The Billings Outpost

Legislature’s plate full

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

At his transmittal press conference, Gov. Steve Bullock told reporters what grade he would give the Montana Legislature for its first 45 days.

“Incomplete,” Bullock said.

That sentiment was echoed by political scientists and lawmakers, former and current. While the governor has signed more than 60 bills, including a school funding bill, the 64th Montana Legislature has yet to resolve some of the biggest issues facing the state.

Former Republican Sen. Jim Peterson - who served six legislative sessions, his first in 2003, his last in 2013 - said the “warm-up period” is over, and the second half of the session is where “the rubber meets the road.” Following the news from his home in Buffalo, Peterson said he’s noticed big issues like Medicaid expansion have mostly avoided debate so far.

Both sides of the aisle introduced their version of Medicaid expansion in the first half of the session, but the full House hasn’t debated either proposal.

House Bill 249, carried by Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, is the governor’s plan to expand Medicaid to as many as 70,000 people using additional federal money available under the Affordable Care Act. The federal government would pick up the bill for the next two years, and the state would start paying some of the cost in 2017.

That bill will get its first hearing in a House committee in early March.

Republicans who are against the plan say it covers too many people, and a number of “able-bodied, childless adults,” and want to focus Medicaid expansion to only the most vulnerable people. Their bill to address that has already had a hearing.

House Bill 455, carried by Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, would expand Medicaid to poor families, some veterans and the disabled – estimated to be around 10,000 people – without using the available federal money. The state would spend about $60 million on the program over the next two years. That bill was pushed out of the House Human Services committee in February, but hasn’t been debated by the full House yet.

The contrast between the two ideas is obvious. Each covers different numbers of people and uses different money to do it. Peterson, who served in 2013 when a Medicaid expansion proposal died in the process, said he hopes the two sides can find a middle ground.

“I think it is something that can happen,” Peterson said.

During his mid-session press conference, Bullock said he’d met with “some Republican legislators” about Medicaid, but he didn’t elaborate further.

Many bills have already made it through the system. Leaning back in his chair in the last row of the Senate chambers, Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, listed bills he’s happy have already gotten through the Senate – like House Bill 27, an increase in school funding, something many have said they’ve never seen clear the Legislature this early. He also mentioned shoring up funding for university extension programs – bills he said the Legislature needs to pass.

“They’re not the headline bills, but the work bills,” Jones said. “But I tell you what, it will all come back to the revenue estimate,” Jones said.

The revenue estimate has been a point of contention lately. Both the governor’s budget office and the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Division project how much money the state will bring in over the next three years, and the Legislature adopts a projection to know how much it can spend during the session.

The estimates from the governor’s office and the Legislative Fiscal Division  from January were around $350 million apart, a much larger difference than usual. 

Jones said there’s usually some wrangling over projections, but never about a sum this large. He said the danger is in overestimating how much money will flow into the general fund – if the estimate is wrong, there won’t be enough money for everything in the budget.

At that point, the Legislature might have to return for a special session to cut spending, which Jones said the governor won’t want to do.

“He certainly doesn’t want to call the Legislature back to town to clean up the blood in the streets,” Jones said.

Jones and Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, both said the major difference between the two projections is how they project wage growth in the next few years. The governor’s office says growth will be high, the Legislative Fiscal Division is less optimistic.

Despite not having a revenue estimate, Republicans have pushed a tax cut to the governor’s desk, House Bill 166. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, cuts tax rates in each bracket by 0.2 percent. The plan would cost the state around $80 million over the next two years.

Democrats bash this move, calling it irresponsible. Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said in a press conference that the governor is more or less forced to veto it, because it hurts the process of balancing the budget.

“He’s got no choice but to say, ‘No, this isn’t ready for primetime,’” Sesso said.

Several education measures are still moving through the system. Democrats have pledged to do whatever they can to get Gov. Bullock’s $37 million plan for publicly funded preschool into the budget, though some think the request is doomed since Republicans will oppose it at every turn. On the Republican side, a couple of publicly funded school choice proposals and a set of bills aimed at eliminating Montana’s Common Core standards still have life.

Funding for infrastructure development is still somewhat in question, with Gov. Bullock’s nearly $400 million Build Montana plan sitting in the House Appropriations committee. That plan includes building projects like roads, sewer and water systems in places across the state. Republicans have countered with a group of bills that fund some of the projects included in Bullock’s plan.

Montana State University political scientist David Parker said the end of the session might be “veto heavy,” like the last session was. Bullock vetoed more than 70 bills in 2013.

 Parker added that Republicans will likely continue trying to stop the governor’s major proposals.

“I suspect Republicans are going to be very leery of creating any wins for Bullock’s people,” Parker said.

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.


Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 13:12

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Bills on water rights, tax cuts advance in Helena

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

As the first half of the Montana Legislative session wound down, debate on some of the most heated and closely watched issues only wound up as both chambers tried to move things across the hall.

Senate Bill 262, a water agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, dominated Capitol conversations as it moved through the Senate and on to the House late in the week. The agreement lines out water rights for the tribe on and around the reservation. Supporters say the agreement also secures rights for existing water users, but most of the opponents dispute that and some say it might be unconstitutional. 

A Senate committee attempted to amend the bill – something the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, specifically urged against in the bill’s committee hearing. Vincent said any changes to the agreement would have to be approved by the tribe and federal government, as well as the state.

Vincent, who was in another committee while the bill was being amended, showed up at the meeting after two amendments had been passed by a significant margin. Vincent was given the chance to speak, and he asked the committee to table the bill so he could “blast” the bill to the floor, which would strip the amendments off the bill.

That sequence set up Wednesday’s afternoon drama, with Senate Bill 262 listed as the final bill for debate. Vincent knew the amendments would be coming back, and implored the Senate to resist them in his opening speech.

Three amendments were tried and failed, and Republicans Jedediah Hinkle and Jennifer Fielder made their final appeals to the other senators to vote the bill down.

Hinkle said he’d researched the bill as thoroughly as he could during the session, and criticized the bill as intimidation legislation.

He added that he wouldn’t vote “Nancy Pelosi-style” for permanent legislation, a comment that got Democrats pounding on their desks and crying “out of order.” Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, the chairman of the day, ruled the comment out of order, and Hinkle later apologized.

Fielder said she didn’t like the position the state was in when it negotiated the agreement.

“The state of Montana never started from a position of strength,” Fielder said.

The bill passed through on a 31-19 vote. The only Democrat to vote against the bill was Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda.

Shakeup in procedures

A bill allowing state political parties to appoint local committee members passed through the House last week.

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, is carrying House Bill 454. Fitzpatrick said it’s hard for local parties to find someone to run for positions on local party committees. He also said the bill would gut the Republican party’s lawsuit to get closed primaries in Montana.

In a closed primary system, only political party members could vote in that party’s June primary election, when the party selects candidates for the fall general election. Montana is one of only 11 states with completely open primaries.  

“This will be a step toward preserving open primaries,” Fitzpatrick said, noting the bill would effectively eliminate one of the central claims of the lawsuit.

Rep. Matt Monforton, R-Bozeman, a lead lawyer on the lawsuit to close Montana primaries, excused himself from the debate and didn’t vote on the bill, which he said was unfortunate because he wanted to correct several “misstatements” Fitzpatrick had made.

A group of Republican central committees sued to close Montana’s primaries last year. A district judge ruled against the lawsuit in September, but Monforton filed an appeal in January.

Fitzpatrick said attorneys for the suit have said that because actual officers of the party are elected in primaries, primary elections should be closed to only party members. He said by passing this bill, that claim would fall flat, and make the lawsuit harder to win.

Fitzpatrick said voting for this bill should center on whether the person wants open or closed primaries.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, said bills like this shouldn’t be before the Legislature.

“It’s to rig a lawsuit,” Wittich said. “Is that what this body has come to?”

Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, spoke in favor of the bill, saying he faced a primary opponent who had been giving money to the Republican Party.

“That’s OK. He’s allowed to do that,” Woods said. “And I was OK with that as well because the people will figure it out.”

Woods added that it’s important to trust voters.

Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, said the bill, despite what it might do to the Republican lawsuit, would actually help local party committees find members because convincing people to run in a primary is challenging.

The bill passed the House 53-46.

Tax cut bill passed

A major Republican tax cut bill is headed to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk.

House Bill 166, sponsored by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, cuts tax rates by 0.2 percent in each tax bracket. The bill spends $80 million over the next two years.

Regier’s original proposal – which passed the House in early February – cut tax rates by 0.1 percent, but a Senate panel amended the bill to increase the cut. The Senate passed the bill out on a party-line vote.

When the bill came back to the House, Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, said the bill was politically motivated, and that the point was to get a tax cut bill to the governor’s desk so he’ll veto it.

Woods said the governor won’t sign it at a time when the revenue estimate isn’t even final. The governor’s budget office and the Legislative Fiscal Division have yet to resolve a more than $300 million difference in their revenue estimates.

“A smart and responsible governor would not cut revenue at this point when we still don’t know where we are in terms of revenue,” Woods said.

Regier said the governor should approve the cut to give Montanans a break.

“A smart and responsible governor will recognize who’s funding the government and give them a break,” Regier said.

The bill passed the House easily.

Campaign finance clears Senate

Gov. Steve Bullock got a win late last week, as one of his campaign finance reform proposals cleared the Senate.

Senate Bill 289, carried by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, would require more groups and individuals to report their spending in political campaigns, and adds another reporting period for candidates. It’s aimed at shedding light on so-called “dark money” groups.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 12:53

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Transmittal deadline looms in Helena

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

With the halfway point of the Montana Legislature quickly approaching, lawmakers are trying to get bills across the hallway to the other chamber.

The first transmittal deadline is Feb. 27, the last day for general bills to get sent from one house to the other, but already several bills have died in committee and on the floors of both chambers.

Rep. Nick Schwaderer, R-Superior, was carrying House Bill 333, which would regulate state use of security cameras. It died on the House floor on a tied vote two days in a row.

Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, saw a similar fate with his House Bill 182, which would require zoning to be adopted on county land before the government could regulate its use. That bill got a 50-50 vote on second reading in January, effectively killing it until he got a motion to reconsider. Then the bill died 59-41.

With the deadline looming, last week was filled with legislators pushing new bills in front of committees, hoping to get them through.

Water compact to Senate floor

Three Republicans joined with Democrats to get the contentious water agreement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state and federal governments out of committee last week.

Senate Bill 262, sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, is a bill that lines out specific terms of a negotiated water agreement between the Tribes and state and federal governments. All the Democrats on the committee supported it, as did Vincent and two other Republicans - Sen. Nels Swandal of Wilsall and Sen. Doug Kary of Billings.

Busloads of people came for a standing-room only hearing on the bill earlier in the week.

Ranchers, tribal members and others came in on both sides of the issue.

Vernon Finley, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, backed the bill, saying it represents a significant compromise on the tribe’s part, “in the spirit of being good neighbors.”

“I stand here to urge the committee to move the process forward,” he said, adding that the bill would prevent the “long arduous process of litigation.”

Without the agreement, the tribe could sue for water rights across the state.

Cory Swanson, representing the Attorney General’s office, also backed the bill, saying it protects existing water rights.

“This is a good agreement that guarantees water for every opponent in this room,” Swanson said.

Some of Montana’s major agriculture groups supported the compact as well, including the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. 

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, led off the opposition. Ballance said the bill came too late for legislators to read it and fully understand it, and that she doesn’t like the “forever nature” of the long-term agreement.

Other opponents said the bill was unconstitutional and doesn’t guarantee water rights for existing users.

Greg Hinkle, of Thompson Falls, said the threat of litigation made this “legislation by intimidation.” Hinkle’s nephew is Sen. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Bozeman, one of the four Republicans who voted against the bill in committee.

Jon Metropoulos, representing Dixon Melons and the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association, said his clients didn’t like the deal.

“It’s just not a good deal for Montana” he said.

This was only the beginning of what will be a key debate in the rest of the session.

Physician-assisted suicide bill

House Bill 328, sponsored by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, died on the House floor last week on a tight vote.

Ten Republicans joined with the Democrats to vote down the bill, which would have criminalized physicians who prescribe aid-in-dying medication. The practice has been legal in Montana since a 2009 state Supreme Court decision. 

One of the Republicans who voted it down was Rep. David “Doc” Moore, who told an emotional story about his wife, who recently died of cancer. He said that they’d done everything they could to help her, “but there’s only so much you can do.”

“This body doesn’t need to get in the way of what doctors and patients decide,” Moore said.

Republicans who backed the bill said the practice is too similar to homicide, and legalizing it leads to abuse by doctors.

It failed on a 51-49 vote.

In the Senate earlier this month, a bill to protect physicians who prescribe aid-in-dying medication was tabled.

Daines complains about feds

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines railed against the federal government in an address to a joint session of the Montana Legislature last week.

“D.C. is more concerned with its own self-interests than the well-being of the American people,” Daines said.

Daines talked about the Keystone XL Pipeline, saying it would be a “lifeline for Montana families looking to bring something home.”

“It’s time to stop debating and start building,” Daines said, getting a standing ovation from the Republican side of the aisle, along with a handful of Democrats.

Daines also backed keeping public lands public, getting a standing ovation on both sides of the aisle, but said state control of public lands would be better than federal control, sticking with the main theme of his speech.

“Washington, D.C, is the problem, Montana has solutions,” he said, and repeated variations of it throughout the speech.

Animal cruelty bill filed

Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, is carrying Senate Bill 285, which would require people to report incidences of animal cruelty within 24 hours.

Moore said the bill is meant to prevent animal rights groups from getting footage of cruelty and releasing it when it would best help them raise money. He cited incidents from other states in which groups had released video to media organizations.

“This evidence shouldn’t come out six months later,” Moore said.

Nicole Rolf of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation backed the bill, saying that reporting abuse quickly is important to the agriculture industry.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who cares more about their animals than farmers and ranchers,” Rolf said.

Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana Veterinary Medical Association also backed the bill.

Nanette Gilbertson, of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was the lone opponent to the bill. Gilbertson said events like Moore described hadn’t happened in Montana, and that requiring reporting within 24 hours would hinder investigations.

Gilbertson also said the bill would create an unusual exception for animal abuse in Montana law.

“There’s not another place in statute that requires a witness to a crime to report it within 24 hours,” Gilbertson said.

Speed limit increase gets hearing

Car organizations and the Montana Highway Patrol are opposing a bill that would increase Montana’s speed limits, the second bill in that vein heard this session.  

House Bill 480, sponsored by Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, would raise interstate speed limits to 80 mph from 75 for cars, and to 70 mph from 65 for semi-trucks.

“There’s no reason Montana can’t go to 80,” Miller said, adding that parts of Idaho and Wyoming had passed similar increases.

The bill would also increase the speed trucks can go on state highways from 60 to 70 mph, the same speed as cars. Miller said that also has worked in other states and would cut down on dangerous passing situations when several cars are lined up behind a truck going much slower than them.

Nicole Rolf of the Farm Bureau Federation said that organization supports eliminating the truck speed limit on state roads and having cars going the same speed, but is neutral to Miller’s proposed interstate change.

Dave Wood, a Helena-area man, said that speed limits are only enforced by a state to raise revenue through writing tickets.

“Speed limits really have nothing to do with highway safety,” Wood said.

Along with AAA and the Motor Carriers of Montana, the Montana Highway Patrol came out against the bill.

Jason Hildenstab, operations major of the Montana Highway Patrol, said the bill was too broad, and that he wanted to see fine increases along with any speed limit increase.

Major privacy bills heard

Bills aimed at protecting digital privacy got their first hearings last week.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, is carrying several privacy bills, one of the biggest being House Bill 444. That bill would require a search warrant for investigators from government agencies to get electronic data from third-party servers.

Zolnikov said the bill better protects a person’s emails and text messages.

“Emails and text messages are today’s papers and effects,” Zolnikov said. “When you email someone, you no longer have an expectation of privacy.”

Zolnikov said 28 groups from around the country had endorsed the bill, including Google, the California tech giant. At the hearing, supporters included the Montana Shooting Sports Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, who said federal law hasn’t kept pace with the advancement of technology.

Montana’s Department of Justice and the Montana County Attorneys Association opposed the bill, saying current law is strong enough and already protects electronic communication. Mark Murphy, of the County Attorneys Association, said Montana’s privacy guarantee in the constitution is “so well-evolved” that the bill isn’t needed.

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.


Last Updated on Thursday, 26 February 2015 16:52

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Yoga pants briefly take center stage in Helena

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

In an interview after a hearing on his bill to revise indecency laws, Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, told the Associated Press that he thinks yoga pants should be illegal in public.

Moore maintains that he was joking, but the Associated Press ran with the comment and the story quickly went viral. Soon headlines across the country, like one in Time, read, “Montana Lawmaker Wants to Ban Yoga Pants.”

“The bill had nothing to do with clothes or yoga pants,” Moore said.

The bill, House Bill 365, would have redefined indecent exposure to mean someone commits the crime if they knowingly expose their genitals, nipples or any simulation of those parts in public, and “disregards whether a reasonable person would be offended.”

Moore said a recent nude bike ride in Missoula raised the concern, and that someone in his district had asked for the bill.

But it was Moore’s comment on yoga pants that set off a storm of social media comments and garnered national attention, focused mostly on the idea that Moore wanted to ban yoga pants.

Moore said the most irritating part of the attention was his being labeled a Tea Party Republican, when in fact he feels he is more moderate.

In the first month of the Legislature he has voted with Democrats against his party on several bills.

The bill was killed in committee the day after the hearing.

Moore said it was a shame that the issue distracted from the real issues before the Legislature.

Texting and driving

Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings, is carrying House Bill 297, which would ban cellphone use while driving across Montana.

“We need to put down the phone and we need to focus on the task at hand,” Court said.

Leona Schneemann, of Forsyth, told a House panel about her son who died in a texting and driving accident. She said three letters that ended his life: “lol.”

Supporters of the bill included Schneemann, the Montana County Attorney’s Association and police organizations.

Opponents included some local ham radio operators, who worried the bill might limit their freedom to use their devices.

Mike Fellows, of the Montana Libertarian Party and a 2014 candidate for the U.S. House, opposed the bill, calling it a “revenue enhancement bill.”

State of the Tribal Nations

Gerald Gray, Chairman of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, told a joint session of the Montana Legislature he and his tribe had been waiting for more than 100 years for recognition from the federal government.

“That day is coming,” Gray said. “We will persevere.”

He also urged the legislators to pass Medicaid expansion and fund Gov. Steve Bullock’s “Early Edge” Pre-K plan.

He said great disparities exist between Indian and non-Indian health care, saying white men on average live 19 years longer than Indian men, and white women live 20 years longer than Indian women. Gray said expanding Medicaid is a crucial part of ending the disparity.

On early education, he said that is one of the keys to giving Indians the same chances as others in Montana.

Concerns over land transfer

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, drew opposition from conservation groups and the state government for a bill that she said addresses the concerns those groups have about a state takeover of federal lands.

The transfer of federal land to the state has been a contentious issue, with supporters arguing that states could manage the land better and opponents arguing that the state would sell the lands to the highest bidder.

Senate Bill 215 would prohibit the future sale of federal lands transferred back to the state.

But John Tubbs, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the bill would harm his daily work. He said he transfers land on a daily basis, and that the amount of state-owned lands is not a fixed number.

Nick Gevock, of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the bill oversimplified land management.

“This bill implies that land management is simple, and that is just not the case,” Gevock said.

Joe Balyeat, of Americans For Prosperity, backed the bill. He said it would solve the concerns about the danger of a federal land transfer leading to public lands being sold to private landowners. He said the transfer of federal land to the state isn’t about selling it off to the highest bidder.

“It’s about local control,” Balyeat said.

Right to die

Two bills from Missoula lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle that address aid in dying drew a throng of testifiers.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, is carrying House Bill 328 to criminalize the prescribing of drugs to end someone’s life. Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, is carrying Senate Bill 202 to protect doctors who do choose to prescribe that sort of medication.

The same arguments echoed in each hearing.

Chris Gilbert, a physician from Missoula, spoke against providing aid-in-dying, saying it violated the Hippocratic Oath all doctors take and “destroys the foundation of healthcare.”

One woman, Bobbie Hafer, spoke about the death of her mother. Hafer said her sister decided to take her mother off of dialysis, which led to her death. Of her mother, Hafer said, “I know for a fact that this is not the course she would have chosen.”

On the other side of the issue, Eric Kress, a physician also from Missoula, supported the practice. Kress said he’s prescribed such medication to about 10 patients.

“People want to be in control of when they die,” Kress said.

Ethel Byrnes told the story of her husband, who chose to end his life after struggling with Parkinson’s disease. She spoke fondly of the day of his death, on St. Patrick’s Day in 2014, with her whole family in attendance.

“There was no fear or pity in the room,” Byrnes said. “Just love.”

GOP health plan

Republicans announced a package of health care bills in the Legislature’s sixth week, including their alternative to Gov. Steve Bullock’s “Healthy Montana” plan.

“Our plan is not conditional on any new federal programs,” Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said.

The announcement included several bills in different areas, including bipartisan legislation on providing community mental health care and reforms to different areas of Montana’s health care system. 

House Bill 455, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, is directly aimed at Medicaid reform. It would expand Medicaid coverage to people who earn up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level if they are parents or veterans. Only people earning up to 50 percent of the poverty level are Medicaid eligible now.

This contrasts with Gov. Bullock’s plan, House Bill 249, which accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act and expands Medicaid coverage to anyone earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

Bill to increase speed limit

Discussion on raising the speed limit percolated before the Legislative session even started, and recently, a bill to do just that brought considerable opposition in a committee hearing.

Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, is carrying Senate Bill 228, which would raise interstate speed limits to 85 mph and state highways to 80 mph.

Major James Moody of the Montana Highway Patrol spoke against the bill, saying the increase would be higher than what the bill says, since passing speeds tend to be higher than the speed limit. In some cases, he said, the appropriate speed may end up being 90 mph.

Moody said he couldn’t say if it would increase car accidents, but did say that accidents that happened would be more severe if drivers were going faster.

Kelly Flaherty-Settle, a Helena-area rancher, said the increase doesn’t make sense on winding roads, like Lincoln Road near where she lives, because animals and farm equipment are often crossing the road for daily work. She said she “can’t see any reason for an increase.”

No immediate action was taken on the bill.

Lawmakers debate death penalty

Church groups and civil rights organizations are backing a bill to abolish the death penalty.

House Bill 370, sponsored by Rep. David “Doc” Moore, would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Supporters said death penalty cases cost the state more money than life imprisonment because of lengthy appeals often filed by convicts on death row. Some said execution wasn’t an ethical punishment.

“Violence by an individual never justifies violence by the state,” said Jessica Crist, a Lutheran bishop from Great Falls.

Three state lawmakers testified against the bill, saying they’d been affected by homicide in their lives, and that execution would offer them peace of mind.

Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, said his father was killed when Hollandsworth was only 6 months old. The killer worked on the family’s ranch. He tried to kill the rest of the family, but stopped when Hollandsworth’s mother gave him the keys to their car and he drove away.

The man was convicted, but let out on parole years later, which bothered his mother and brother, survivors of the attack.

“My mother and oldest brother lived in terror that he was going to come back and finish the job,” Hollandsworth said.

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 February 2015 13:26

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Snell wins ServeMontana Award for service


Billings resident William Snell was in Helena last week for his decades of work to improve the health and well-being of Native Americans in Montana.

Snell, currently the project manager for the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leadership Council, along with six other individuals and organizations, received a ServeMontana Award from Gov. Steve Bullock.

Terry Zee Lee, also of Billings, who nominated Snell for the award, said Snell “has a long history of immersing himself in people’s lives at the right time.”

Much of his work has been done through the Pretty Shield Foundation, which Snell founded in 1997 with his mother, Alma Snell, a widely known activist for children. Alma Snell was the granddaughter of Pretty Shield, a medicine woman and prominent member of the Crow Tribe, who died in 1944.

Sherry Matteucci, a former U.S. attorney for Montana and a member of the board of directors for the Pretty Shield Foundation, said she became acquainted with Snell when she was hired more than 10 years ago to help reconstruct the Crow Tribal Court system. Snell helped her with that task and then was hired, on her recommendation, as the tribal court administrator.

“I have the highest respect for him,” Matteucci said. “He’s a truly committed individual whose entire focus is on service and projects that are done with integrity and respect for Indian culture and tradition … . He’s also just a wonderful person.”

As the director and co-founder of the In-Care Network, Snell, a Crow and Assiniboine/Sioux, helped deliver foster care, addiction treatment, youth leadership and many other services to all eight American Indian tribes in Montana and Wyoming.

Lee met Snell through his work with the In-Care Network and said she was “very impressed by his passion and enthusiasm for what he was doing.”

“He’s a very, very effective leader,” she said. “He is demanding and wants accountability for people’s actions and teaches them to be thoughtful and purposeful in what they do.”

At the Pretty Shield Foundation, he started cultural immersion camps, which offer American Indian youths a chance to reconnect with their tribal heritage in natural settings. These have proved to be especially powerful ways of dealing with seemingly intractable problems like alcohol and methamphetamine addictions.

More recently, Snell has been working on the Dragonfly Initiative with Floating Island International in Shepherd. The initiative aims to restore tribal waterways through natural systems pioneered by FII founder Bruce Kania.

Bruce Kania’s wife, Anne, said in a letter of recommendation supporting the governor’s award, that though she had known Snell for barely a year, “such is his openness — and willingness to jump in with both feet — that I feel he is already a firm and trusted friend.”

In addition to all his public good works, Snell and his wife, Karen, raised three sons and 36 other children as therapeutic foster care parents.

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 February 2015 13:24

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Billings Wolves kick off football season Saturday

By JEREMY WOLF - For The Outpost

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

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

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

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

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

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


Last Updated on Thursday, 19 February 2015 12:37

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Juneau calls for early education; tax cuts pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other news last week:

Bill to end human trafficking

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

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

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

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

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

Tax cut bills endorsed

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bill passed on a 58-42 vote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guns on campus bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill to limit drone use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

States’ convention resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Last Updated on Thursday, 12 February 2015 14:04

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State of the State, infrastructure divide parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other news last week:

Otter Creek Water Bills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guns on campus makes a return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage equality bill

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

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

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

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

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

“Why this exercise in futility?” Plowman said.

Bennett addressed that in his closing statement.

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

FWP presents fee increases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 February 2015 16:29

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Billings Depot plans ‘elegant, luxurious’ event


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 January 2015 13:00

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Medicaid, taxes, schools discussed in Helena

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

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

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

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

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

Tester visits Legislature

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

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

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

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

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

Subpoenaed state workers testify

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education fills committee rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bills seek parole board changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electronic cigarette bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditional party policies

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

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

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

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

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

“Reducing taxes increases revenue,” Regier said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grizzly bear conflicts

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

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

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

The bill had support from ranchers and conservationists.

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

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

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1


Last Updated on Thursday, 29 January 2015 12:58

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