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
By DEBORAH COURSON SMITH - Big Sky Connection
HELENA – Wild critters large and small in Montana are featured in a report released this week by the National Wildlife Federation. The research examines how species such as grizzly bears, sage grouse and butterflies are being impacted by a changing climate.
Report author Amanda Staudt, a senior scientist at the federation, says many animals have shifted their ranges – mostly north, as springs arrive sooner.
“We are seeing and feeling the effects of climate change in our own backyards – on our farms, in our forests – right now,” Staudt says. “And for wildlife, it’s about the impacts that we’re seeing now, not something far away.”
She says animals and insects move to food sources, so if plants flower sooner they’ll follow that change. Staudt points out that most critters have the ability to adapt, but they’re often hindered by fences, roads or other development.
The report features the whitebark pine beetle problems. Staudt says outbreaks have intensified because of milder winter temperatures – and the trees don’t suffer in isolation.
“What happens when you have these kinds of infestations is that you have ripple-down effects on other species within that ecosystem,” Staudt says. “One example that we highlight in the report is grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park.”
She says the grizzlies have fewer cubs when the whitebark pine nut supply is low, and there are more conflicts with humans as the bears seek out new food sources.
The report recommends solutions, including policies to reduce climate-change pollution and a focus on making sure wildlife has pathways to new habitats.
The report, “Wildlife in a Warming World,” is online at nwf.org/climatecrisis.
Last Updated on Thursday, 07 February 2013 20:01
HELENA – Three weeks into the legislative session, a number of bills have finally reached the Montana House or Senate for a vote.
Two of those bills drew significant debate last week on the House floor.
A proposal to criminalize assaults on unborn children passed 59-40, with proponents saying they want to appropriately punish people who hurt pregnant women by charging them with homicide when their actions kill a fetus. Opponents to House Bill 104 argued the measure creates a legal definition for “unborn child” in the state code, thus opening the floodgates to anti-abortion measures.
Supporters of another bill said they want to prevent problems related to illegal immigration in Montana. House Bill 50, which passed 61-37, prohibits municipal governments from establishing “sanctuary” policies that do not enforce immigration laws. Legislators who opposed the bill asserted that it is not necessary because Montana does not have an illegal immigration problem.
Those bills must next pass the Senate and receive the governor’s signature before they can become law.
Last Updated on Thursday, 31 January 2013 12:57
HELENA – Small businesses across Montana are contacting the Montana Department of Labor and Industry complaining of aggressive marketing companies trying to sell labor law posters.
“This is an ongoing problem in our state. Every time there is an update to the five-in-one poster, these aggressive marketing companies try to take advantage of Montana’s small businesses and charge them for something that we provide to them at no cost,” said Labor Commissioner Pam Bucy.
The Five in One posters, which are available from the Department’s Job Service Division, encompass Equal Employment Opportunity, Family and Medical Leave Act with Military Family Leave (employers with 50 or more employees), Federal Minimum Wage, and the Polygraph Protection Act.
Federal regulations also require posting the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. All posters are available at the Job Service offices.
Posters also required by Montana State Law include: Proof of Unemployment Insurance coverage (provided by the Department of Labor and Industry, Unemployment Insurance Contributions Bureau) and Proof of Workers’ Compensation coverage, provided by Workers’ Compensation Insurance carrier. Employers are not required to post the state minimum wage.
Businesses that have returned the posters and are still getting invoices from the poster company can contact the Office of Consumer Protection at 1-800-481-6896 or the Better Business Bureau at 1-800-356-1007 or file a complaint online at www.bbb.org.
Businesses who would like to request a copy of the Federal Five in One poster can call (406)-444-4100 or their local Job Service Office. For more information log onto http://wsd.dli.mt.gov/service/officelist.asp.
Last Updated on Thursday, 31 January 2013 12:49
HELENA – Emotions ran high during the Montana Legislature’s second week, bringing an end to the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration and first-week honeymoon.
The buzz was palpable Monday morning as people crowded a House State Administration Committee hearing, with some members of the public taking to seats in the hall where they could better-observe the proceedings on closed-circuit TV. That hearing focused on a bill to eliminate same-day voter registration and drew 20 opponents. Another measure later in the week limiting the forms of acceptable voter IDs resulted in a similar outcry.
Mid-week, talk in the Capitol revolved around stories of a rift between factions of the Senate GOP. A Great Falls Tribune article exposed leaked emails that revealed a plan among conservatives to oust more moderate members of the Republican Party from leadership positions.
Senate Republicans met later in the week to clarify priorities and encourage cooperation through the remainder of the session.
At the caucus, Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, reminded colleagues of a principle he gleaned from President Ronald Reagan.
“There was one thing I’m a firm believer in: Reagan’s 11th commandment,” he said, referring to the former president’s phrase, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
The following week promises another round of hot-button issues, including bills to change the amount of oil and gas tax revenue school districts can retain, allow people to cross a geographic point to access new land, permit hound hunting for black bears, and increase the salaries of state employees.
Here’s a look at the big issues of the session’s second week:
Same-day voter registration
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would end same-day voter registration in Montana.
The House State Administration Committee heard the first testimony on HB 30 last week, which would designate the Friday before the election as the last possible day to register. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, said registering voters while simultaneously conducting regular polling challenges the integrity of Election Day.
“The problem this bill is trying to solve is lines trying to register on Election Day up until midnight while clerks and recorders are trying to run an election,” he said.
Twenty people spoke out against the bill, including Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who disputed claims from Washburn and two members of the public who testified in support of the measure.
McCulloch said about 28,000 Montanans total have registered and voted on Election Day since 2006, the first year Montana allowed same-day registration. She added that half of the late voters during the 2012 general election had previously voted in Montana, but moved and had yet to update their addresses.
“Are you willing to look them in the eye on Election Day and deny them the right to vote?” McCulloch asked the committee.
Furthermore, she said eliminating same-day registration strips away the ultimate fail safe for administrative errors, ensuring that people who thought they had registered can vote when they show up at the polls.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a similar measure during the previous legislative session.
Criminalizing death of unborn
The Legislature is again considering a bill that would criminalize the death of an unborn child after Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a similar measure two years ago.
Under HB 104, an assault on a woman resulting in the death of her unborn child would be considered a homicide. The House Judiciary Committee passed the measure last week with a 12-8 vote along party lines, with Republicans voting in favor. The bill will next go to the House floor for a vote.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, told the committee about a 2009 incident in Flathead Valley in which a pregnant woman and her 13-year-old son died in a car crash. He said the man who hit the woman’s car was charged with only two counts of homicide.
“If this bill were in effect, the charge would have been three counts of homicide,” Regier said. “Try convincing the husband of the dead woman that he only lost two family members on that day.”
Regier and proponents cited 36 states with similar laws and said courts have upheld the constitutionality of such measures.
Opponents of the measure said they worry the bill does not contain adequate legal protection for pregnant women, who could be required to prove their innocence in the loss of their unborn child.
Lynsey Bourke, director of development outreach and communication at Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic, called the bill unconstitutional and a “huge infringement on women’s privacy in this state.”
“To miscarry a wanted pregnancy can be an extremely emotional time for a woman,” she said. “The last thing that anyone would want to have is to have someone investigating her private life, determining whether her actions over a long period of time could have potentially caused that miscarriage.”
Marijuana driving limit
A Missoula legislator is renewing an effort to establish a limit on the amount of marijuana people can have in their blood while driving.
Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, introduced HB 168 last week, which would set the maximum amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, people can have in their blood and still legally drive to 5 ng/mL. THC is the active ingredient in cannabis.
Moore told the committee the measure would save innocent lives, relating to them the events of a 2009 incident where the wife of Missoula’s current sheriff died after she was hit by a driver who had both alcohol and marijuana in his system.
While Montana does have drugged driving laws, proponents of the bill said they are hard to enforce because the state has not yet designated a limit that legally constitutes impairment as it has done for alcohol.
Opponents argued that setting a THC limit prevents medical marijuana users from legally driving and that drugged driving laws do not have a significant impact on the number of car crash fatalities.
They also asked for an amendment to clarify that only people exhibiting active levels of THC above the threshold could be prosecuted. Moore agreed to the change, stating he wanted to make it clear law enforcement would not go after people whose bodies still contained THC metabolites, which can stay in a person’s blood for weeks after smoking but not cause impairment.
Lottery revenue for scholarships
Montana’s lottery revenue currently sits in the state treasury, but a new proposal could use it as a scholarship fund for college-bound students.
The House Education Committee heard testimony last week on HB 166, a measure that would redirect the nearly $15 million annual profit in lottery ticket sales to the university system during the next fiscal year for use as scholarship money. The Board of Regents, which governs all of Montana’s public institutions of higher education, would determine how to disburse that money to students.
Students from three Montana campuses spoke in favor of the bill, which is authored by Rep. Amanda Curtis, D-Butte.
Dani Clark, a student lobbyist from Montana State University, told the committee she does not qualify for Pell grants and she’s not at the top of her class, so she does not receive any institutional scholarships. Last summer, she worked three jobs to pay for her education.
“None of that is really making up for it,” she said. “I’m still paying the school more than the amount of money I make every year.”
Increasing hail insurance
Farmers could soon receive double the insurance money if hail destroys their crops.
The House Agriculture Committee passed HB 189 last week, a measure increasing the amount farmers can claim from the state’s Hail Insurance Program to $100 on non-irrigated land and $152 on irrigated land. The bill will next go to the House floor for a vote.
The bill received support from the Montana Grain Growers Association, whose president Ryan McCormick told the committee that farmers’ average production levels have doubled over the last five years compared to the previous five.
“If our income doubles off a per acre basis, we also need coverage to double,” he said.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 January 2013 10:40
GREAT FALLS – Health insurance coverage is tied to geography in Montana.
A new report from the Center for Rural Affairs finds that people in the most rural counties are least likely to have coverage. In 28 of the state’s 46 rural counties, one in four residents don’t have a policy.
Steph Larsen, Montana assistant director of the Center for Rural Affairs, says it’s clear that rural residents face more barriers to coverage - mainly due to lower incomes since the businesses are often smaller or the people are self-employed.
“It’s not a fair thing to say that because of the way that you are employed, because of your occupation, you don’t have access to affordable health care.”
The report says it makes economic sense for Montana to sign on to the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act - something the Legislature will decide.
Larsen says if the state participates, the number of uninsured Montanans will be cut in half. She says the expansion won’t cost the state anything in the first few years, and then will cost the state up to 10 percent of the total.
Larsen adds the pay-off for getting more Montanans covered reaches beyond family pocketbooks.
“It’s great for the economy. It’s great for rural hospitals. Because the more people who are insured in rural communities, the stronger that health infrastructure is going to be for when you need it.”
There are concerns that the Medicaid expansion will become too expensive for Montana, and there are arguments against the program from those opposed to the Affordable Care Act.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 January 2013 10:39
Are you a woman who has served in the military or is currently serving? Big Sky Women Veterans is accepting active duty, reserves, retired and veterans who have been honorably discharged, as members.
Our members deployed in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Panama, Grenada, Desert Storm, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. These women have a proud tradition of serving their country, and our active duty members continue to serve their country.
Big Sky Women Veterans is a 501(c) (19) non-profit Veterans Organization, whose purpose is to provide camaraderie and networking opportunities, as well as resources for women on active duty or who are veterans in need. Our 2012-2013 special projects include working with the Veterans Administration on women’s health care issues, and providing resources for homeless women veterans.
We meet once a month. In 2013, we will also be meeting online to accommodate our members who live in all areas of the state.
We are already planning our Region II Conference (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington) to be held in Billings, Montana in July 2013.
Big Sky Women Veterans participates in Veterans events, such as Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, community events, parades and Veterans Stand Downs. We work with other service organizations to support our troops across the generations – from the Honor Flight to greeting troops returning from Afghanistan.
Unit 156, Big Sky Women Veterans is the Montana Unit of WAVES National - Women of the Sea Services. The Unit was chartered at WAVES National Convention in Orlando, Florida in September 2012 and is the first organized unit in Montana.
WAVES National - Women of the Sea Services was formed in 1979 by World Ware II Navy veterans.
Last Updated on Saturday, 19 January 2013 12:31
The Lockwood Fire District Board of Trustees has unanimously approved the construction of a new fire station to be located on fire district property at 501 Johnson Lane.
This full service fire station will be approximately 26,000 square feet in size at an estimated project cost of $4 million, a news release said.
The fire district will fund the project with capital improvement funds that were saved specific to the fire station, general budget funds, proceeds from the sale of the current fire station located at 3329 Driftwood Lane and financing from a yet to be identified local lending institution.
The fire district will not be asking district taxpayers to pass a special levy or bond for financing this project, the news release said. The fire district anticipates completion of the project within 18-24 months.
The plan for building the new fire station has been in the fire district’s business plan for the past six years as the fire district has outgrown the current facility.
Trustees felt that the combination of money that has been saved in the district’s capital improvement fund along with historically low interest rates made this a viable time to approve and begin this project, said Fire Chief William Rash.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 January 2013 11:30
Living Independently for Today and Tomorrow has relocated its Billings office from 3333 Second Ave. N. to 1201 Grand Avenue, Suite 1.
The Grand Avenue site formerly housed Computers Unlimited and the district office for Congressman Dennis Rehberg.
The new LIFTT office was tentatively scheduled to open on Wednesday, Jan. 2.
“The move will be a great start to the new year for LIFTT,” said executive director Joe Burst. “Our new offices will provide an ideal environment for our staff and consumers. It is a site that will allow us to move forward not only with our efforts in the Billings community but will serve as an active home base as we seek to expand and enhance our presence across our service area.”
Among the highlights of the 1201 Grand Ave. site:
• The building meets the accessibility standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
• The location is served by a Billings Met Transit (Grand Avenue Route).
• The building will include space for LIFTT to expand its peer program as well as host classes, activities and events for the community.
• The location expands the amount of parking available for consumers and the public wishing to visit LIFTT.
The phone numbers and office hours for the LIFTT Billings offices will remain the same. LIFTT will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and can be reached by dialing either 259-5181 or outside of the Billings calling area toll-free 1-800-669-6319. LIFTT can be found online at www.liftt.org.
Living Independently for Today and Tomorrow is a nonprofit, federally designated independent living center serving 18 counties in Eastern Montana. LIFTT provides advocacy and resource services to people of all ages and all kinds of disabilities. The goal is to provide consumers with tools necessary to be able to live free, independent and productive lives. within their own homes and communities as opposed to living in controlled or institutionalized settings.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 January 2013 11:11