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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk': Wilderness Schools; Infrastructure; Colstrip; And Columbus Day

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.
'Capitol Talk': MTPR's Weekly Legislative Analysis Program

Tonight on Capitol Talk: State lawmakers are buckling-down on a number of issues, including increased oversight of non-profit schools for troubled teens; what infrastructure projects to support or reject; what to cut or support in the health department; and whether ratepayers should bear the burden of keeping Colstrip's coal plant going.

Learn more now on Capitol Talk.

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

And Holly, the Senate by a good margin this week passed Missoula Democratic Sen. Diane Sands’ bill that would move oversight of for-profit wilderness schools for troubled teens to the state Health Department. And the goal is to strengthen that oversight which, as we've discussed in previous shows, has been lax at best. This bill, Holly, was given up for dead, but now it has serious new life.

Holly Michels: Yeah, it was killed in committee; it's brought back; it cleared the Senate, like you said, on a pretty convincing vote. I think in the end it was 33 to 17. There is some history though with the Legislature not addressing this issue in years past. Sen. Diane Sands pointed out on the Senate floor Tuesday that when legislators initially set up this board it intentionally created a weak oversight system because at the time a lawmaker ran one of these treatment programs. And we have heard over and over this session for about a dozen years there's been efforts to change this, but it's not made it very far.

We did hear a little opposition in the Senate floor this week including from legislators who are from northwestern Montana, where some of these facilities are clustered. Sen. Jennifer Fielder, who's a Republican from Thompson Falls, said she's seen programs in her district that seem to be working and helping kids. She also said it was really up to parents to do research online to see if they're sending their kids to safe places. Though just this Friday we heard on a separate bill from a parent who did that; she even visited a facility and it turned out to be not at all what she expected for her child.

We also heard lawmakers being pretty critical of the Health Department, which has been a theme through this session. In this case they're questioning if it has the ability to take on this work. But the department has said it's already inspecting these types of facilities, so it's set up for this. We also heard opposition from Republican Mike Cuffe, who's from Eureka, near where some of these programs are. He actually questions some of the veracity of the Missoulian’s reporting, but Sands pointed out, you know, that reporting and other court cases have found that there's been suicides or attempted suicides at these schools, unlicensed counselors. One of these programs has been sued three times over claims of failing to protect teenage girls from grooming behavior and sexual assault. And then there's the matter of this five-person board, three of which are people from these programs that they're actually regulating. Sands has called that the fox guarding the henhouse.

Mauk: As you just mentioned, the Senate by a fairly substantial margin agreed with Sen. Sands about the need to strengthen the oversight of these schools by passing the bill. But do we have any idea, Holly, how it might fare in the House? One assumes there will be opposition there as well.

Michels: Yeah, I think we're seeing more support this session than we have in years past, probably a lot because of the Missoulian series and heightened attention on this issue. We have seen this bill dead once and brought back, so you know it'll be interesting to see what the House does with it. The House is also hearing related bills trying to look at religious exemptions for programs that are similar to what this bill deals with, but have a religious component. Those are exempt from all oversight right now. So they're dealing with similar bills; we'll see how those go and that might give us an indication.

Mauk: That is what some consider a loophole as a way to escape oversight.

Also this week, Holly, Republicans in the House introduced their infrastructure bill, which has less money than the governor's proposed infrastructure bill. But it does include bonding to help pay for some of those projects, and it includes money to renovate Romney Hall at Montana State University, which the University System has long pushed for. So there are a lot of things in that bill that the governor and Democrats are fine with.

Michels: Yep. So we saw the Republican version of an infrastructure package clear the House Appropriations Committee on a 17-5 vote. So again pretty strong support. In that same meeting lawmakers also killed off the governor's infrastructure, his version of the bonding bill. What the Republican plan has is Romney Hall. It would have gotten $32 million under the governor's plan. The Republican bill gives it $25 million and has the university fundraise for the rest. Inclusion of Romney Hall is a pretty good sign at this point for the University System. Like you said, for the last five sessions this has been their top priority project. We heard from one legislator, Tom Woods, who's a Democrat from Bozeman and actually teaches at MSU, about why this renovation is needed. He said with record-high enrollment he's had to teach in a converted closet. He's also reserved conference room space for classes. This renovation would take Romney from four classrooms that serve about 150 students to 19 classrooms that serve about 1,000 students.

Lawmakers did ask a lot of questions about the condition of Romney Hall, which makes sense. We've seen two buildings with flat roofs collapse on MSU's campus after all this heavy snowfall. The university spokesman said Romney has a barrel vaulted roof, and he equated it to, “built like a tank,” so it's fairly sturdy. We did hear opposition to this project from another Bozeman legislator: Representative Tom Burnett, who's a Republican. He sort of questioned why there's a need to do these projects and spend taxpayer money on buildings. While MSU has seen an increase in enrollment, there's been a decrease across the entire University System. A representative for the school pointed out that students kind of value being able to pick what schools they attend. So that was their response to that. Still a long road for this bill. It'll need two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate since it would have the state take on debt. So we'll see where that turns out.

Mauk: Nothing like collapsed roofs to point out the need for some infrastructure money.

However, the bill does not include funding for a new state historical museum, which the governor supports and which officials like Montana Historical Society director Bruce Whittenberg have been requesting for years now.

“My hope is that this is the session that finally quits kicking this can down the road,” Whittenberg said.

Mauk: Rob, I think the can might be headed down the road. Why are Republicans so opposed to this new museum?

Rob Saldin: I think from the perspective of those who see themselves as defenders of limited government the Historical Society just looks like an unnecessary indulgence, right? I mean some legislators really see their role as one of restraining government and from this perspective government's natural course is to just constantly grow, to be expanding and doing more and more and of course spending more and more taxpayer money, right? It never ends; it's never enough; if you give a little here they'll come back demanding even more. So from this perspective it's just a constant struggle to keep things in check. And in this particular case they look at the situation and say “You know, hey, that new museum, gee, sounds really nice, but that's just not a critical infrastructure need.” And in fact some of them would say “Look, that's not even infrastructure.” At least the way they think of it, infrastructure is roads and sewers and bridges and things of this sort, not some fancy new museum in Helena. So they'd say “Look, we've got real infrastructure needs but this just isn't one of them.” I think that's their outlook on this issue, and of course the people at the Montana Historical Society disagree. And this has been going on for so long, so many legislative sessions. I take a group over from the university every year and you can see how constrained they are and limited with the space that they have. They could do a lot more with a bigger building, but it's going to be a heavy lift this session. That's for sure.

Mauk: As it has been in the past, right?

Holly, the House Appropriations Committee has passed a $10 billion state budget that keeps some serious cuts to the state Health Department, and Missoula Democrat Marilyn Ryan believes permanently cutting 100 jobs from that department that could be saved by raising taxes is a mistake.

“We don't have enough revenue to provide the services that are being requested and needed in the state,” Ryan said.

Mauk: Republicans, Holly, are holding firm to no tax increases.

Michels: Yep. That's something we've heard for several sessions now, specifically Republicans opposing about $100 million in tax proposals from the governor. Things like accommodations, the rental car tax, alcohol and tobacco tax. Those bills haven't actually been heard yet, but I think it's pretty likely that they won't get much traction. We do hear about these “no new tax” pledges from Republicans every session, but I think it's important to note the Legislature does pass increase fees and taxes pretty routinely. We see some of those proposed in the dueling Medicaid expansion bills; those do have increases in fees. So some of that work is done, but I think it's pretty likely that Bullock’s proposals aren't going to get a lot of traction.

Republicans are saying they want government to live within its means and really assess what programs are needed versus which are more wants. Republican Nancy Ballance, who's on the Appropriations Committee, spoke about how the state can often add programs when they're funded with a greater share of federal funds. And as that steps down the state's left with these programs that come at a big cost. And it really needs to assess if it's worth providing those or not. Rep. Llew Jones, who's a Republican from Conrad, was pretty critical of the Health Department opposing the cuts to their department about funding for about 100 positions that have been vacant for a long time. Jones is arguing that if that money isn't being used to pay for employees and it's not going to pay for programs and services, it’s just sitting there not doing anybody any good.

Mauk: Of course the budget is a long way from being approved by both chambers and by the governor, so a long way to go on that.

Rob a Senate committee heard testimony this week on a bill to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. And this bill has already passed the House, and sponsor Missoula Democrat Shane Morigeau hopes to get it through the Senate and into law.

“You know, Columbus Day is something that I dread every year. I dread that the state celebrates somebody who brutalized innocent people,” Morigeau said.

Mauk: This is a very important bill, Rob, to Montana’s tribal nations and to human rights advocates in general.

Saldin: You could say it’s just kind of a symbolic thing, but symbols really matter, right? From their perspective Columbus Day is an insult; it's a humiliation. Columbus is someone who should be condemned, not given a celebratory holiday every year. And this perspective is not new by any stretch. Native Americans have pushed back on Columbus Day for a long time. The effort got, I think, an intellectual boost back in the 1980s following Howard Zinn's famous and controversial book: A People's History the United States. The first chapter in that book presents this really horrific depiction of Columbus. And I do think that was influential in inserting this perspective into the public consciousness in a broader way. You know, even for people who haven't necessarily read the book, they've encountered the ideas. So this is a national trend that's been building for a long time. South Dakota actually made the switch all the way back in 1990. Other states and localities have followed suit. So momentum is clearly on the side of those who want to scrap Columbus Day. I think we saw that in a way this week in that Senate hearing. The only guy who came out against this bill did so by way of suggesting that Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day be combined into a single holiday, which is just hardly a robust defense of Columbus Day on its own terms. And so it concedes a lot of ground. And it does seem all the momentum is pushing in that direction; as you say it's already passed the House. It did two years ago though too, and then failed to get out of committee in the Senate. We'll have to wait and see if it makes it through the Senate this year. If it does I'd certainly expect Gov. Bullock to sign it.

Mauk: Another bill has been introduced in the Senate to allow Northwestern Energy to buy part of the Colstrip coal-fired plant and pass along cost to consumers. But opponents say the new bill is too much like the old bill that they also opposed. And here's Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center, who thinks the cost to ratepayers would be too great.

“This allows Northwestern to not only pass through all costs for remediation and decommissioning, which we know are significant now. It allows them to buy an increased interest in the facility, in addition to any other costs that they request the commission to approve because they have this increased ownership share,” Hedges said.

Mauk: But supporters, Rob, and especially those who are worried about what's going to happen in Colstrip if those plants shut down permanently, they argue coal is still going to be needed in Montana and elsewhere.

Saldin: They do. You know, Sally, Colstrip’s been in big trouble for a long time now. The basic problem is that relative to other energy sources, coal-fueled energy used to really stand out for being cheap and reliable, but that's just not comparatively true anymore. And then on top of that society has just become more concerned over coal's environmental costs, particularly its contribution to climate change. So a lot of people want to get out of the coal business entirely, and that includes the utilities in Oregon and Washington, which are the primary owners of Colstrip. And of course that poses an existential threat to Colstrip and would obviously be quite harmful to that community. So you have some people in the Legislature who've been trying to figure out a way to save Colstrip or at least keep it going for as long as possible.

What we saw this week is that there's an effort underway to get Northwestern Energy to have a bigger footprint in Colstrip. Northwestern Energy is already one of the partial owners of Colstrip, and under this legislation they'd be allowed to purchase a bigger share and do it for the price of $1. The company, though, sees this as a risky proposition. So to make the deal work on their end they'd be granted some exceptions to the usual regulatory process and be able to pass on the costs that they incur back to consumers for the next 30 years. So bottom line this could potentially be a lifeline for Colstrip and extend the life of those plants, but critics say it leaves Northwestern Energy customers on the hook for all the costs, right? Part of that might mean paying above market rates for energy, but perhaps the bigger issue concerns the significant cleanup costs once Colstrip is eventually shut down. And they say “Look, the consumers would be on the hook for all of that.” So the fundamental criticism here is that this is a sweetheart deal for Colstrip and Northwestern Energy, but very bad for consumers.

Mauk: And especially in a Legislature that's been emphasizing “We're trying to save you money, not cost more money,” this might be a tough sell. We'll see.

You've been listening to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels. Holly and Rob, spring is in the air. Enjoy and I'll talk to you guys next week.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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