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
Sometime during the week of Dec. 10, a vandal armed with a hatchet destroyed at least 10 young trees in Pioneer Park.
The trunks of the trees were chopped off above ground and several evergreen trees were also destroyed.
Many other trees in the park were damaged with branches chopped or broken off and tree trunks chopped into. The damage done to the Pioneer Park trees is estimated to be at least $5,000.
If anyone has information related to this vandalism incident or witnesses other acts of vandalism in Pioneer Park or any other city park, please contact the Billings Police Department at 657-8200 or the Billings Park, Recreation and Public Lands Department at 406-657-8371.
Last Updated on Saturday, 29 December 2012 11:55
Dr. Bill and Merilyn Ballard were honored on Dec. 6 by the Billings Family YMCA with the 2012 Philip N. Fortin Award.
The Philip N. Fortin Humanitarian Award is bestowed upon an individual or couple by the YMCA Board of Directors in recognition of a lifetime of distinguished volunteer, civic and professional achievement which has improved the quality of life within the community. Originally established with the support of Mary Alice Fortin in 1981, the Y has honored community members for 32 years.
Past recipients include many of the founding leaders of philanthropy and community spirit: Russ Hart, Alberta Bair, George Selover, Ralph Nelles, Bruce Carpenter, Sam McDonald and recent award winners the Scott Family, Walt Stieg, Steve Corning and Mary and Bill Underriner.
Bill and Merilyn Ballard have impacted countless lives through their committed leadership and generosity, a news release said. The Ballards have been part of the Billings community since 1956, and have demonstrated the meaning of philanthropy through a life-time of service and giving. Although Bill is the more visible member in the community, Merilyn is his partner in everything he does.
Dr. Ballard established the geology department at Rocky Mountain College, and served on Rocky’s Board of Directors for more than 20 years.
He now serves as chairman of the Billings Clinic Board of Directors and is a major champion for advancing cancer care in the region.
The Ballards focus their philanthropy in the areas of higher education and health care, and have been passionate advocates for cancer care and cardiac programs.
They have also been significant donors to the RiverStone Health Foundation, and because of their passion for children’s programs, they have been major donors to the Yellowstone Boys & Girls Club Foundation.
“Bill and Merilyn have created a legacy of giving for the Billings community, by donating their leadership, guidance, and resources,” said Chief Executive Officer Tina Postel. She adds, “The YMCA is committed to building strong communities, and the Ballards exemplify that mission in everything they do; we are pleased to be able to honor them with this award.”
Last Updated on Saturday, 29 December 2012 11:54
Every winter a few well-meaning Montanans put food in their yards supposedly to help wildlife through the cold and snow or because they like to watch the animals. In many instances, they may be violating state law.
Under Montana law, a person may not provide supplemental feed that attracts ungulates, bears or mountain lions. Nor may Montanans provide wildlife with feed that unnaturally concentrates game animals and could contribute to disease transmission or a threat to public safety.
Ungulates are animals that have a two-part hoof. In Montana wild ungulates include antelope, deer, elk, moose, bison, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden Kevin Holland said unnatural concentrations of wildlife, attracted to supplemental feed, inadvertently can contribute to the spread of disease or attract mountain lions and other predators to neighborhoods.
Though recreational feeding of birds is allowed under Montana law, game wardens may ask people to stop feeding birds if their birdfeeders attract ungulates or bears, Holland said. If a problem persists, the owner of a birdfeeder may be charged with a violation.
Last Updated on Saturday, 29 December 2012 11:50
HELENA – The Montana Department of Labor and Industry is notifying Montana employers of a fraudulent email that first appeared in the eastern United States and has now been seen in Montana.
“We want to make sure Montana employers are aware of this scam, so they don’t unknowingly give information to a potential identity thief,” said Labor Commissioner Keith Kelly.
The initial email surfaced in Massachusetts purporting to be from that state’s unemployment assistance agency. It was asking for information from employers about former employees’ wage and separation information.
Reports of similar emails being sent to employers in Montana and other states have been received. The email references the Division of Unemployment Assistance and the need for former employees’ information in relation to a claim that has been filed.
The Montana agency responsible for unemployment insurance is the Montana Unemployment Insurance Division.
Last Updated on Thursday, 27 December 2012 15:09
HELENA – Public lands in the backyard are being credited with a strong economy in Montana.
A new report, “West Is Best,” looks at jobs, income and population changes in Montana and other western states - against the backdrop of National Forests, parks and other public spaces.
Ben Alexander, associate director at Headwaters Economics, which issued the report, says Montana’s biggest growth in jobs and income has been in high-wage service industries – such as health care and professional services – with companies relocating here because of the outdoors values.
“The state has grown its employment twice as fast as the rest of the U.S., and has grown personal income twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. over the last decade,” he said. “That’s a tremendous story for a state that is largely rural and micropolitan.”
The report finds that Montana and other western states, home to the largest share of public lands, have seen their economies fare better than the nation over the past 40 years.
Lance Trebesch owns TicketPrinting.com and related companies in Bozeman. He says outdoors recreation has long been a recruiting tool for his businesses.
“When you live in a great place that has hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands – skiing, hunting, fly-fishing, mountain-biking, running – you can attract great people and furthermore, you can retain the great people you already have in the state.”
Last Updated on Thursday, 20 December 2012 11:34