about toppling Democratic Sen. Christine Kaufmann of Helena.

GOP hopes in the House include open seats held by term-limited Democrats Rep. Mike Menahan in Helena and Tim Furey in Missoula County.

Red, blue or purple?

Greene expects that the next Legislature will be more closely divided between the two parties, as it was before the 2010 elections. He said the legislative elections are likely to follow a different pattern than the statewide races.

“I see Montana in this election looking very red,” Greene said. “But when you come internally, Democrats tend to do pretty well.”

Whatever the outcome in November, the next Legislature is sure to include many new faces. Eight senators and 16 representatives are not eligible to run in this year’s elections because of term limits.

Four incumbents didn’t make it through the June primary. GOP incumbents who won’t be back are Sen. Carmine Mowbray of Polson and Rep. Bob Wagner of Harrison. Rep. Alan Hale, R-Basin, lost his primary too but is running a write-in campaign. Democratic Rep. Tony Belcourt of Box Elder lost his primary race too.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 13:03

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Parental notification targeted in referendum

By KYLE SCHMAUCH - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

Seventeen years after the courts struck down an early attempt to require minors to notify their parents before getting an abortion, the contentious issue is back on the ballot this fall.

Legislative Referendum 120 is almost exactly like a 1995 law struck down by a Montana court as violating the Montana Constitution – with one key change.

“The difference is that the age is lower,” Jeff Laszloffy, head of the Montana Family Foundation, said, explaining the referendum would apply only to minors under 16. The previous law applied to girls under 18.

LR-120 would require that doctors notify parents or legal guardians at least 48 hours in advance of the abortion if the patient is under 16. If the minor does not want the notification to occur, she can obtain a waiver from a youth court. Notice would not be required in the case of a medical emergency.

Under the proposal, any doctor who fails to notify the parent or receive a waiver could face six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Debate over impacts

Both proponents and opponents of the referendum say their primary concern is the health and safety of young women, but they disagree over the proposed law’s impacts.

For Laszloffy, the proposal is about ensuring parents know what is happening in their family. He said LR-120 is “primarily a parental rights issue.”

He added that far less significant decisions like getting a tattoo or body piercing require parental consent – a stricter requirement than notification.

“(Abortion) is the only exception where a 13-year-old can make this type of decision,” he said. “This is what happens when political correctness trumps common sense.”

But Julianna Crowley, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, stressed the proposal would put vulnerable girls in harm’s way. “It’s about privacy and it’s about abortion rights,” she said.

Planned Parenthood of Montana, which opposes the ballot initiative, estimates that 80 percent of minors already tell parents or guardians about their pregnancies.

“(A notification law) puts young women who can’t go to their parents in dangerous situations,” Crowley said. “For voters, think about teens who they know may fear a violent reaction from their parents.”

Laszloffy countered that he was also concerned about a girl who faces possible violence or abuse at home.

“If she has a dangerous home situation … this (working through a youth court) is a way she could actually end the abuse.” He also said it is dangerous for parents not to know when their child has gone through a medical procedure.

Both sides acknowledge the referendum would affect only a few Montana teens each year.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 43 reported abortions occurred among teens ages 15 and under in Montana in 2008 (the most recent year available).

Déjà vu?

Thirty-seven other states have some version of a parental notification law on their books, but Montana has been here before.

In 1995, Montana’s Legislature adopted a parental notification measure. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Parental Notice of Abortion Act was constitutional under the United States Constitution.

However, a state district court ruled that law unconstitutional under the equal protection and privacy clauses of the Montana Constitution.

Crowley said LR-120 would raise the same legal concerns as that case. Laszloffy acknowledged that while the PNAA was thrown out as unconstitutional, lowering the age of girls covered by the law helped address the issue.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer decided differently last year when he vetoed the same legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The governor made note of the lower age of affected minors, but declared in his veto letter: “Given the strength of the 1995 … decision rejecting as unconstitutional an almost identical parental notice law, and a subsequent decision of the Montana Supreme Court solidifying Montana’s strong privacy provisions not only generally, but specifically in the abortion context …, I have chosen to veto SB 97.”

If the voters approve the new notification language, many observers expect an immediate and perhaps protracted legal fight over the issue.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 13:02

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Bucy, Fox trade jabs in attorney general race

By ERIK C. ANDERSON - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

When it comes to getting attention, Montana’s race for attorney general is fighting for its share of the airwaves.

TV ads for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and gubernatorial hopefuls dominate, but the attorney general’s race has shouldered its way onto the commercial-fest. That’s due largely to big money donated by a national Republican group backing GOP candidate Tim Fox of Helena.

The national Republican States Campaign Committee has pumped more than $580,000 into advertising on behalf of Fox’s campaign to become the chief enforcer and defender of Montana law. Its ads focus on a federal law Fox opposes: the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Fox’s opponent, Helena Democrat Pam Bucy, has denounced the outside money, which by mid-September had amounted to more than what she and Fox had otherwise raised combined.

“That’s a game changer in this election,” Bucy said. “It feels like some out-of-state entities are trying to buy Montana.”

Federal health care law

The 43-year-old former prosecutor and assistant Montana attorney general has also blasted Fox’s focus on the federal health care law, saying it has overshadowed discussion of the office’s principal duties.

“I see myself as the people’s lawyer and not just for the people who just don’t like Obamacare,” she said.

Fox, a 54-year-old Helena attorney and Hardin native, defends his focus on Obamacare, much of which the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld, except for its requirement that states expand Medicaid, the state-federal program that helps the poor, sick and disabled.

“(Chief Justice) John Roberts got it right when he said Congress put a gun to the states’ heads,” Fox said. “Certainly, in many respects, it’s become more evident that Montana needs an attorney general that will stand up to federal government, mainly because of the Affordable Care Act.”

That’s also a slam at current Attorney General Steve Bullock, the Democratic nominee for governor who defeated Fox to become attorney general four years ago. Bullock refused to join attorneys general in 26 states, all but one a Republican, who offered legal arguments against Obamacare in federal court.

Fox said he would have joined that effort.

Other issues

Meanwhile, there are other issues in the race.

Fox, who is the father of four, says the state’s Sexual or Violent Offender Registry is broken. He says law enforcement needs to keep better tabs people who have threatened the public’s safety.

Bucy, who is endorsed by several law enforcement groups, said additional law enforcement is always a priority, but added that she’s not aware that the system is broken.

“Since his commercial has come out saying there are ‘gaping holes’ in the registry, I’ve gone to three different deputies and they didn’t know what Tim was talking about,” Bucy said.

Bucy, a mother of three, says children need to be protected in the Internet community and has announced her eSm@rt Kids initiative to educate youth on how to responsibly interact online.

Another issue that divides Fox and Bucy is the attorney general’s voting membership on the State Lands Board, which oversees the leasing of millions of acres of state-owned lands. The revenue supports public schools.

Throughout the campaign, Fox has criticized the current attorney general for his vote last year against Arch Coal’s successful bid to mine state-owned coal in the Otter Creek area.

Managing state lands

If elected, Fox said he will vote to promote the development of Montana’s gas, coal, oil and other natural resources. He added that he’s the lone candidate in the race who wants to develop state resources and the jobs that would bring.

“I believe that the position on the State Land Board is creating jobs and jumpstarting our economy here in Montana, along with standing up to the federal government when it introduces job killing legislation,” he said.

Bucy, who is endorsed by the Montana Conservation Voters, disagreed and said she takes natural resource development seriously.

“I think we can and do and should develop natural resources,” she said. “I just think we need to do it on behalf of Montana citizens and on Montana’s terms. I want to make sure we get the most amount of money and that we are getting actual jobs for Montanans.”

This is Bucy’s first campaign for state office. Fox lost his 2008 contest to Bullock, who won with 52.6 percent of the vote.

Fox has spent 25 years practicing law. Today he works as an attorney with the law firm Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman in Helena. But has been a public defender and worked as an attorney for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, Mountain West Bank and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Bucy started her career as a criminal prosecutor with the Lewis & Clark County Attorney’s office and the served as executive assistant attorney general. She now works as administrative counsel for the Montana Department of Labor.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 12:14

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McCulloch, Johnson in rematch


Community News Service

UM School of Journalism

Call it the rematch, the “do-over” of 2012.

Four years have passed since Montana voters spoiled former Secretary of State Brad Johnson’s hopes for a second term. The 2008 race was close; Democrat Linda McCulloch won a three-way contest by about 5,000 votes.

On Nov. 6, McCulloch and Johnson will face off again. This time Johnson hopes to play the spoiler and finish the work he began in his first term.

Both candidates are veteran campaigners. Before becoming secretary of state, McCulloch served three terms in the state House of Representatives, followed by two terms as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction.

Johnson has run unsuccessfully for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and the state’s Public Service Commission. He withdrew from the 2010 PSC race after pleading guilty to DUI.

For both, the election is about how they would handle the office’s most visible duties: enforcing state election laws and managing nearly 5 million acres of state-owned lands.

As chief elections officer, the secretary of state is charged with seeing that elections are fairly and legally run. That’s often controversial. Nationally, Republicans have pushed to secure voter lists against fraud. Some Democrats suspect the effort is designed to disenfranchise poor and elderly voters likely to vote for them.

Although he acknowledges that voter fraud in Montana is low to nonexistent, Johnson said he wants to keep it that way by requiring that all voters present photo IDs at the polls. Incidents of fraudulent ballots elsewhere show that Montana should be cautious, he added.

“I’m not proposing those because we have a crisis to solve,” Johnson said. “I’m proposing those because I want to prevent the crisis from developing. The way I describe it, my home has never been robbed but I lock the front door when I leave, I think that’s just common sense.”

But McCulloch favors Montana’s current rules, which allow voters to present all sorts of identification, including utility bills with a current address. Providing government-distributed ID cards would be costly and might discourage some citizens from voting, she added.

“It’s an additional expense that we can’t afford right now,” she said. “I think it will be a lot of paper, a lot of red tape that we don’t need. It will be a huge burden for people who don’t have ID, especially senior citizens and low-income people.”

Absentee voting is another hot topic. In this summer’s primary, 61 percent of voters cast absentee ballots.

McCulloch hopes Montana will eventually vote entirely by mail because it’s cheaper and encourages more people to vote.

But she failed to get an all-absentee voting bill through the last years’ GOP-controlled Legislature.

Johnson said things work well the way they are. Citizens can go to the polls if they want, or they can vote in the comfort of their homes. He said Montanans should have a choice.

The candidates also differ over whether Montana should continue to allow voters to register on Election Day. Republican lawmakers say the practice has led to long lines and late voting, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed their bill last session that would have ended the practice.

McCullough supports same-day registration, saying that it hasn’t caused many problems. She said that only 1,000 voters registered on this summer’s primary election day. Just 21,000 registered on the last three general election days combined, she added.

“When people move into the state or when they move across the state or they move across town, the first thing they think about is finding a place to live, getting settled in and getting their kids in school, and so they don’t remember to register to vote,” she said. “So it’s a convenience for any voter to be able to register and vote on Election Day.”

As secretary of state, Johnson supported same-day registration when it was enacted in 2005. He said he still supports late registration but not on Election Day because it creates “unnecessary turmoil” in county election offices.

Managing state lands

As one of five elected officials on the State Lands Board, the secretary of state votes on how the state will use 5.2 million acres of state-owned land. Leasing surface and mineral rights on those lands provides revenue for public schools.

Johnson said he is in favor of “aggressive and responsive development” of natural resources.

“I think we can do that responsibly and I think we have an obligation to the people of this state to develop our resources,” he said. “We need members of the board that are committed to that ongoing and responsible development of our resources. Coal, oil, and gas, timber ? those things are all critically important to the economic future of Montana.”

Last year, the board voted 3-2 to lease millions of tons of coal on state-owned land along Otter Creek in southeast Montana. McCulloch voted for the lease, though two other Democrat state officials opposed it.

Even so, Johnson said he was disappointed McCulloch was quoted by the Associated Press saying she could not commit to future development at Otter Creek without review.

However, McCulloch said she has voted to generate more than $800 million in revenue from state lands in her 12 years on the board. She said she is committed to raising money for Montana schools through the land board.

While the candidates disagree on many points, both want to see higher voter turnout and encouraged citizens to get involved and become educated voters.

“We have a better voter turnout than other states do,” McCulloch said. “But I’m not content until we have 100 percent turnout.”

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 12:13

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Supreme Court candidates run on experience

By ALLISON CONNELL - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

The race for Montana’s lone contested Supreme Court seat could take a partisan twist now that a federal court has allowed political parties to endorse judicial candidates.

In mid-September, the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals overturned Montana’s law forbidding party endorsements in nonpartisan judicial campaigns.

That means the parties are free to endorse either Missoula attorney Ed Sheehy or District Judge Laurie McKinnon - whether the candidates want them to or not.

McKinnon, whose 9th Judicial District stretches to include Glacier, Toole, Pondera and Teton counties, has stressed the importance of nonpartisanship and neutrality throughout her campaign.

Her campaign website says she has never contributed to either political party, and she maintains that will not change. But she has accepted and publicized endorsements from a variety of individuals and non-political associations, however.

“That’s important for people to know that I have district judges that I’ve worked with that think I would be good on the Supreme Court,” she says.

Sheehy says he believes a nonpartisan race precludes him from accepting endorsements by organizations or individuals so he does not list any on his website. He acknowledges that nonpartisan elections can be difficult for candidates and voters both because people want to connect a candidate to a political party.

Judicial races also are different from campaigns for other elected offices because Montana’s Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits candidates from acting or speaking in a way that could jeopardize their independence, integrity or impartiality. It also forbids them from speaking on any topic that is pending or likely to come before the court.

These rules mean interested voters cannot expect answers on current, pertinent issues like abortion, marijuana regulation or health care. Consequently, both Sheehy and McKinnon have focused on their motives for seeking a seat on the bench and the experiences they would bring to the job.

Sheehy says he is running to contribute his many hours of trial experience to the court’s thinking.

“I’ve done a lot of work in front of the Montana Supreme Court,” he says. “Sometimes I am just amazed by the decisions that come out,” he says.

He says the current court is too “outcome based” and adds that justices too often start from a decision they want to reach and work backward to justify it.

McKinnon is running on her experience as well. She says she wants to ensure that the court focuses on interpreting laws, not on making them.

In her time as a district judge, McKinnon says she has not issued a decision from the bench that she believes should come from the Legislature. Montanans need a justice on the Supreme Court who “can make decisions that are based on the rule of law and the Constitution,” she adds.

McKinnon is currently a Montana district judge, having been elected to the post in 2006. She and her family moved to Montana in 1995 and built a home north of Choteau in 1999 allowing both McKinnon and her husband to commute to their jobs. Her husband is a dentist with the U.S. Public Health Service, working in Browning.

McKinnon worked in the Glacier County Attorney’s Office in Cut Bank and in private practice until 2002, when she went to work as a deputy county attorney in the Teton County Attorney’s Office in Choteau. Before she was elected as a judge, she was an attorney with 20 years of practice as both a prosecutor and a defender.

Her campaign highlights her experience with the wide variety of criminal and civil cases that come before district judges, cases that range from serious crimes to divorce settlements.

In one of her most prominent decisions as a district judge, McKinnon ruled in 2010 that the Montana Alberta Tie Line project did not have the power to condemn private land in its effort to build a power line from Lethbridge, Alberta, to Great Falls, Mont.

She also highlights her experience as an attorney, which includes experience in general litigation and in family and criminal law, including cases of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Missoula lawyer Bradley J. Luck supports McKinnon. He says her time as a judge means she has shown that she can manage the day-to-day practice of law, trials and hearings.

Luck adds that McKinnon “has a long record of even-handed district court decisions and considerations.”

Sheehy has worked at the Missoula Office of Public Defender since 2006 in various roles, including being a part of the Major Crimes Unit and, most recently, training other attorneys for the office.

A Butte native, he attended high school in Oregon and received a bachelor’s degree from Carroll College. After obtaining a law degree from Gonzaga, he became a partner in the Helena firm of Cannon and Sheehy.

In his practice he handled both federal and state cases in areas ranging from administrative law to family law and from class-action cases to criminal defense. He also represents lawyers in front of the Commission on Practice, which weighs allegations of misdeeds and unethical behavior.

In 2004, he took a case for a group of Montana retirees that ended in a U.S. Supreme Court decision awarding all federal retirees a refund of five years of state income taxes.

Since he began practicing law in 1979, Sheehy says he has tried cases in every county and argued more appeals than most active attorneys in the state. He has handled appeals in every division of U.S. District Court in the state, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

John “Jock” Schulte, a Missoula lawyer who has worked with Sheehy, describes him as having a steady mindset, a tremendous amount of jury trial experience, and the ability to resolve difficult cases.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 12:12

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Don Williams postpones tour


Don Williams has regrettably postponed his current tour due to a bronchial infection. His Billlings concert has been reset for May 4.

The management for Mr. Williams is attempting to reschedule the 11 day tour and announcements are forthcoming over the next few days. A representative from Mr. Williams team says that a full recovery is expected, and apologizes to all his fans. Mr. Williams looks forward to resuming his tour very soon.

Dana House, Co-Owner of Black Diamond Entertainment, that is promoting the Billings, MT and Cheyenne, WY shows says, "Mr Williams' show in Billings, MT was sold out and Cheyenne, WY show was selling well. We ask ticket buyers to hold their tickets until we have a reschedule date confirmed. All tickets will be honored at rescheduled date. Refunds will be given to anyone not able to attend the reschedule concert date."

William Wood, Executive Director, of Alberta Bair Theater in Billings said "We are disappointed for Mr. Williams' fans and the ABT Box Office will be contacting ticket holders regarding a reschedule date and refunds. We wish Mr. Williams a speedy recovery."

The ABT box office says, "Due to the high volume of calls that must be made, the ABT Box Office may not be able to reach everyone and that people holding tickets should contact  the box office at 256-6052.

Last Updated on Friday, 26 October 2012 17:46

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Bushman, Tooley square off in PSC campaign

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kirk Bushman and Chuck Tooley issued the following statements in their race for the Public Service Commission. Mr. Bushman is a Republican; Mr. Tooley is a Democrat.

Kirk Bushman

I would like to be your Public Service Commissioner because there needs to be conservative voice on the PSC. I will be professional and respectful, make responsible decisions for my kids and yours; and will use my experience for the benefit of the Montana ratepayers.

I have accumulated an abundance of valuable experience in the last 20-plus years that would serve me well on the Public Service Commission. I have been employed as a pool cleaner, driveway sweeper, cement worker, greens keeper, stock boy, bus boy, dishwasher, drafter, truck driver, log home builder, pipefitter helper, laborer, announcer, field engineer and project manager.

My professional career began when I graduated in 1988 from Montana State University Bozeman with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology. I was hired as a field engineer in the corrugated container industry, yes, cardboard boxes. As a field engineer, I was fortunate to travel to many of the states, European countries and others such as Canada, Australia, Columbia, Thailand and more.

Working with people from different countries, speaking different languages, added to the many challenges that already existed. I was involved in managing all phases of a project from construction and installation to training plant personnel as well as performing to the terms of sales contracts. This required overcoming cultural differences, language barriers, as well as dealing with each group’s business interest. Communication and professionalism were key values needed to be successful.

With my heart still in Montana, I chose to move back home to Billings. For the past 13 years I have worked with the engineering consulting firm, WorleyParsons (previously Unifield) Engineering, in the industrial engineering sector.

I have worked on projects with refineries, power plants, mining companies, silicon production facilities and more. Many were to meet government regulations, some were to increase production and efficiency, and some were to recycle outdated facilities that had been shut down.

In 2007, unwilling to leave the future to career politicians, I decided to run for the U.S. Senate in the Republican Primary. I promoted personal responsibility and smaller government. I was also chairman of the Yellowstone County Republicans for the last three years.

I was born and raised in Montana. I currently reside in Billings with my wife, Jill, and our three young children. Our children need responsible development of our natural resources to ensure their security in their education, utilities and jobs for the future.

Chuck Tooley

The Montana Public Service Commission is responsible for regulating monopoly utilities in Montana — natural gas, electric, telephone, and private water and sewer companies. Commissioners regulate according to Montana law and make decisions that protect Montanans while allowing a fair rate of return for the utilities.

During 15 years in municipal leadership, I developed skills that will serve me well representing District 2 on the PSC. As mayor of Billings, I conducted hundreds of meetings and public hearings. I listened to all sides; I learned about operations, revenues and expenditures; and I developed ways of working with others that emphasized problem-solving.

My business career has taught me about fiscal responsibility, accomplishing goals and delivering services. I have been employed by a PSC-regulated utility and have also functioned as a utility regulator.

My experience includes:

• Six years with Mountain Bell using PSC-approved tariffs and gaining hands-on experience with deregulation, functional divestiture, and unbundling of services.

• Fifteen years as a policymaker and regulator of Billings Public Utilities, serving 30,000-plus customers.

• Board member of Montana Electric and Gas Alliance, organized at the time of the Montana Power Co. bankruptcy. As leaders in business and government, the board worked together to analyze and bid on MPC’s transmission /distribution facilities to bring them into public ownership.

• Founder/president of Tooley Communications, providing services in marketing, communications and public policy since 1984.

• Four years as director of Montana State University Billings’ Urban Institute, dealing with issues including community sustainability and water supply.

Public Service Commissioners must analyze complex information and make wise judgments for the public good. In my career I have worked with concepts from supercritical wet oxidation to tax-increment financing.

As a professional communicator, I can receive information on complicated subjects, understand it, organize it logically and then present it clearly. Whether in PSC chambers or talking with citizens, I will listen closely, speak clearly, and provide information that is usable and understandable.

Equally important is the need for all elected officials to maintain high professional standards. We need to deliberate with integrity and honesty; keep a strong bias toward facts and not personal agendas; always treat others with respect; and strive to build quality of life and protect equality of opportunity for all Montanans.

I have tried to hold to these standards during my 15 years in office in Montana. I would be honored to continue in that spirit as your Public Service commissioner.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 October 2012 11:58

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PSC conduct an issue


By KETTI WILHELM - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

Besides utility bills and green energy, the candidates for the southeastern Montana seat on the Public Service Commission are also talking about the way the commissioners should conduct themselves.

Democrat Chuck Tooley, a three-term Billings mayor, faces Republican Kirk Bushman for a spot on the commission that sets rates for Montana’s private electric, gas, water and telephone companies.

The vast district comprises Big Horn, Carbon, Carter, Custer, Fallon, Prairie, Powder River, Rosebud, Treasure and Yellowstone counties.

Whoever wins will replace Brad Molnar, a term-limited Republican whose time on the commission featured a stormy losing battle last year for the PSC’s chairmanship against Republican newcomer Travis Kavulla.

Molar also drew a fine from state ethics officials for illegally soliciting funds from two PSC-regulated companies in 2007. He used the money for an event in Billings, home to about 56 percent of his district’s population.

Tooley, 65, says his disappointment in the commission’s behavior is one reason he chose to run.

“I feel you do the constituency a disservice if you do not conduct the public’s business professionally and respectfully,” he says.

The PSC’s feuds concern Bushman also. He said doesn’t want to stifle debate but expects commissioners to keep it their disagreements professional.

Experience: public vs. private

The two candidates boast different professional backgrounds.

Before resigning to start his PSC campaign, Bushman, a 45-year-old father of three, worked for the Montana Republican Party and ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2008.

The bulk of Bushman’s experience is in the private industrial sector, where he has consulted PSC-regulated companies for the global engineering consulting firm WorleyParsons. That experience would make him a better commissioner, he says.

He considers the function of the PSC to be “basically balancing the companies’ books” by confirming that requests for rate increases accurately represent a utility’s expenses and not allowing them to profit above a set rate.

“You can’t put companies into financial burden,” he says, but he adds that his goal will be to keep rates as low as possible.

Tooley worked six years for the now defunct Mountain Bell Telephone, a PSC-regulated company. He also held a position on the Montana Electric and Gas Alliance, a board that was organized to create publicly owned utilities.

In his years as a Billings mayor and city councilman, Tooley was involved in regulating the city’s utilities, a process he calls analogous to that of the PSC.

“I’ve gone through that for 15 years,” he says. “I understand how it can work and how it can work well.” A major part of that process was deliberating under public scrutiny, he adds.

Regulation and renewables

The candidates differ in their regulatory philosophies and thoughts on renewable energy.

Bushman says energy policy, such as the extent to which regulated utilities should be required to buy cleaner but sometimes more costly, renewable energy, is a matter for the Legislature, not the PSC.

Although he supports the development of renewables such as wind and solar power, Bushman says, “I don’t believe the PSC is a place to promote a renewable agenda.”

Tooley says he would be open to the idea of the PSC taking up more energy policy responsibility, should the Legislature allow it.

While he calls himself a strong supporter of Montana’s renewable energy projects, Tooley also emphasizes the need to keep rates fair and prevent price gouging.

He says he understands the need for utilities to make profits, which allow them to hire qualified employees, provide better service and invest in the future.

“But you don’t want to allow them to make too much profit,” he adds.

The supporters

Bushman is confident in his campaign, even in Yellowstone County, which he considers the most liberal county in the district.

In the June primaries, Bushman won the Republican nomination with 63.3 percent of 22,222 votes cast, while Tooley won the Democratic nomination with 56.4 percent of only 16,923 votes.

Despite his district’s Republican leanings, Tooley is unfazed by the primary numbers. He says voters in the area know him well from his time as a Billings mayor and city councilman.

“I think a lot of people will vote for me even if they’re not in my party,” Tooley says.

Tooley’s prominent campaign contributors include PSC member Gail Gutsche of Missoula; former PSC member John Toole of Helena; Kim Gillan, the Democratic nominee for Congress; and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.

Bushman’s prominent contributors include PSC Chairman Travis Kavulla of Great Falls and Montana Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann of Billings.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 October 2012 11:42

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