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'Capitol Talk:' Will Bullock Run? Bills Address Child Sex Abuse, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women

'Capitol Talk' is MTPR's weekly legislative analysis program.
Montana Public Radio
Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative analysis program.

This week at the Capitol: There's new momentum this legislative session to end Montana's statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases; Gov. Bullock remains vague about his political aspirations; the U.S. Supreme Court leaves Montana's campaign contribution limits in place; direct care workers may get a raise; and rallies to focus attention on missing and murdered Indigenous women coincide with possible legislative action. Learn more now on Capitol Talk with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.

Sally Mauk: Welcome to Capitol Talk our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

And Rob, Gov. Steve Bullock wants to focus attention on his legislative priorities this session like Medicaid expansion and funding for preschool. But he was asked by the press this week if and when he plans to announce he's going to run for president. Here's how he responded to that question.

"My aspirations are to make sure that we have publicly-funded preschool for kids, and Medicaid expansion. You know we're right at the start of legislative session, that's where I'm focused," Bullock says.

That wasn't a yes or no Rob, but he can't dodge the question for ever.

Rob Saldin: He doesn't sound real eager to talk about it. The reality is that the timing on this thing is a little awkward for Bullock. Several people have already announced that they're running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and we're sure to see lots more announce here in the next several weeks. In a perfect world, Bullock would also want to declare so he can start raising money, and just to get the media coverage that goes along with announcing. The problem, of course, as he says is that we've got this legislative session going on and it's not scheduled to wrap up until May 1.

Now, technically speaking there's nothing to prevent Bullock from announcing his candidacy for president during the session, but as a practical matter it's definitely not ideal. The concern is that it would be perceived as looking past his job as governor. Republicans would certainly accuse him of prioritizing his White House ambitions over the job he actually has. And beyond the perception issue you'd have to worry that it could poison the well for Bullock's effectiveness in achieving his goals for the special session, because Republicans in Helena just aren't going to want to hand a Democratic presidential candidate a bunch of legislative victories. So the timing here is not great.

SM: There's also speculation about if he didn't run for president, would he announced that he might want to run for one of Montana's congressional seats that's going to be up in 2020.

RS: Right. We've heard absolutely none of that from Bullock or his people, but I do definitely get the sense that that question is emerging from some Democrats who are starting to question the wisdom of this presidential run. And the thinking on this goes something like this: It's that Bullock chances of winning the presidential nomination are very small, right. Not zero. Weird things happen. There's a large field of candidates. These things are unpredictable, but realistically it's no knock on Bullock to acknowledge the reality that the presidency is a long-shot.

Meanwhile, next year Montana Democrats are going to have to field candidates for governor, for U.S. Senate, for U.S. House. Not to mention the other statewide offices. And they have a short bench right now, it's going to be a serious challenge, I think a lot of Democrats feel, for them to just field plausible competitive candidates let alone to win any of those elections. And the only thing that some people see that could really upset that dynamic would be if Bullock switches horses and decides to challenge Senator Daines or Congressman Gianforte — who right now you'd have to consider big favorites for re-election. If Bullock went for one of those, though, that would be a real game-changer. That Senate race would immediately become a toss-up. Bullock would probably have a slight edge for the House seat. So I do see out there Democrats now thinking along those lines. And some of them, I think, are quietly hoping that Bullock might reconsider what he wants to run for.

SM: And even though, as you say, he wants to focus on the session while it's in session, the speculation about his political future isn't going to go away and it's not going to suddenly reappear in May. It's going to be something he's going to have to cope with one way or another during the session, I think.

RS: Yeah, yeah it'll be there. But I do think the dynamic could really change if he did actually go out and announce, right? I mean, I think that would change things. It's going to be there in the background simmering but it's a whole different order if he actually goes ahead and announces.

SM: Well Holly, Helena Democratic Representative Mary Ann Dunwell has a bill that would allow child sex abuse cases to be brought no matter how long ago the abuse happened. And right now Montana has a time limit on those cases.

Holly Michels: So, right now the limitation for bringing criminal charges for felony sex crimes against children is 20 years. That is an increase from what we had before in the 2017 session. We bumped that up from 10 years to 20. But this would do away with it entirely. And it comes out of a case from Miles City that the Billings Gazette's covered very extensively. A man named James Doc Jensen, who's in his late 70s, has admitted to molesting children when he was an athletic trainer at Custer County High School from the late 1970s to 1998. And that timeline's important because Jensen recently started contacting his victims after the clock ran out where you could bring criminal charges for what he has admitted to.

Well Jensen's daughter Kristen Newby testified in support of legislation to end the statute of limitations.

"He was able to get away with his crimes for a very long time because of a system that was set up to protect him more than it was set up to protect the students," Newby said.

SM: And Holly, that was very powerful testimony. I mean, she's testifying against her own father.

HM: Yeah this is the first time that Kristen has spoke about this. And she emphasized that she knows that this legislation can't actually address her father's case because it would only deal with cases that are still within the limitations and all cases going forward. But she really just emphasized that she doesn't want to see the situation happen again.

SM: And of course, no one spoke in opposition to this. No there was no opposition.

HM: Some lawmakers asked about making sure that if these cases are brought far, far after the alleged crime was committed, the right to a fair trial. And proponents of the bill emphasize that, you know, there's still the same standard; you need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. So yeah, there's no opposition but just some questions about what it would mean.

SM: Rob this week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case challenging Montana's limits on campaign contributions. And this is a big win for those who think money has become too big a factor in elections.

RS: Yeah exactly Sally. So by declining to take the case the Supreme Court is letting Montana's current law remain in place. And that law goes back to a 1994 voter initiative that placed limits on donations to political candidates.

Now, the background here is that in the 2010 Citizens United case the court ruled that outside groups — that is, organizations that are separate from political candidates — could spend as much as they want on political advocacy because any limitations on that constituted a violation of the First Amendment's free speech protection. Well, the challenge here was similarly based on free speech but had to do with donations made directly to political candidates. So the question was, well, would the Supreme's extend that line of thinking in Citizens United and apply it to money going directly to candidates. And we know now the answer to that question is no. So by declining to hear the case, the rules we've been living under for a quarter century are going to stay in place for state candidates. It's not going to be that total free-for-all that some people hoped for following the Citizens United decision, and that others feared. But it's also a clear indicator, I think, that despite Citizens United and despite a more conservative court, that there is still significant space for regulating campaign finance. And that's something that wasn't entirely clear before this. So that's a big win for those both here in Montana and beyond who worry about money and politics, and that it has a corrupting influence, and who want to take legislative steps to rein it in.

SM: I wonder if their reaction to Citizens United, and what sort of spending that unleashed, had an influence on the court's decision not to hear this case.

RS: Well, that's always an issue for the court, right. One of the old things that the court has to grapple with is that they rely on public opinion to a degree. They can't go out and enforce their own opinions. They rely on the public's sense of legitimacy about the court and the president and the administration backing that up, right. So the court does have to be aware of where the public is on these kinds of things.

SM: Holly, Montana currently ranks near the bottom when it comes to helping people with disabilities. And budget cuts in the last session made things worse. Kalispell Republican Senator Al Olszewski is carrying several bills to try to improve those services, including one that would give direct care workers a pay raise.

"We pay them a very lean rate for their services. And this is seen very clearly in what happened in 2017 where literally the reduction of 3 percent in their provider rates caused services to collapse. It caused industries that provided valuable service to disappear," Olszewski said.

And it was pointed out that people who work in a fast food place like McDonald's make more money than people who work with the disabled.

HM: So Senator Olszewski's bill would help increase the pay that those people who work directly with those who have developmental disabilities receive. That came up in testimony that a lot of those providers can't offer a wage that competes with something like the local fast food restaurant. And that makes it hard for them to have employees and just provide that care in communities. So those are pretty physically and emotionally demanding jobs as well. In Helena because of those budget cuts that we saw from the last session we saw Helena Industries, which provides services for people with disabilities, go out of business entirely after the budget cuts. And other care providers around the state have reduced their services.

The budget process in Helena is just getting started this session. The advocates especially in the Health and Human Services world are calling for some of the cuts that we saw from 2017 to be restored. The health department was cut about $70 million during a special session in November of that year. Thirty million of that was restored. But there were also cuts prior to that session over the summer and through the budgeting process that year.

SM: So a lot of what this session is going to be doing is trying to make up for previous cuts.

HM: Yep. It's different in agencies across the board because they were all affected differently by the cuts. But we're starting to sort of see in the budget process now where people want to set that starting limit for the budget, and then what's possible to rebuild this session.

SM: Tommorow there are rallies in Missoula and Kalispell to draw attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women. And Lauren Small Rodriguez is one of the organizers of the Missoula rally. Here's what she has to say about why they were being held.

"Really the priority is hearing the voices of the mothers, the aunties, the grandmothers, the sisters of those who have been murdered in horrendous, horrendous crimes."

And Holly, the Legislature will also be addressing this issue.

HM: Yeah, there's another set of bills that was also worked on during the interim between 2017 and this session, crafted with recommendations by the State Department of Justice. The main bill that we're watching right now is called Hanna's Act, which will let the Department of Justice help with all missing persons investigations; just clarify jurisdictional issues there. And it also would create a position within that department, a missing persons specialist to help with these cases. That's named for Hanna Harris, a woman from Lame Deer who was found murdered after she was missing for several days on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. There's other bills that are part of that package to deal with the problem, that we'll see introduced as well.

SM: Well it's an issue that's long overdue getting the attention both in the Legislature and from the federal government as well.

The other issue in the Legislature this week Holly is the "Capitol Crud" has struck early, and attendance is down and probably should be down more than it is because a lot of people who are sick are probably showing up when they shouldn't have.

HM: We have had a lot of people sick. My fellow reporter's actually out sick today. We've also people, like you said, showing up when they're sick, so hopefully that sort of slows down, people start feeling better and we can get going here. But it definitely has been noticeable both among legislators and lobbyists, journalists, other people around. Not everybody's feeling that great.

SM: I think you need to put a wall up actually, that's my suggestion.

You've been listening to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with Lee newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Keep the Purell handy and we'll talk to him next week.

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