The Billings Outpost

Democrats cheer legislative session results

BRAD MOLNAR - For The Outpost

Gathering at the Crowne Plaza’s banquet facility last Saturday, about 300 energized Democrats attended their 29th annual Harry S. Truman Democratic Dinner.

Office holders, wanna-be office holders and former office holders joined the rank and file. Many surmised this was a record number for an off-year election cycle and certainly larger than most similar events. It was about double the attendance at the Republican event the previous weekend (Outpost, May 7).

According to Pamela Ellis, secretary of the Yellowstone County Democratic Central Committee, turnout was up because “the committee organized early, had a website, Facebook page and direct mailings.” Others said they worked hard at selling tickets.

The excitement was generated by a recent string of legislative victories engineered from a solid minority position. Every speaker mentioned the victories: Medicaid expansion, the Confederated Kootenai Salish Tribe Water Compact, and the so-called Dark Money Bill. The close-but-no-cigar award went to the infrastructure bill, which died by the same one-vote margin many of their victories were achieved by.

Darrin Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow Nation, thanked the Democratic legislators for bringing home the Medicaid expansion bill. He said it was owed to the Crow Nation because medical care was supposed to compensate the tribe for loss of reservation lands.

However, according to Old Coyote, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t see it that way and had been reducing medical coverage, so now less than 45 percent of the tribe is covered. The expanded Medicaid coverage was needed to make up for the loss of federal dollars, he said. His heartfelt thank you was greeted with sincere applause.

His discussion of current energy issues was less well received. “Washington, D.C., says we need to take coal out of the energy portfolio,” he said. Sounding more like Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke, he said, “We are not going to power America with renewables.”

Chairman Old Coyote continued, “We need to invest in carbon capture technologies. We want to be a part of the U.S. economy, but D.C. says we should not.”

This did not generate any applause. But when Chairman Old Coyote ended with, “If you are a Democrat seeking public office, welcome to Indian Country,” he received a standing ovation.

A common theme throughout the event was the denunciation of “dark money.” A statement from Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said in part, “I stand with you as I work to keep dark money out of politics.”

Dark money allegations permeate the Democratic Party as much as they do the Republican Party. In the Jan. 2, 2013, Outpost, referring to $4.2 million in dark money that kept him in the race until a razor-thin victory, Tester said of the dark money group Montana Hunters and Anglers, “they were helpful” and that he was “glad the outside groups jumped in.”

Charges against Gov. Steve Bullock have languished on the desk of Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl. Those charges stem from activities of Hilltop Policy Solutions in his campaign for governor.

According to Mediatrackers, Democratic Executive Director Nancy Keenan was special counsel to Hilltop. Reps. Virginia Court and Margie MacDonald both also have been alleged to be supported by dark money.   

Throughout the legislative session, House Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, demonstrated a leadership skill level not seen since the 1990s when Speaker John Mercer, R-Polson, led the minority Republicans to strong long-term majorities in both houses. Much of the doom and divisiveness evident at the Republican Lincoln-Reagan Dinner was due to the victories of Rep. Hunter.

“They (House Republicans) elected conservative leadership, but we saw eight or nine ‘solid conservatives,’” Rep. Hunter said. “Because of them we have a governor that signed Medicaid expansion, dark money reform and the water compact. We needed the Senate to pass those bills, so we could modify the rules and use our ‘silver bullets.’ They formed kill committees to send our legislation to but we had the pragmatic Republicans. Don’t forget them. Oh, and ‘thank you’ to the Americans for Prosperity for galvanizing the moderates to our camp.”

Gov. Bullock was the last of many speakers.

“We got it all,” he said. “Jonathan Motl confirmed as commissioner of political practices, we cracked down on ‘dark money,’ we protected the sage grouse, and the CSKT water compact will have impacts across the entire state. We built a broad coalition that can show D.C. what it should look like. Nowhere was that more obvious than Yellowstone County,” he said, referring to Rep. Tom Richmond, R-Huntley, and Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Billings.

Bullock said that the demise of the infrastructure bill kept him from working on the critical Laurel water intake project. Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, said in his remarks that he tried to add the Laurel project to the infrastructure bill, but the amendment failed 30-70.

Gov. Bullock got the last word when he closed with, “We must defeat Attorney General Tim Fox. We must elect a Democratic House and Democratic Senate. Look what we accomplished as a minority. Imagine what we can do with a majority.”

Awards Given Out

During the 29th annual Harry S. Truman Dinner, many Democrats were honored or received awards. Perhaps none were as proud as the three recipients of the Give’ em Hell Harry Award.

The award gets its name from a quote attributed to President “The Buck Stops Here” Truman when he said, “I did not give them hell. I just told them the truth and they thought it was hell.”

Yellowstone County Democrats honored Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez, minority caucus leader, who represents Big Horn County; Minority Whip Rep. Margie McDonald; and Senate Minority Whip Robyn Driscoll. All three reside in Billings.

Their awards were given in recognition of votes this legislative session and, according to Pam Ellis, treasurer of the Democratic Central Committee, providing ethical leadership. Sen. Driscoll is the only honoree not term limited from her current seat.

This session’s votes that earned Sen. Driscoll the honor were for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact, Medicaid expansion and funding for education for 19-year-olds. She was honored for voting against authorizing firearms on campus or carrying concealed weapons without a permit, and against fetal anesthesia for abortions after 20 weeks.

Reps. MacDonald and Pease-Lopez also voted against fetal anesthesia for later term pregnancies and against carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. They voted for bills against bullying, texting while driving and drug testing welfare recipients.

Because the votes were selected by a committee and may not represent the preferred votes of the nominees, the nominees were given the opportunity to say what votes made them proudest. Rep. Pease-Lopez chose for the 2015 session House Bill 186 to revise laws related to protecting victims of sexual offenses and HB 47 to appropriate money for youth crisis diversion pilot projects. In the 2013 session it was HB 76 to create an independent office of child and family ombudsman.

Perils of the press

REPORTER’S NOTE: At an Outpost staff meeting, my editor mentioned my coverage of the Republican Lincoln-Reagan Day Banquet and said he assumed I would cover the Harry S. Truman Democratic Dinner. 

I announced that I was visiting press and they gave me my name tag, into which I inserted my Outpost business card.

Upon entering, I saw many old friends: John Gibson, with whom I had served on the Public Lands Access Association; State Auditor Monica Lindeen, with whom I served in the Legislature; former Mayor Chuck Tooley, with whom I attended several functions; and Rep. Robyn Driscoll, who used to compute my business taxes and whose first campaign ads I put together.

I sat at a table with new friends and fiddled with my camera. State Rep. and Democratic Central Committee Chairman Kelly McCarthy asked me to step into the hall. He asked me what I was doing there and said that he knew I was a Republican legislator.

I informed him that was 15 years ago and I was here as “press.”

He asked if David Crisp (the editor) knew I was there. I said it made no difference as the event was open to the public. He retorted that the public had to pay. I said that I paid for my beer but would not donate to the Democratic Party and at the Republican function I had paid just the cost of the meal since I felt it was wrong for the press to be active in the politics they cover.

He asked for Mr. Crisp’s phone number so he could verify. I told him to look it up and walked back toward my table.

He said he would take me at my word until he could verify. I asked if he were going to ask the reporter from the Billings Gazette or the staff from Q2 how they voted.

I have not been treated this way since, I think, 2001 when the Outpost and the Laurel Outlook covered my expenses to attend the Montana Democratic State Convention in Helena. Then executive director of the Democratic Party Brad Martin tried to bar me from entering the event. It got very tense. I went in there, too.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 May 2015 15:19

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Republican, Democrat see moderation in Helena

By SHARIE PYKE - For The Outpost

“Power politics is the diplomatic name for the law of the jungle,” wrote Ely Culbertson in 1946 at the dawn of the Cold War. Now power politics has become the name for our national officials. It’s a mode of government that most Americans would prefer to do without.

But take hope. At the League of Women Voters meeting for May, two legislators, Democrat Kelly McCarthy, House District 51 in Billings, and Republican Geraldine “Jeri” Custer of HD 39, a resident of Forsyth, talked about compromise in the 2013 Legislature.

It was Rep. Custer’s first term, but she’d been a lobbyist for Montana’s clerk and recorders and knew how the process should work. She is definitely not a part of the “Party of No,” Or as Sarah Palin once said, “The party of ‘Hell, No!’”

“I was a moderate Republican who didn’t leave my brain at the door,” said Custer. “I ran for office because I hated the direction of the party and their inability to get things done. But the attitude (of most Republicans) was anti-election and anti-government in general.

“The party leadership was always trying to bully me to go their way. The Old Guard told me to sit in the corner and vote like they told me. I didn’t.”

Montana has been the home of the Unabomber, the Freemen, white supremacists, and several eccentric but less volatile people, including the feisty and much admired Jeannette Rankin, another woman who spoke her mind and voted her conscience. Will Geraldine Custer be re-elected in 2016? The race for HD 39 will be one to watch.

Kelly McCarthy is a Democrat who sees himself as more of a libertarian, but says that he fits best with Democrats. He, too, sees the need for everyone to start working together. He cited Senate Bill 416, the infrastructure bill. 

“I didn’t love it and it wasn’t great for Yellowstone County, but I voted for it anyway,” he said. “This absolutely was not saddling our children with debt.

“These big, hairy projects are always funded that way. Someone borrowed to build our beautiful Capitol building. Bond rates in Montana are the best in the country, just 2 percent. We have a balanced budget, and we also have a great reserve. We always have the money to pay our bills.”

The infrastructure bill was hammered out and involved compromise in the Senate, the House and with the governor. But at the last minute, after the Senate agreed to stay in Helena to have one more vote on the bill, the House voted to adjourn after defeating the bill by a single vote.

Rep. Custer pointed out that the representative from Glendive, Alan Doane, voted against the infrastructure bill. Unless Gov. Steve Bullock calls for a special session, northeastern Montana, trying to deal with an influx of oil patch workers, will have to wait another two years for badly need relief.

But all was not doom and gloom. 

“I had the biggest win of my political career,” said Rep. McCarthy. “The government can no longer sue you and take your assets without your ever being tried or convicted. It protects innocent owners of property. There was heavy opposition from the Department of Justice, but both the Huffington Post and Cato Institute (two entities on opposite sides of the political spectrum) thought it was great.”

Rep. Custer said that we’re lucky to live in Montana. “Big government’s got their arm on us all the time,” she said. “The higher you go, the less they respond.”

But that’s not true in Montana. As of the 2014 election, a non-presidential election, 662,093 Montanans had registered to vote. Montanans have easy access to their state officials and believe that their opinion matters.

The grass roots support of Medicaid expansion demonstrated that premise. One moderate Republican, Sen. Edward Buttrey of Great Falls, carried the bill, and long, bipartisan negotiations and continual calls and emails from citizens finally produced results for Montana’s uninsured.

“There’s an old guard who’s used to being in charge and they aren’t going quietly,” Rep. McCarthy said. “But this legislative session has proved that the majority rules, not the majority party.”

Rep. Custer said, “Hopefully we did something good, and we’ll do it again.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 May 2015 15:11

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SBA picks local business

Rich Naylor, owner of My Handyman Service & Construction, Inc., a small residential property repair and construction company located in Billings, has been selected as the U.S. Small Business Administration Montana Small Business Person of the Year.

Naylor launched his business in October 2010, at the time focusing upon residential property repairs. Now just four and half years later, the business has grown from a one-man operation to providing jobs for seven employees.  While the handyman service is still a major part of his business, Naylor has expanded to finishing basements, building detached garages and remodeling kitchens and bathrooms. 

SBA District Director Wayne Gardella said Rich exemplifies the best qualities of a successful small business owner. “He is being recognized as much for his honesty, competence and leadership in small business as he is for supporting his employees, their families and serving the community.”

Every year the SBA chooses its Small Business Person of the Year in each state and territory.

Last Updated on Thursday, 07 May 2015 11:55

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Medicaid expansion: A riddle and a risk in Helena

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

Middle ground on Medicaid expansion eluded the Montana Legislature in 2013, and since then Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, has studied the issue, talked to hospitals and members of the other party and others to get to where he was last month: standing in front of the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee.

“This is a riddle we’ve been trying to solve,” said Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, during the committee hearing on his Senate Bill 405. “I believe the solution is in your hands.”

He dubbed it the Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership Act, HELP for short. The bill – which accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act and includes programs that attempt to get people out of poverty – might be the one that has the best chance to expand Medicaid in Montana. Three other Republican-sponsored Medicaid bills died on the House floor last week, thanks in part to several Republicans themselves.

Buttrey smiled confidently as he watched dozens of supporters speak. Turnout wasn’t as big for this hearing as for Gov. Steve Bullock’s Medicaid expansion bill earlier this month. After that proposal died, he - and Senate Democrats - have thrown their support behind Buttrey.

The bill passed the Senate, 28-21, and is awaiting action in the House.

Buttrey grew up in Great Falls, but hasn’t spent his whole life there. He comes from the family that ran a chain of grocery stores in Montana, but his dad didn’t want him to be a part of the family business. When Buttrey was in third grade, an astronaut who was also an electrical engineer visited his class.

“I came home that day and told my parents I wanted to be an electrical engineer and work at Boeing,” Buttrey said.

That’s pretty much what happened. Buttrey went to West Point for a bit but ended up at Montana State University studying electrical engineering and ultimately landing a job at Boeing.

He loved the work. He worked on weapons systems and with complicated problems.

“A lot of what I did was problem solving,” Buttrey said. “Whether it was dealing with stealth aircraft or new weapons, we were always trying to solve the impossible.”

Though it was his dream career, he found himself wanting to come back to Montana.

“Like most Montanans, I spent a lot of my life trying to get out of the state,” Buttrey said, “and then eventually decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life trying to get back to the state.”

In the late ’90s, he moved to Bigfork and launched Cable Technology, a manufacturing business that made electronics for aircraft, serving mostly “aerospace and military customers.” He also became an assistant coach for the Bigfork High School football team, alongside Todd Emslie.

In 2010, Buttrey ran for and won a Senate seat and served in his first legislative session in 2011.

“I’ve always said who you align yourself with when you first enter into the legislature is the most important thing in your legislative career,” Buttrey said in an interview early last week.

He was a little overwhelmed, but he found friends in the moderate faction of Republicans, like Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.

One day during the last session, Jones told Buttrey to come to a meeting and told him that he was going to be the Medicaid guy.

The product of his work is Senate Bill 405. The bill accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act – a point of contention for many Republicans – and expands coverage to people earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

It also asks recipients to pay small premiums for their Medicaid coverage and creates a program through the Department of Labor that’s meant to help those on Medicaid get out of poverty and buy insurance on the federal exchange. It would include a workplace assessment survey and a job placement program.

Parts of the bill require waivers from the federal government, which Buttrey is confident will get approved, although the process could take several months after the bill is signed.

It’s the third attempt this session to expand Medicaid. Gov. Bullock’s plan to cover as many as 70,000 uninsured people died earlier in March. Measures from the more conservative sect of the GOP estimated to cover around 10,000 people failed last in March.

Buttrey guesses his bill will cover around 45,000 people, but some supporters say it has the potential to cover the 70,000 in the so-called gap between eligibility for Medicaid and being able to afford to buy insurance on the exchange.

Along with Bullock, hospital and physician organizations are pleased. Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said his party will also back Buttrey’s plan.

“The fact is that the bill fulfills a couple of the threshold criteria,” Sesso said. Those criteria are the federal money and covering those earning up to 138 percent of poverty.

Sesso did say Democrats are uncomfortable with parts of the bill, like asking poor people to pay premiums for Medicaid coverage, but that it was a good compromise.

Not all Republicans are ready to support the bill, though.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Moore, R-Miles City, voted against the bill, seeing potential concerns in its use of federal money. He wanted to see a plan in case the federal money runs out.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who chairs the House Human Services Committee that voted down the governor’s bill to expand Medicaid, sees no positives in the bill.

“It’s awful,” Wittich said. “It’s worse than the governor’s bill.”

He said that it expands government too far by creating the work program under the Department of Labor. Government sponsored work programs have never worked, Wittich said.

George Paul, the chair of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee, which is in Buttrey’s district, said it appears to be another step away from the conservative Republicans for Buttrey.

That party committee is an example of how the well-known split in the Republican party even manifests itself on a local level. Since last summer, when Paul became chair of the committee, Buttrey and a few other moderate Great Falls Republicans - like Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick - have distanced themselves from the central committee.

The central committee recently censured Fitzpatrick, who has a bill that would gut the Republican lawsuit to close Montana’s primary elections. Paul doesn’t have a censure for Buttrey, but he said his work on Medicaid makes him - like Fitzpatrick - a “Republican-in-name-only,” or RINO.

“They’re looking pretty much like they would fit that description,” Paul said. “In general, the party doesn’t support the Medicaid expansion” available under the Affordable Care Act.

Buttrey said his work as a senator isn’t about following the party line wherever it leads, but about finding solutions. His work on Medicaid shows that.

On his campaign website for the 2014 election, he said he would support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but also makes the concession that it is law and pledges to work within the law to find a solution.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world for a legislator to do to spout rhetoric and vote no on everything,” Buttrey said. “You’re popular, you can defend your positions, but do you get anything done?”

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2015 10:00

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Bill wants fee to close coal plants

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

The Senate passed a bill last week that would force companies to pay a hefty fee for shutting down coal plants in Montana.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, crafted a bill as fast as he could once he heard about a pair of bills in the Washington Legislature aimed at shutting down the coal plant in his hometown. He noted that one of those Washington bills has since been tabled, and the other has been amended to be a study bill instead.

Ankney said his bill was still needed because of a growing anti-coal sentiment in the country. He said he wants people to know that if they want to shut down a coal plant “you’re going to have to pay up some money, dude.”

The impact fee would bring tens of millions of dollars into the county.  

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, the bill’s co-sponsor, said the situation reminded him of what happened when mines in Butte were closed, and he and hundreds of others lost their jobs.

“The state of Washington don’t care about us,” Keane said. “If the state of Washington wants to fight, let’s fight.”

Opponents of the bill said it unfairly penalizes utility companies for making a business decision.

The bill passed on a 28-19 vote.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2015 09:57

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Zinke blames woes on bureaucracy, political strife

By STEPHEN DOW - For The Outpost

Even though his town hall meeting on March 13 focused on homeland security, Congressman Ryan Zinke spent just as much time discussing threats coming from within our country as those coming from ISIS and Iran.

“The most dangerous threat we face is our own doing,” Zinke said to a crowd of nearly 75 people at Rocky Mountain College’s Prescott Hall. “It isn’t Russia. It isn’t China. It isn’t a natural disaster that’s causing havoc. It’s our own doing. We just let the government go. We thought it was going to run on its own and we got too busy. We didn’t pay attention. We didn’t get involved in politics and we let it go.”

According to Zinke, one of the threats coming from within our own government is an abundance of bureaucracy.

“What worries me is a bureaucracy that doesn’t let America do what America does best: innovate and think outside of the box,” Zinke said. “When the bureaucracy has become as heavy as it is, then it adversely affects the way that we as Montanans live our lives, and it prevents America from achieving economic prosperity.”

As an example of this overwhelming amount of bureaucracy in D.C., Zinke pointed out that the Chinese are able to complete a weapon-making process in anywhere from three to five years. Meanwhile, in the United States, the average weapon-making process takes anywhere from 12-19 years. Zinke said that the F-35 aircraft (a $400 billion investment) will be completely obsolete by the time it’s completed.

The freshman legislator from Whitefish also expressed concern about the divisions between America’s political parties that have made passing any legislation nearly impossible.

“We need to put our country first above political bantering,” he said.

For his part, Zinke expressed an interest in working across party lines in order to get his job done.

“I don’t look through the lens of either red or blue,” he said. “I look through the lens of red, white and blue. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat. What matters to me first and foremost is that you want to be part of a solution to fix this country.”

In addition to these threats coming within our own government, Zinke also discussed the dangers posed by ISIS, which he described as a “truly evil” organization and one that the U.S. should be fully committed to fighting.

“I’ve been to more funerals than there are people in this room,” Zinke said. “I understand the consequences of war and, to me, war is the last resort. But to think that we’re going to win the battle against ISIS through air operations alone is unrealistic. Our stated mission is to degrade and destroy ISIS, and it’s going to take people on the ground to do it.”

The congressman continued by saying that, while the fight won’t require the same capacity as the two Gulf Wars, it will still take a “significant amount of effort and resolve.”

Part of that effort will involve making sure that our soldiers are equipped with everything they need to win decisively over ISIS.

“I don’t want to see our sons and daughters fight unless we’re willing and able to give them everything they need to win decisively,” Zinke said.

Rep. Zinke also expressed concern about claims that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon.

“Make no mistake,” Zinke said. “If terrorist organizations are willing to run commercial aircraft into our towers and kill 3,000 Americans, they are certainly dedicated to bring a nuclear weapon into this country.”

Zinke said that it is only logical that other Middle Eastern countries would follow Iran’s lead if it developed a nuclear weapon. This would lead to a “nuclear proliferation” in an area of the world that is notoriously unstable.

“That scenario alone, in my judgment, should dictate that unless the deal with Iran says ‘no’ to nuclear weapons, we shouldn’t take it,” Zinke said.

Zinke quoted Ronald Reagan when he said that the best way to fight Iran is by “punching them in the face with the free market.” One way to do this is through becoming energy-independent.

“Being energy-independent provides options for this country,” Zinke said. “If we become energy-independent, we can blockade and control the export of oil from Iran and, if necessary, cripple their economy to a point where a nuclear weapon is no longer a possibility.”

While energy-independence once seemed to be merely a dream for the U.S., Zinke stated that the dream is close to becoming a reality through the process of fracking.

“Fracking is a game-changer,” Zinke said. “It has helped change the U.S. from being dependent on a foreign country for energy needs to being an energy-independent country that could be the next great exporter of energy. That makes a big difference in the Middle East.”

Zinke dismissed many of the controversies surrounding fracking by declaring that there had “never been one documented case of a mix between a frack and an aquifer.” He added that the development of alternate energy technologies is insufficient to meet our country’s needs.

“To think that we’re going to power our country and the world on alternate energies alone is tantamount to pixie dust and hope,” he said. “It’s not going to happen – not in your lifetime and not in your children’s lifetime.”

In addition to homeland security and energy independence, Zinke also discussed other subjects affecting Montanans during the hour-and-a-half long meeting.

One of these was a need for improved technological infrastructure across Montana.

“Did you know that the cellphone coverage in Iraq is better than the coverage in Montana?” the former Navy SEAL commander asked. “If we can’t compete with a Third World country, then how do we think that we can compete with Idaho or Wyoming or the world? A lot of the economy in Montana is made up of small businesses and not having cellphone coverage can affect business. It can also affect our children’s education. Infrastructure is an area where Montana needs to take a giant step forward.”

Zinke also discussed the Affordable Care Act controversy and expressed hope that that federal subsidies that pay for coverage under the ACA would be ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court as early as June. He said that Congress would then develop a much smaller insurance plan that could be created and administered regionally so that “the voices of Montanans could be heard.”

Zinke acknowledged that he and his fellow legislators have a long road ahead of them and that the problems plaguing our country couldn’t be fixed quickly.

“We’re going to have to learn to accept that running a few yards up the field is better than staying where we are,” he said.

The congressman also acknowledged that all Montanans had a role to play in the future of their state and country.

“What I’m asking all of you to do is get involved,” Zinke said. “It’s your country. It’s your state. Get involved. Be informed. The problems facing our country are fixable, but it’s going to take all of us working together to make it happen.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 12:16

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Legislature debates paying for coal litigation

By MADELYN BECK - Legislative News Service - UM School of Journalism

Montana legislators are considering a bill that would give $1 million to the Montana Department of Justice for a potential lawsuit against states that hinder Montana’s coal trains from getting to larger markets. Namely, markets like China.

While House Bill 244 doesn’t specify exactly what cases the money would fund, it’s about making sure ports in Washington and Oregon are open to coal traffic.

Currently, those ports are under construction, but opposition from environmental groups and local governments is stalling that construction.

This leaves Montana in a bind. Republican Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, home to four coal-fired power plants, is one of the strongest proponents for funding litigation to open the Washington and Oregon ports.

“This is very important to Montana. Our future in the coal markets is in the international market. It’s very important that we have access to those ports on the West Coast,” Ankney said.

Opponents of the bill, like Republican Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman, aren’t too keen on spending $1 million with so much uncertainty.

“We don’t even know what the litigation would be, who the parties would be, what the issues would be … so until we know all those things, I just, I don’t see the value of setting aside a million dollars of taxpayer money to think about it,” Wittich said.

To arguments that this money would be wasted if court cases don’t happen, Jon Bennion of the Montana Department of Justice says all of this money would then flow back into the state coffers.

“This money, as we see it, is restricted for this sole purpose. If it is not used, it will be refunded at the end of the next biennium,” Bennion said.

The bill faces opposition from groups like Greenpeace, the Blue Skies Campaign and Bozeman Climate Alliance, which have participated in rail rallies to stop coal traffic in Missoula and Helena, largely protesting the negative climate impacts of perpetuating coal use.

Helena resident Mike Lee has another issue with fighting to open the ports. He said if those ports open, it’s going to likely double the yearly rail traffic, meaning longer wait times at the tracks.

“How many hours of idling automobile traffic associate with 1,000 and maybe more hours of blocked vehicular traffic at all of Helena’s railroad crossings,” Lee said. “Not to mention those blocked crossings in other Montana cities.”

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that the state needs to fight for these ports or face missing out on jobs as others capitalize on growing coal demand overseas.

University of Montana Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research Patrick Barkey said the U.S.’s coal demand is stagnating and could actually drop. But if coal can be exported through western ports, Barkey said it will likely find a long-term market as China’s economy and its hunger for coal grow rapidly.

Currently, coal trains largely use ports in British Columbia, which are reaching maximum export limits.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jeff Essmann, said the basis of the potential court case would rest in the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause, by which the state can’t inhibit transportation through another state.

However, others argue the clause has more to do with commerce between nations, and one state can’t just force another state to build a port.

Opponent Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center doesn’t agree with using state funding to fight another state’s decisions and said they should focus on working together.

“What this bill really seems to do is try to force economic development through litigation. And to me, that’s not how you get economic development,” Hedges said.

Montana is not alone in trying to fund these litigation efforts. Wyoming’s legislature passed a similar bill last year at about half the size of Montana’s $1 million proposal.

The Montana Finance and Claims committee will likely vote on this bill in the next few weeks, deciding whether to pass it off to the full Senate, or kill it where it sits. The bill passed the House 53 to 45 last month.

Madelyn Beck is a reporter for the Legislative News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 12:08

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Legislative session mostly amicable – so far

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

Winter at the Capitol has been a bit calmer in 2015.

“Last time, by now things were fairly heated up,” said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.

During the last legislative session in 2013, a clear divide in the Republican majority at the Montana Legislature influenced major bills and made headlines for more than a year afterward. The split hasn’t dominated headlines so far, but a few major votes show it’s alive in both chambers and may prove influential in the second half of the  session.

It all started with a group of moderate Republicans – Jones being one of the most prominent –  joining Democrats to move major bills onto the governor’s desk, such as a school funding bill and a state employee pay plan.

Carroll College political scientist Jeremy Johnson said he doesn’t think that sort of divide has been as big of a factor in the early goings of the session. Johnson has taught at Carroll since 2011, and has watched the legislative sessions closely, especially since the Capitol is just down the road from his office.

He remembers 2013 as a year where every news story included something about the split in the Republican Party.

“I don’t think it’s been as extreme,” Johnson said, adding that he doesn’t think the conservative wing of the party is as strong as it was before.

Some votes in the last few weeks have shown a willingness among some Senate members to join with Democrats to pass bills. Senate Bill 289, Gov. Bullock’s major campaign finance reform bill, passed on a 28-22 vote. Senate Bill 262, the Flathead Water Compact, got through on a 31-19 vote.

The water compact is a contentious agreement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and state and federal governments. It’s divided the state for the most part, with opponents saying it takes away water rights and proponents saying it prevents costly litigation. 

Inside the Senate, it’s been no different. It is carried by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, who has fought members of his own party on the bill at every step of the process. There have been reports of him clashing with party leadership at different points in the process, but for the most part, senators say the party has far more civil than in 2013.

“The first half, I think, has gone probably smoother than many people anticipated,” said former Sen. Jim Peterson.

Peterson, a Republican from Buffalo, was in the Senate in 2013. He saw the split firsthand.

“There was just too much rancor last time,” Peterson said.

Last session’s split even bled into the 2014 primary elections, with leaders of the party’s conservative wing trying to find candidates who could unseat the more moderate Republicans.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, said he thinks the party leadership is more focused on keeping the party together this session.

Key figures in last session’s Senate leadership – former Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, and his Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman – have crossed over to the House, where the split has been more pronounced in 2015.

The first week was dominated by a rules fight, which saw a group of Republicans helping Democrats fight against rule changes they thought were to keep the majority party in control. The fight ended in a deal that gave Democrats six chances to save bills from dying in committee.

Some of the more conservative Republicans said the moderates forced the leadership to make the deal. Other than that, there aren’t many votes to point to that show a definitive split in the party.

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said  no one vote really shows the House Republican split just yet because it’s not always the same lawmakers who join with the Democrats. But he did acknowledge that if a bill has wide Democratic opposition, it seems easier to stop those bills.

“I can’t believe how many bills have gone down on the floor,” Fitzpatrick said. “If the Democrats lock up, it’s easy to kill it.”

The Democrats also have two more seats in the House than they did in 2013.

House Minority Whip Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said that has likely helped them block more bills this session. They only need nine Republicans to cross over, and on more than a few occasions have been able to do it.

“I don’t think we can be taken for granted as a caucus,” Eck said.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said he wouldn’t attribute it directly to gaining two seats, but to a blend of that and “thoughtful folks on the other side of the aisle.”

In the second half of the session, the split in the Republican majority will likely be more influential. Bills like the Flathead water compact and the governor’s campaign finance reform that split the party in the Senate will move over to the House. Major issues like Medicaid expansion will move through the system as well.

Johnson, the political scientist, said those are the reasons the session will be worth watching in the second half.

“All the big decisions still have not been made,” he said. “Stay tuned.”

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, 05 March 2015 13:18

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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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