In the middle of the fourth week of the 64th Montana Legislature, Gov. Steve Bullock took the rostrum in the House of Representatives with a big smile.
“The state of our state is strong,” Bullock said, beginning his State of the State address.
Bullock touted his fiscal discipline and pushed his big legislative priorities, getting multiple standing ovations from Democrats and occasional claps from a few Republicans.
He called for investment in infrastructure, early education and mental health care. He urged the Legislature to pass his "Healthy Montana" plan, which would expand Medicaid to as many as 70,000 uninsured Montanans.
Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Moore, R-Miles City, gave the Republican response in the Senate chambers shortly after the Bullock's speech. Moore criticized the Governor for wanting to expand “broken” government programs, and said the Healthy Montana plan would give free health care to “able-bodied, childless adults.”
The official response wasn’t the only Republican pushback on the Governor last week.
In a press conference Thursday, Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, announced a Republican plan to split Gov. Bullock’s infrastructure plan, the "Build Montana Act," or House Bill 5, into separate bills.
Republicans didn’t like that the Governor stuffed all of the infrastructure projects in one bill, and want to pay for them with cash instead of borrowing money by selling bonds.
Cuffe announced the introduction of five bills that include some of the projects from the HB 5, funding them with existing cash. Preliminary numbers say the Republican plan will use slightly less cash than Bullock’s did, but the bills don’t include all the projects.
Cuffe said all the projects are important, and will be included in bonding bills that will come later.
House Bill 5 has been in committee for more than two weeks. People from across the state came to testify on the bill in support of projects affecting their areas – like rebuilding roads, updating water systems and improvements to university buildings. With the new Republican bills, those who testified may have to take another trip to Helena to support their projects.
In other news last week:
Otter Creek Water Bills
Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, introduced three bills dealing with water quality standards in specific southeastern Montana waterways, including Otter Creek and other tributaries of the Tongue River.
Representatives of Arch Coal supported the package, along with the Montana Contractors Association and the Montana Mining Association. Arch Coal has made plans to develop a mine in the area, but the project has been stuck in the permitting process.
Ranchers, farm groups and conservationists opposed the package, saying it would allow mining companies to pollute their water sources.
“We view this as a blatant attack on agriculture,” said Clint McRae, a rancher in the area.
The supporters mostly claimed the bills would expedite the permitting process.
Senate Bill 112 would give the Department of Environmental Quality 180 days to develop a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for a stream that a mining company wants to dump waste into. TMDLs set the amount of the pollutant that can be discharged into the stream and still meet water quality standards.
“There’s nothing harder for an applicant … than not knowing a road map to follow,” said Tammy Johnson of the Montana Mining Association.
Opponents said the bill would rush the DEQ’s studying of the waterways. Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Council said measurements done in that time frame wouldn’t be complete.
“It will be a piece of garbage,” Hedges said. “It won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.”
Senate Bill 159 would ensure that the amount of pollutants in some of those Tongue River tributaries wouldn’t be higher than natural. Senate Bill 160 makes it harder for someone to challenge pollution discharge permits by increasing the burden of proof in court. A person would have to prove the definition of the stream’s natural condition was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Guns on campus makes a return
The Senate Judiciary committee is considering Senate Bill 143, which would allow guns on campus by prohibiting the Board of Regents from making rules against guns.
Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, the bill’s sponsor, said the right to bear arms was a basic right that the Board of Regents doesn’t have the authority to abridge.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said the list of exceptions in the bill would give the board enough authority to maintain safety on college campuses. A recent University of Montana student and a current Montana State University graduate student also supported the bill.
Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Kevin McRae said because the Legislature hasn’t made carrying guns legal in other government buildings, it would be wrong to do so only in state universities.
“Campuses are, in our view, very safe but sensitive places,” McRae said.
J.C. Weingartner of the MEA-MFT also opposed the bill.
The committee also heard Senate Bill 165, which would increase the fine for driving without a seatbelt from $20 to $100.
“The intent is to increase the deterring effect of the current law,” said Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, the bill’s sponsor.
Marbut made another appearance on this bill, in opposition and representing only himself.
Marbut called seatbelts a “great invention,” but opposes seatbelt laws because he doesn’t believe the government should legislate to prevent someone’s bad decisions.
“People have to be left to make their own mistakes,” Marbut said.
Identity theft affecting children came up in the House Judiciary committee last week.
Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, introduced House Bill 232, which would increase maximum fines and prison terms for identity theft if the victim is a minor.
Dudik said children are easy targets for identity theft because they haven’t used their social security numbers to get credit cards, driver’s licenses or loans. Dudik called a child’s identity a “blank slate.” Criminals could steal the numbers and use it to get loans or credit cards.
Bryan Lockerby, an administrator for the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, spoke in support of the bill. He said adults whose identities are stolen often notice within two months, but a child might not find out until they are 18 and try to take out private loans.
Marriage equality bill
Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, is carrying a bill that would eliminate Montana’s prohibition of same-sex marriage.
“What we’re asking to do with this bill is strike the words,” Bennett said.
House Bill 282 would solidify a recent Ninth Circuit Court decision that allows same-sex marriage in Montana. Through court precedent – and some state law – more than 30 states allow same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court hasn’t acted on the issue yet, but has said it will take up cases on the issue later this year, which some opponents said was a reason not to pass this bill.
Pat Plowman, a nurse from Carbon County, said the bill was pointless because the Supreme Court said it will hear same-sex marriage cases later this year.
“Why this exercise in futility?” Plowman said.
Bennett addressed that in his closing statement.
“Betting the Supreme Court will side with the states who haven’t affirmed marriage equality is a bad bet,” Bennett said.
Fish Wildlife and Parks presents license fee increases
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is facing a potential $5.6 million budget shortfall, and one solution is increasing fishing and hunting license prices.
House Bill 140, sponsored by Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, would raise prices mostly on in-state licenses, with a couple of out of state increases as well. Welborn said the increases are necessary to maintaining FWP’s functions.
“Existing fish and wildlife management programs will have to be cut to balance the budget,” Welborn said.
Resident hunting licenses would be increased by $8, resident fishing licenses by $3. Non-resident fishing licenses would go from $60 to $86, which Welborn said wouldn’t be unreasonable compared to surrounding states.
“Montana’s high quality opportunities are currently undervalued,” Welborn said.
Ranchers, sporting goods store owners and wildlife groups supported the bill.
Opposition came from student lobbyists from the University of Montana, who said the bill would unjustly penalize out-of-state students by eliminating discounts on the licenses.
U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke calls for better public land management, less bureaucracy
With a hoarse voice after his first month in Congress, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke became the latest Montana political figure to address a joint session of the Legislature.
He told a story of trying to hang a picture in his new office. He was stopped, and instead three other people showed up to hang the picture for him.
“In that one small act, we’re drowning in bureaucracy,” Zinke said. He went on to say that bureaucracy was one of the problems with public lands management in Montana, saying that local forest rangers were controlled by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.
He said it was time to explore more state management of land with pilot projects, but said he doesn’t support privatizing the land.
“I will not tolerate selling our public lands,” he said, getting a standing ovation.
He closed by saying the nation’s problems are fixable, and he intends to be a part of it.
“This Congress is going to go from a Congress of 'no,'” he said, “to a Congress of 'go.'”
-Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.