The Billings Outpost

Gov. Bullock launches his ‘Build Montana’ act

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

In the second week of the 64th Montana Legislature, two initiatives from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget were opened up in joint appropriations subcommittees.

Bullock’s infrastructure bill, the “Build Montana” act, got its first hearing in the joint subcommittee on long-range planning. Rep. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, the bill’s sponsor, said it would invest more than $380 million through a mix of cash and bonding, which he and other proponents of the bill lauded as a smart business decision.

“We do infrastructure, it’s our job to do infrastructure,” said Dan Villa, Bullock’s budget director.

Contractors, architects and bankers spoke in support of using a mixture of bonding and cash to fund the bill. Many said Montana’s good credit rating and low interest rates make this the right time to borrow.

Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, vice chairman of the committee, said the biggest debate over House Bill 5 will be whether the funding comes from borrowing money in the form of bonds or spending cash.

“I think bonding will be one of the biggest issues. I’d just as soon pay for it up front if we can,” Ripley said.

The bill includes projects across Montana. More than $68 million is allocated for projects in Eastern Montana. In 2013, Bullock vetoed a bill that would have provided around $35 million in infrastructure projects to Eastern Montana in.

Parts of the measure require a three-fourths majority vote on the House floor. That could lead to projects being split into separate bills if some legislators don’t support parts of the bill.

Villa urged the committee to leave the projects in one bill.

Hearings on mental health programs also opened this week, and brought in a line of people who urged legislators to put money into local care options instead of the state institutions like the state hospital in Warm Springs and the nursing home in Lewistown.

Gov. Bullock’s budget allocates money for updates to both of those facilities, and does include some funding for local mental health care.

State of judiciary

Montana’s Chief Justice Mike McGrath gave the State of the Judiciary address to a joint floor session of the Legislature during the second week, saying a decreased budget had hurt the judiciary.

He said budget cuts had led to a personnel shortage in some departments, a court backlog and inadequate staff training. He also spoke about the value of having three branches of government for a system of checks and balances.

“An independent, adequately funded judiciary is key to a constitutional democracy,” McGrath said.

Aside from that, the judiciary committees in both houses saw a lot of action this week.

The Senate Judiciary Committee looked at a bill that would strengthen the law that prohibits secretly filming or watching someone who has an expectation of privacy, even if that’s in public.

Lewis and Clark County Deputy County Attorney Luke Berger gave an example of a local case in which a man had hidden cameras in a women’s bathroom and had more than 90 videos of women.

However, media organizations raised concerns that the statute might be too broad, and may prevent reporters from doing their jobs. Some language prohibited loitering around someone’s home without their knowledge.

“It’s sometimes important for them to be in front of somebody’s house,” said Dewey Bruce, president of the Montana Broadcasters Association.

The Attorney General’s Office requested the bill, and the office’s legislative liaison, Jon Bennion, said he would be willing to work with the media on that concern, but didn’t think it was a big problem.

“Often it’s easy to see a boogeyman where there isn’t one,” Bennion said.

A bill to include electronic communication in the indecent exposure statute drew support from prosecutors and victims’ advocates in a Senate Judiciary hearing Wednesday. The bill would criminalize indecent exposure by e-mail and other electronic communication and strengthens the penalty in cases where the victim is a minor.

The House Judiciary committee heard a bill that would create a voucher program to help get housing for people on parole who might not have other options at the time of their release.

“The idea of getting people into good housing situations is critical,” said Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, the bill’s sponsor.

Supporters testified that finding a new home for paroled criminals helps ensure they won’t be repeat offenders. 

Changing election laws

The Senate State Administration committee saw two campaign bills Wednesday.

One would prohibit the placing of campaign signs on private property.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said campaign sign placement is a frequent complaint his office hears.

Another bill seeks to update Montana law to match a 2012 court decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court struck down a 1935 law prohibiting political parties from endorsing judicial candidates and making independent expenditures in those races. The decision left in place a ban on direct contributions.

The bill matches what the court decided in 2012 – allowing parties to endorse judicial candidates and make independent expenditures in those races, but leaving in place the ban on direct contribution and coordination with the candidates.

“What’s on the books needs to conform with the courts,” Motl said. His office requested both bills.

Hiking off-road fees

The House Fish and Game Committee heard a bill to bump up the fees on out-of-staters who ride off-road vehicles in Montana.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, would raise the fee for an out-of-state off-road vehicle permit from $5 to $25, similar to fees charged by other states. Proponents of the bill said the proceeds would be used for trail maintenance and possibly noxious weed control.

Another bill would increase penalties on hunters who hunt from the road and landowners harassing hunters.

“This bill attempts to cut both ways,” said Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, the sponsor of the bill.

Flynn added that the bill comes after a hunting season marked by an increasing problem of hunters who chase large herds of elk along roads and sometimes even block roads to shoot into the center of the herd.

Wildlife organizations and sportsmen spoke in support of the bill. Lawrence Sickerson, a sportsman, spoke against the bill, saying it didn’t have enough teeth against landowners.

Sickerson told a story of going hunting with his son on public land and being harassed by a nearby landowner. He said the man who harassed him was fined $135 and was allowed to go on his way, a penalty Sickerson thought was too little.

“They have a vested interest to bully and buffalo people away from hunting,” Sickerson said.

Another bill, to allow electronic signatures on hunting and fishing licenses, passed out of the Senate.

Honey sales, police horses

The House Judiciary Committee took up a bill Monday to offer protection to police horses.

Livingston police officer Jessika Kynett spoke to the committee about her horse Larry, the only police horse in the state.

“Larry does have his own badge,” Kynett said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, would criminalize harming a police horse and fine the offender thousands of dollars. It would protect horses to the same degree dogs and police officers themselves are protected.

The bill was tabled in committee after representatives asked if the fine was strong enough.

The Senate Agriculture Committee also had a little fun this week when it heard a bill to allow raw honey to be sold at farmers’ markets.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Lea Whitford, D-Cut Bank, would simply add raw honey to the list of unlicensed products that can be sold at farmers’ markets in the state. It corrects a discrepancy between federal and state law. Federal law says raw honey is OK for sale, while the state law doesn’t directly address it.

“In state law, the word honey is missing,” said Cort Jensen, representing the Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services was in support of the bill, and says there aren’t health differences between raw and processed honey.

Montana has about 200 registered beekeepers, according to the Department of Agriculture. Beekeepers with fewer than 10 colonies aren’t required to register, and therefore aren’t included in the count.

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, 22 January 2015 15:11

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UM students cover session

Two students from The University of Montana’s School of Journalism have been chosen to provide news coverage of the Montana Legislature’s 2015 session for scores of newspapers and radio stations across the state. The session begins Jan. 5.

Michael Wright will provide weekly coverage for interested newspapers across the state. Wright, a senior, hails from a dairy farm in southern Idaho and has written for the Montana Kaimin, Big Timber Pioneer and Montana Journalism Review. The Montana Newspaper Association helps fund Wright’s coverage.

Madelyn Beck, who has worked with Montana Public Radio, In Other Words, and Public Radio Exchange, will provide daily reports to more than 50 Montana broadcasters. Beck came to the University of Montana from a ranch near Manhattan, Mont. Her coverage is made possible by grants from the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Broadcasters Association.

The students’ work this session will be supervised by UM Adjunct Professor Courtney Lowery Cowgill, a former Associated Press reporter and editor and the current managing editor of the online news site PBS MediaShift. The 2015 session marks the 12th time journalism students have covered Montana’s regular biennial legislative sessions for newspapers and the fifth time they have provided coverage for radio stations.

Boulder Monitor Editor Jan Anderson said while community newspapers like hers can get to Helena to cover the Legislature occasionally, only a reporter covering the Capitol day in and day out can fully cover the complexity of the issues playing out there. That’s where the UM program comes in.

“The best way for our readers to know how well the state lawmakers they elected are representing their interests is to have a reporter at the Capitol watching,” Anderson said.

It’s also invaluable experience for the students, said Associate Professor Denise Dowling.

“This project is a win-win for citizens of Montana and our journalism students,” Dowling said. “The people of the state get coverage of the goings-on at the Legislature, coverage they would otherwise not receive. Students gain excellent experience covering Montana’s legislative body and producing professional work for media outlets under deadline.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 January 2015 16:17

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Low enrollment causes MSU Billings budget woes

MSU Billings News Services

It’s been four years since Montana State University Billings saw its record high enrollment of 5,335 students.

Today, Montana’s third largest institution serves 4,781 students. The drop in enrollment is a fraction over 10 percent and returns MSUB to numbers not seen since the start of the previous decade.

“Understanding our 10 percent decline in student enrollment can’t be emphasized enough,” remarked first-year Chancellor Mark Nook.

In a message to faculty and staff this week, Nook announced that the initial FY 2015-16 budget estimate yields a revenue gap just over $4 million, approximately 10 percent of MSU Billings’ general operating budget.

“You can quickly see how the 10 percent decline in enrolled students has echoed through our FY 2015-16 budget forecast in the form of a 10 percent general operating budget shortfall.”

As a state supported institution of higher education it is important to note there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to forecasting a definitive working budget. But make no mistake, the biggest woe MSUB has to overcome is enrollment.

Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services, Terrie Iverson, has held the top fiscal position at MSU Billings for more than 20 years, witnessing first-hand the ebb and flow of university budgets. 

“Given how early we are in the budget process, we must stay focused on what we as a university can control,” Iverson said. “What we can control right now is our expenditures.”

Senior campus leaders will be holding a series of campus-wide Budget Briefings to inform and engage students, faculty and staff in finding a solution to the roughly $4 million shortfall.

Briefings will be held throughout the spring semester and summer until the university reaches a balanced budget.

“We have held these types of briefings in the past but never this early in the budget process,” noted Collins. “Starting the process in early December instead of mid-February – when we typically start to look at next year’s budget – will certainly give us more time to make the strategic fiscal decisions necessary to resolve our revenue gap.”

Communication with key internal and external stakeholders will be an integral part of MSU Billings’ budget process. The university’s Budget Office maintains a website for communication but this year they are in the process of developing a separate site solely focused on FY 2015-16 and beyond.  University officials intend to have the site finished by the end of the week.

“We are a university committed to meeting the educational and professional goals of our students, Nook said.  “During the budget process we must first and foremost minimize the impact on our students and invest in their long-term success.”

In order to keep this commitment to students MSUB will:

• Work diligently within its shared governance process and current contracts.

•  Involve and engage the entire campus community in balancing its budget.

•  Ensure strategic reductions and reallocations are not unilateral or opportunistic.

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 December 2014 11:55

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New Catholic school on tap

The Billings Catholic Schools and the BCS Foundation announced plans this week to construct a new state-of-the-art school on property located at Colton Boulevard and Woody Drive.

“The school will be new, but the values of the Catholic Schools will remain the same – to provide an education based on faith, family spirit, and academic excellence for its roughly 1,000 students,” a news release said.

If all goes as planned, when the school bell rings in the fall of 2017, BCS students - grades one through eight - will be walking through the doors of a brand new school. 

Why a new school now? The Billings Catholic School system has simply outgrown the current facilities, the release said. With the construction of a new elementary education campus, students from three separate school buildings, one of which is nearly 100 years old, will be able to consolidate into one new school, bringing increased safety.

Students will no longer need to be bused between buildings for extracurricular classes. The facility will feature transformational spaces that can adapt to our changing needs. It will be energy efficient. It will alleviate overcrowding, and will even offer room for our system to grow.   

“The committee working on these plans has been through an exhaustive research phase and all signs point to the need for a new Catholic educational campus,” says Harold Olson, president of Billings Catholic Schools. “We are excited to be able to increase opportunities for our students while decreasing costs with a new energy efficient and consolidated system. It truly is an exciting time.”

Over the past 2 ½ years, the Billings Catholic Schools have been in the silent phase of this project and a group of volunteers has been working to raise support. To date, nearly $10 million has been raised to start construction. The anticipated construction costs specific to the building are $15 million to $18 million.

The release said, “While we continue to secure additional funding, one thing is for sure. Our new school campus will ensure that faith-based education will be alive and well in Billings for at least the next 50 years.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 November 2014 12:43

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Money flooded election

By LAURA SCHEER - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

Campaigns for the Montana’s Supreme Court may be nonpartisan by law, but record spending and aggressive ads by independent groups made one high court race look anything but.

Groups unaffiliated with the campaigns of incumbent Justice Mike Wheat and his opponent Lawrence VanDyke reportedly pumped more than $730,000 into ads that paint both candidates as tools of special interests. That’s far more than the $165,000 total raised by the candidates themselves as of late September. In the end, the total spent on the race could top $1 million. Despite the spending, Justice Wheat easily won re-election.

Christopher Muste, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, said the outside spending poses a challenge to voters because it makes it more difficult to separate what the candidates are saying from what is coming from outside sources.

“The outside spending might be more influential in a race where the candidates are less known,” he said. “For the Supreme Court election, it’s more problematic because we expect (the candidates’) decisions to be above the political fray.”

Muste added that Montanans should expect outside spending in Supreme Court races to continue into the future, especially if VanDyke had won.

Such groups sprang up nationally in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. They first appeared in Montana’s nonpartisan judicial elections two years ago, raising the temperature of a race between now-Justice Laurie McKinnon and her opponent Ed Sheehy.

Three of the four groups support VanDyke, a former state solicitor general. They include the Republican State Leadership Committee Judicial Fairness Montana PAC, based in Washington, D.C., whose ads and mailers accuse Wheat of being “dangerously liberal.”

That group alone reportedly raised more than $400,000 and spent $330,000 on advertising that either touted VanDyke or attacked Wheat.

According to, the group’s top contributors included cigarette maker Reynolds American, insurer Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Koch Industries, the energy giant founded by brothers Charles and David Koch.

Another anti-Wheat group, Americans for Prosperity – Montana, is an offshoot of another group founded by the Koch brothers and others. A third, Montanans for a Fair Judiciary, was established by Republican consultant Jake Eaton.

The one group supporting Wheat ran ads and mailers claiming that VanDyke is “in the pocket” of out-of-state interests.

That group, Montanans for Liberty and Justice, is a Montana-based group whose officers include former state Sen. Steve Doherty and Al Smith, executive director of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.

That group reportedly spent about $265,000 in support of Wheat.

Such groups may spend an unlimited amount on the campaigns – as long they don’t coordinate their efforts with the candidates themselves.

That money comes on top of contributions from PACs and individuals that go directly to the candidates.

Wheat had support from Montana AFL-CIO political action committee and the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT) political action committee.

Notable individual donors to Wheat’s campaign included former Gov. Brian Schweitzer; Chief Justice Mike McGrath; former Justices Terry Treiweiler, William Leaphart and James Nelson; retired federal Magistrate Judge Leif B. Erickson; former gubernatorial candidate Dorothy Bradley; former University of Montana law school Deans Ed Eck and Martin Burke, and the school’s interim dean, Greg Munro.

VanDyke drew contributions from political action committees that include the Montana Oil and Gas PAC, the Montana Petroleum Marketers PAC and the Carbon Country Republican Women’s PAC. Others include the Montana Bankers’ PAC, Montana Coal Council PAC, Montana Farm Bureau PAC and Montana Realtors PAC.

Prominent individual contributors to his campaign included former Congressman Rick Hill, Public Service Commissioners Kirk Bushman and Roger Koopman, Montana Chamber of Commerce President Webb Brown, Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, Bozeman software entrepreneur Greg Gianforte and Ian Davidson, the CEO of D.A. Davidson.


Last Updated on Thursday, 06 November 2014 11:04

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Man acquitted here in check-cashing scheme

By ELWOOD ENGLISH - Special to the Outpost

A man who refused to plead guilty to helping Atlanta con men cash thousands of dollars of checks drawn on Billings businesses was found not guilty on all charges recently by a jury of 12 Yellowstone County Citizens.

Joseph Curtis Morrison Jr. said he thought he was getting hired for a job when two men bought his breakfast, bought him new boots and a coat, and took him for a ride that he thought would get him to the worksite.

According to testimony, Morrison had spent the previous night on a porch in the October cold on Billings’ South Side. He went to the St. Vincent DePaul Society that morning to get free coffee and perhaps find a job. He and another man were approached by two men in a white SUV about the job and taken for a ride.

After breakfast and buying clothes, the men stopped the SUV at a West End bank, produced a check with Morrison’s name on it and asked him to take it in the bank to cash it for use in buying tools for him to use on the job. He cashed the check, gave the men the cash and was given $200 in return.

They then got back in the SUV and drove to a site on Grand Avenue that was across the street from a construction site. Morrison said he thought that was where he was going to work, but the men gave him another check and told him to go into the nearby bank and cash it.

As Morrison did so, he began to worry that something was not right. When he brought the money back out to the men, they gave him another $200. Morrison murmured, “Something is not right here,” and turned and walked into a Holiday Station Store.

Just then a police car drove through the lot, and the two men hopped into their SUV and drove away. That was the last Morrison saw of them. He walked the several miles downtown and never thought much about the October incident until he was arrested the following March. He spent five months in jail and then had to post a $7,500 bond.

County prosecutor Margaret Gallagher told the jury, “This man steals from banks,” even though evidence showed that Morrison had been approached by strangers who had tricked him into thinking he was being hired.

Defense attorney Elizabeth J. Honaker asserted in her opening statement that Joe Morrison was innocent because he had no knowledge that the checks were bad and no intent to commit a crime. After all, he used his own ID and signature to cash the checks in full view of bank video cameras.

That is not the action of a man trying to get away with forgery.

After Gallagher spent most of a day establishing that each of the checks was a forgery and not a genuine check from a Billings plumbing company, and proving, with the videos, that Morrison is the one who cashed the checks, she came up short when she tried to connect Morrison with any knowledge of how the checks were produced.

The jury was out several hours, but came back in the evening with a unanimous verdict clearing Morrison of all counts.

Morrison, his attorney, and friends were beaming with happiness after the decision. Morrison crossed the room and shook hands with the prosecution team. Later, several jurors shook hands with him and wished him well as he left the courthouse. 

The good news is that Morrison is no longer living on the street but is working as a cowboy on a Lame Deer area ranch. 

The real crooks were caught and negotiated suspended sentences, but the former street dweller from Lame Deer and Liz Honaker, his attorney, showed that there can be justice for a big Indian man, even in Billings.

Elwood English is an attorney who shares office space with the attorney Elizabeth J. Honaker. He says he wrote this story because it did not appear local news sources were covering the acquittal even though they had covered the charges being made.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 11:01

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State tries again to change ‘auditor’ title

By SYDNEY GILLETTE - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

There may be no more solemn duty in electoral politics than considering a constitutional amendment, and this year Montanans face such a choice. Of course, it’s not every day you modify the constitution to change a name.

If voters approve C-45 on this November’s ballot, the title of the Montana State Auditor’s Office will become the Commissioner’s Office of Securities and Insurance.

Yes, that is it.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because voters have already said “no” to this radical nomenclature proposal. Back in 2006, voters struck down a similar amendment by a nearly 2-1 margin. Not one county supported the change.

This year is different though, according to Monica Lindeen, Montana’s state auditor (or commissioner, depending on whom you ask).

First of all, they’ve already changed the name everywhere else.

Today, the office’s website has one brief mention of its actual name, State Auditor, and everywhere else is branded with “Office of the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance.” All documents released from the office carry the new title, and the media even use Commissioner of Securities and Insurance – or CSI - in referring to Lindeen and the office.

Still Lindeen is pushing for voters to change the constitution. She said it’s about accuracy.

She argues it is not the right name because, despite being Montana’s state auditor, Lindeen doesn’t audit anything. She said that the average Montanan who has a problem with an insurance company or financial adviser – things her office actually oversees – may not know whom to contact.

“If they see State Auditor they won’t call that office,” Lindeen said.

But a bipartisan pair of state representatives is more worried about precedent.

Reps. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, and Nick Schwaderer, R-Superior, opposed putting this to a vote.

“I think it’s a slippery slope to change words and titles we don’t like today,” said Tropila. “In the Montana Constitution, we have the word privacy. What if someone wants to yank that word out? Their argument could be we just changed some wording two years ago.”

Tropila also isn’t worried about the “A” word.

“By having a broad title like auditor, which means to hear and to listen, it is better for the whole scope. Let’s not narrowly define the office in case they take on other responsibilities,” he said.

Lindeen said she doubts the office is going to change and CSI is the best alternative to state auditor.

Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, agrees. He sponsored the bill to place the amendment on the ballot.

Berry recalled a story about friend who had issues with a rogue trader. He had to convince his friend that the right office to contact was the state auditor.

“How many consumers don’t know where to go?” Berry asks. “It’s all about informing and protecting consumers.”

If any of those consumers head to the web, Google at least appears clear on the office’s role. Any combination of two or more of the following terms: Montana, fraud, insurance, securities, or problems and the search engines gives – Lindeen’s office – as the top result.

Berry and Lindeen said that it won’t cost anything to make the change. The changes already made during the rebranding process used existing resources, according to Adam Schafer, deputy commissioner and chief of staff at CSI – or auditor’s office. Few existing documents will have to be adjusted.

It’s still too much, said Tropila. Even having a public employee edit a document is a waste of time and money, he said.

So what happens if the voters once again rise up to say “Save our Auditor”?

Well, not much of anything.

If the amendment fails, the commissioner of securities and insurance name will remain the same where it has been changed, but the office will be called state auditor on the ballot in 2016.

Any confusion at that point will be Lindeen’s fault because she decided to make the change before making it official, said Tropila. 

One thing appears certain: No matter what voters decide on Nov. 4, come Nov. 5 Monica Lindeen will still be calling herself the commissioner of securities and insurance.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 11:00

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Hydropower deal key to PSC candidates

By PEREGRINE FRISSELL - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

Here’s a question that might help you choose between two rivals for a seat on the board that regulates Montana’s biggest power utility.

What’s your take on the Public Service Commission’s approval of NorthWestern Energy’s purchase of $870 million worth of hydropower dams?

The deal would add an extra $5 a month to ratepayers’ bills and is a key point of contention between former Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson and a former legislator Galen Hollenbaugh.

Both Helena men hope to replace Commissioner Bill Gallagher, a Republican, in the PSC’s District 5, which stretches from the Canadian line to the state’s capital city.

Hollenbaugh, a Democrat, said he would have voted against the purchase because it is unfair to ratepayers.

“I won’t be a rubber stamp for corporate rate increases,” he said. “It has been that way for at least four years, and it’s time for a change. It’s a little disheartening.”

He said the PSC should have negotiated a smaller rate increase for consumers and pushed more risk on the corporation.

Johnson, the Republican in the race, backs the PSC’s decision.

“I think the terms of the deal certainly were fair,” he said. “We’ll never know whether or not the commission could have pushed harder. By the time you find that out you’ve driven the utility from the table and it is too late. My sense is they made the right decision.”

Johnson, 62, ran for this seat four years ago and narrowly lost to Gallagher in the primary.

The defeat came shortly after he was pulled over for a DUI on the way back to Helena after visiting friends in Bozeman. He says the experience was a life-changing one that he has learned from.

Before that, he served four years at Montana’s Secretary of State. He lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Linda McCulloch in 2008, and he lost a rematch four years later. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000 and for the U.S. Senate in 2002.

A lifelong Republican, he volunteered for President Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and was a staffer for former Congressman Ron Marlenee during the mid-1980s. He’s been a consultant, and once managed Gallatin County’s fairgrounds.

Johnson’s political mantra sounds simple: less government.

“I want to see as little as government involvement in the daily lives in Montanans as possible,” he said. “I don’t believe that government ought to be the first place you go to gain the redress of an issue.”

Hollenbaugh, 46, is running his first campaign for an office other than the Montana Legislature, where he’s served since 2006. He was a vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in the 2012 session. He works as bureau chief in Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry.

He said he is proud of his ability to work across party lines to get meaningful deals done. He says a Democrat’s perspective would be valuable on a PSC whose current members are all Republicans.

“I would bring a little ballast to the committee,” he said. “I know I don’t have a reputation as standing as a partisan hack. The partisan rancor has crept into the state. It wasn’t like this before.”

Both candidates said they plan on being full-time commissioners if they are elected to the job that pays over $94,000 a year. Commissioners serve four-year terms.

Also running for the PSC this year is Republican Commissioner Travis Kavulla, who is seeking re-election. He faces no opponent.

 in his bid to represent the PSC’s District 1, which stretches from just west of Shelby to the North Dakota border.

Kavulla, a former journalist, cast the lone vote opposing NorthWestern’s hydropower purchase, saying ratepayers could have negotiated a better deal.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 10:58

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Daines, Zinke, Ostlund pegged as vote winners

Brad Molnar

Election Day predictions:

The Montana House and Senate Republican majorities will increase. Not because they have done much to brag about but rather because the Democrats bungled the opportunity handed to them when Republicans almost unanimously put state ownership of federal lands into the party platform. Access to those lands is a sacred cow, and the Democrats just tentatively nibbled around the edges.

An inside source told me the Democrat strategy was to tell their candidates to stay home and they would do the campaigning via direct mail pieces. That is easy but does not unseat incumbents.

I have followed only two Montana House races. Tony O’Donnell, R-Billings, though he made several errors, will unseat incumbent Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, who was a no-show candidate. Laurel, often called the Butte of the East will remain in Republican control with local businessman Vince Ricci, a Republican, defeating perennial Democratic challenger veterinarian Don “Doc” Woerner in what amounted to a sitzkrieg.

John Ostlund will be renamed Landslide Ostlund and retain his seat on the Yellowstone County Commission.

Republican Steve Daines has already prepared his humble acceptance speech to the U.S. Senate. Amanda Curtis, a Democrat, threw away her sliver of a chance when she decided to shrilly preach the liberal doctrine rather that unite conservatives and Libertarians by showing the hypocrisy of Daines’ votes vs. his campaign rhetoric.

Any hope Democrat John Lewis for the U.S. House was chucked overboard when he forgot Rule No. 1. Never ask a question you do not know the answer to. Lewis demanded Ryan Zinke’s missing military fitness reports after relying on the already disproven hypothesis of Navy SEAL Capt. Larry Bailey (See Outpost, Aug. 7) concerning a whopping $211 travel voucher. The ensuing story of a capable, dedicated SEAL commander has blunted Lewis’ Hail Mary, come-from-behind attempt. Not to mention this  is just a really bad year to be a Democrat candidate for any office.

Interestingly, one of two Montana Supreme Court races has caught fire with $700,000 “independent” dollars flowing in. I am not a Mike Wheat fan, but the crap that has been generated against him is embarrassing to me.

On the other hand, Mike Black, a former co-worker at the Montana Department of Justice, has come forward saying that Lawrence VanDyke is not willing to put in the time to study the issues and add to his capacities and lacks the demeanor to be a good judge.

In my experience talking with VanDyke, that is exactly right. After waiting three days to help him win via planning winning, low-cost campaign techniques I was rebuffed with, “I do not want to learn how to campaign.”

On the other hand, VanDyke is very intelligent and will learn quickly even if against his will. His victory would hopefully be a cautionary note for the other justices. Mike Wheat is a liberal, activist judge in a state that is tired of liberal activists, period. VanDyke will and should win. That would have been my gift to the remaining justices.

Jim Rice should lose for the same reasons Wheat should. But he is a pro-life, activist liberal, so the guns were massed on Wheat. I served in the Montana Legislature with Rice in 1993. He was a follower and political opportunist then and has not changed his stripes.

Rice’s opponent, David Herbert, spent the entire campaign at the Yellowstone Pachyderm Club asking local legislative candidates what they thought of a 1906 decision on jury nullification, then arguing with them. Rice will win in a landslide and misinterpret the message. Next time, Jim.

Brad Molnar has been in elective politics for 24 years.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 10:32

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Public Safety Levy 101: Making sense of issue

By STEPHEN DOW - For The Outpost

One especially complicated issue on the ballot this year is the public safety mill levy. It’s likely that you have some questions about it, so here are some facts to consider before you place your vote.

Q: Do we really need a public safety mill levy?

A. The city of Billings has grown over 25 percent during the past decade – from 94,000 residents to 109,000. During that time, the number of police officers on the force has also grown – but only by 10 percent (from 128 officers to 141).

Crime has also increased in the past decade. Drug-related crimes have risen 21 percent while aggravated assault cases have risen 96 percent.

Meanwhile, the budget for the Billings Police Department is only about 7.6 percent of the city’s budget. This is the smallest police budget for any large city in Montana – including Missoula, Bozeman, Butte and Helena.

Q: Why are we voting on this anyway?

A: The city’s charter limits the number of mills levied each year to 74 – unless residents vote otherwise.

Q: What will happen if the mill levy is approved?

A: The levy, if approved, would start in the 2015-2016 fiscal year.  The city’s public safety budget is currently $38 million. By 2025, that budget would increase to $60 million.

During the first five years of the levy, the city plans to hire 27 public safety officials. This will include 13 police officers, six firefighters, an animal control officer, a police clerk, a fire administrative support person, five 911 dispatchers, an assistant city attorney and a paralegal.

The money from the mill levy would also cover the costs needed to maintain the current services provided. This includes paying salaries and benefits for current public safety officials. The costs of fuel, equipment, vehicles and training would also be covered by the levy.

Q: What will happen if it’s not approved?

A: Fire Chief Paul Dextras has stated that not passing the levy could result in increased fire insurance rates, unstaffed fire stations and the loss of 50 public safety officials by the 2017/2018 fiscal year.

Q: Why would we have to lose safety officials if the levy isn’t passed? Couldn’t we keep employing the people that we already have?

A:  Our state reapportions property taxes in six-year cycles, which has the effect of flattening out the city’s revenues. Thus, the city’s property tax income has basically leveled off. This is why the city’s steady growth cannot pay for the public safety officials needed to provide the current levels of service. City projections predict that a $20 million levy would be needed to simply maintain the current level of services provided.

Q: How much would this costing me?

A: In the first fiscal year that the levy would be implemented (2015/16), 12 mills would be levied and produce approximately $2 million for public safety.  Thus, in 2015, the owner of a $400,000 home would pay approximately $62 in additional property taxes.

By the 2025/2026 fiscal year, 125 mills would be levied each year and produce approximately $22.8 million for public safety. Thus, in 2025, the owner of a $400,000 home would pay approximately $750 in additional property taxes. This means that these homeowners would have to pay approximately $50 more each month when paying property taxes.

According to Montana state law, property taxes are the only way to pay for public safety costs.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 10:30

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