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Rules Debates Dominate The First Week Of The Montana Legislature

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Michael Wright - Community News Service
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The 2015 Montana Legislature convened Jan. 5, and ceremonial and educational events welcomed the 150 lawmakers from all over the state to Helena.

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Credit Michael Wright - Community News Service
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Senate Minority leader Jon Sesso

During the swearing-in ceremonies, the leaders of each party said they hoped the parties would work together to better the state.

“I look around this room and see 50 individuals dedicated to making Montana a better place,” said new Senate President Debby Barrett, R-Dillon. Barrett is the first woman elected Senate president, and she spoke about increasing the power of the legislative branch.

“It is my goal to return the legislature to an equal footing with the other branches of government,” she said.

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Credit Michael Wright - Community News Service
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Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen during the Republican Caucus Jan. 8.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said his party was looking forward to cooperating with folks from across the aisle.

“We intend to be a part of the majority of Senators working on the best ideas,” he said.

In the House, new Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, also talked about cooperation and noted that he didn’t seek to be the most powerful man in the room.

“The speaker’s role is not to be a dictator,” he said.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, was proud to point out that despite being overwhelmingly in the minority, there are two more Democrats than there were last session.

Republicans enjoyed a 61-39 majority in 2013. This session, it’s a 59-41 majority.

Hunter called for investment in public schools and construction around the state.

Party Priorities

The House and Senate Republicans sent out a press release on the first day that named their top priorities for the session, including “strengthening the economy, improving educational opportunities, safeguarding healthcare options, and protecting individual rights.”

In the press release, Senate President Debby Barrett called it the most coordinated plan she’d ever seen from the two Republican caucuses.

Democrats from both chambers held a press conference on the first day to explain their priorities, which centered on investing in projects around the state.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said the party stands for families and communities, and said the state needs investment in a major way in communities through both bonding and using existing state funds.

The Democrats will be pushing Gov. Steve Bullock’s version of Medicaid expansion, while the Republicans have been working on a solution of their own that doesn’t include using new federal money.

Republicans will push for school choice, which is an effort to increase alternative options to public education.

New Mural

The Montana Women’s Mural was unveiled in front of hundreds of spectators at the Capitol after a brief ceremony Wednesday.

The mural is the result of legislation passed in the 2011 session by then-Rep. Diane Sands and former Sen. Lynda Moss, who said women weren’t well represented in the other artwork in the Capitol.

Missoula artist Hadley Ferguson was chosen to paint the mural, and at the ceremony she spoke to the crowd, which filled every inch of standing room around the mural, smart phones out snapping photos of the speakers and the new art.

“Hopefully any woman can look at these images and see a piece of themselves,” Ferguson said.

First Lady Lisa Bullock spoke at the ceremony, as did Senate President Debby Barrett and House Speaker Austin Knudsen.

Rules
 

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Credit Michael Wright - Community News Service
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From left, Steve Fitzpatrick, Christy Clark, Chuck Hunter and Jeffrey Welborn discuss an impending deal.

Rules dominated the news in the first week of the Montana Legislature. Democrats said some changes proposed by the GOP leadership were designed to give the party more power than they’d had before.

The fight centered on a rule that would have given Speaker Austin Knudsen the power to effectively kill a bill, by referring it to the House Appropriations committee when it came to the House floor for final debate. The change would have required 60 votes – commonly referred to as a super majority – to overturn his decision. The old rule required 51 votes, a simple majority.

That change was thrown out in the House Rules committee before the measure made it to the floor, but the Democrats didn’t rest there.

Minority Leader Chuck Hunter pushed for a simple majority on something called a “blast” motion, which would draw a dead bill out of committee and onto the floor. That amendment failed in committee.

However, Knudsen and Hunter did make a deal before Thursday’s floor session that would give each party six “silver bullets.” Silver bullets are requests for bills to be exceptions to the rule, requiring only a simple majority to be blasted out of committee.

Knudsen said they worked out a deal because there were amendments he and his party wouldn’t be able to stop because of Republicans who were going to support Democrat amendments.

“The numbers are what they are,” Knudsen said.  

Privacy, Ag land valuation, sexual offender registry

The House Business and Labor committee heard a bill that would create some privacy guidelines for people with cars that have event data recorders. These devices record information about a driver’s habits while behind the wheel, for example whether they are too close to another vehicle or are speeding.

That data is helpful in accident investigations, but legislators and lobbyists had privacy concerns.  

Proponents of the bill said that the data belongs to the drivers, and they worried that insurance companies might use it to charge people higher rates if the companies had unrestricted access to the data.
 
Representatives from insurance agencies like State Farm and Allstate said the bill would hurt innovation in the insurance business, adding that data is important to accurately evaluate risk.  

The House Judiciary committee heard a bill on Friday that seeks to modernize the state’s sex offender registry.

Rep. Sarah Laszloffy, R-Billings, presented HB88, which would add e-mail addresses and social media information from sex offenders to the state sex offender registry.

Derek Van Luchene, speaking in support of the bill, told the story of his brother, Ryan, who was kidnapped and murdered by a sex offender in Libby in 1987. He said more protection was needed both in physical neighborhoods and “our digital neighborhoods.”

The bill also would increase the minimum time the offender is on the sex offender registry to 15 years instead of 10.

The Senate Taxation committee advanced a bill that would add legislators and give more power to the Agricultural Land Valuation Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the Department of Revenue regarding land values.

If the bill becomes law, the Department of Revenue would only be able to change parts of how it decides land value – specifically the base water cost and capitalization rate of land – with recommendations from the committee. Four legislators in all would be added to the committee, two from the House and two from the Senate.

“I think that this puts the ag land valuation committee in the proper relationship,” said Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, who sponsored of the bill.

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