The 63rd Montana legislature convenes on Monday, with lots of ideas on how to spend the state’s healthy budget surplus. In tonight’s feature, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison about what spending issues are likely to dominate the 90-day session…
One of the most popular governors in Montana’s history leaves office the end of this month, after two flamboyant terms that featured everything from frequent national headlines to a veto branding iron. News Director Sally Mauk recently sat down with Governor Brian Schweitzer in his Capitol office, to review his tenure – and discuss his legacy. Tonight, in part one of a two-part interview, Schweitzer talks about his decision to leave farming to become a politician – and his relationship with the legislature…
As we reported earlier, Governor-elect Steve Bullock has named the first three members of his Cabinet, subject to approval of the state Senate. It’s the first big step of many to be made as Bullock assembles the new administration, prior to his swearing-in on January 7th. In this feature interview, News Director Sally Mauk talks with the Governor-elect about his first appointments – and his other preparation for his new job…
Montana voters will be deciding on five ballot measures during this November election.
We will be reporting on each of them over the next few weeks, starting with the three measures put up by the 2011 Legislature—the legislative referenda.
Putting a legislative referendum on the ballot—it’s a strategy, a tool at the disposal of state lawmakers. The legislature can take a bill working its way through the traditional bill process and put it on a different track—making it a referendum with a simple majority.
Why would legislators want to do that, remove their own power to decide on a bill and give it to the people?
Well, by doing so you bypass the executive branch.
“Oh absolutely,” said Helena Republican State Senator Dave Lewis of this year’s measures, “I mean none of those would have been acceptable to the governor.”
Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer set a state record of 78 vetoes in 2011. Schweitzer made national headlines for setting these bills aflame with a red hot veto branding iron. The Republican dominated House and Senate chose 5 bills to escape that iron—to become legislative referenda.
Republicans hope the bills will have a better chance of becoming law this way.
The Montana Supreme Court tossed out two of them—leaving three. The first one, LR 120 would require parental notification prior to abortion for a minor under the age of 16.
“It’s a difficult subject to even approach here in the Legislature,” said Republican Speaker of the State House of Representatives Mike Milburn. “There’s probably nothing that causes more emotion than talking about abortion.”
That’s why Milburn points out this measure does not directly take on the ethics of abortion. He says it’s about responsibility.
“You can’t give an aspirin in school without calling up the parent and saying can we give this person an aspirin. You can’t go get your ears pierced as a minor without calling up the parents. But yet you can go get an abortion,” he said.
Milburn calls this a compromise ensuring parents are involved in what is often a very emotionally difficult decision. A physician would need to notify the parent or legal guardian at least 48 hours prior to the procedure. This requirement would be dropped if there’s a medical emergency, if it’s waived by a youth court or if it’s waived by the parents themselves. Milburn notes the measure does not go so far as to require parental consent for an abortion—just notification.
“I don’t think there’s a distinction at all,” said Executive Director of the nonprofit NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, Julianna Crowley. She says either way, consent or notification, the parent is still being told, and that can be precisely the problem.
“Not all young people come from healthy families and it’s not the government’s role to mandate healthy family communication where it does not exist,” Crowley said.
Crowley says the vast majority of young girls do consult with their parents before considering abortion. Those that do not, she says, may be hiding it from their parents for their own safety. She wants that preserved and she does not fully buy Milburn’s argument that this is not about the wider abortion issue.
“It is one way that anti-choice politicians are chipping away at reproductive rights and the right to privacy as instilled in the Montana Constitution,” Crowley said.
Under LR 120, someone who performs an abortion without giving prior notification is subject to a $500 dollar fine and or 6 months in jail.
The measure would also add a legal penalty for anyone who coerces a minor to have an abortion—a one thousand dollar fine and or one year in jail.
This story uses excerpts from my Montana PBS special on the ballot measures, “From the People: Montana’s 2012 Ballot Measures”
A RECENT POLL SHOWS THE MAJORITY OF MONTANANS CONTINUE TO FAVOR THE DEATH PENALTY BUT THAT HASN’T STOPPED STATE LEGISLATORS – MOSTLY DEMOCRATS – FROM TRYING TO PASS A BILL TO ABOLISH IT. THE BILL PASSED THE REPUBLICAN-CONTROLLED SENATE IN THE LAST SESSION, THEN DIED IN COMMITTEE IN THE REPUBLICAN-CONTROLLED HOUSE. A NEW GROUP CALLED “MONTANA CONSERVATIVES CONCERNED ABOUT THE DEATH PENALTY” MAY GIVE THE ABOLISH EFFORT MORE LIFE IN THE UPCOMING 2013 LEGISLATIVE SESSION. FORMER REPUBLICAN STATE SENATOR ROY BROWN OF BILLINGS IS ON THE GROUP’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE. HE HAS LONG BEEN AN OPPONENT OF THE DEATH PENALTY. CURRENT REPUBLICAN STATE REPRESENTATIVE CHRISTY CLARK OF CHOTEAU SAYS SHE WILL WORK ON ABOLISHING THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE UPCOMING SESSION. IN THIS FEATURE INTERVIEW, NEWS DIRECTOR SALLY MAUK TALKS WITH BOTH OF THESE CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICANS ABOUT THEIR OPPOSITION TO THE DEATH PENALTY. BROWN SAYS HE OPPOSES IT PRECISELY BECAUSE HE IS A CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN…
Montana is getting a more solid picture of the state’s budget surplus ahead of the 2013 Legislature.
$412 million is predicted to be left in the state’s bank account. That’s the latest estimate from the Legislative Fiscal Division of the state general fund balance at end of this budget cycle, which is at the end of next June.
Fiscal Analyst Terry Johnson told the State Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee it could be even higher.
“We think that this balance could be as high as $470 to $480 million. But I’m not saying that right now because we’re in the process of preparing revenue estimates for this committee in November,” Johnson said.
These predictions change based on many factors from taxes on natural resource development to lottery profits. It’s far from an exact science. The last legislature predicted the budget surplus to be about $120 million less than it’s looking now.
But, all those numbers are firming up as we get closer to the next legislative session. More than $400 million in the black
Since last legislature, Republicans and Democrats have basically been talking about the surplus like this:
Democrats have been saying the state needs to reinvest in state services that received cuts last time.
Republicans want to lower property taxes.
That debate will probably continue this session.
But right now, Revenue and Transportation Committee Chair, Brady Republican Roy Hollandsworth says the state does have a lot of responsibilities it needs to attend to with its extra money first. He points to trying to fix indebted state pension funds, replenishing the now exhausted fire suppression fund and raising state employee base pay, which has been frozen for years now.
“Property relief, if done right, is a very good thing,” he said. “But I have, myself a very hard time telling someone they’re gonna get something back until I see what our liabilities are on spending it.”
Committee Vice-Chair Helena Democratic Senator Christine Kaufmann is a staunch advocate for putting more money back into state services. Yet, she says right now there is agreement that some of the money should go back to property owners.
“Potentially we can arrive there,” she said. “It’s really middle class folks on the ground in this economy and we need to find ways to help them.”
The most important budget meeting for the Revenue and Transportation Committee is still to come. Members will vote in November on adopting a budget estimate to use during the 2013 Legislative Session.
The bi-partisan citizen commission charged with re-evaluating Montana’s political boundaries was making its decisions Friday.
The Districting and Apportionment Commission is voting on new maps of Montana’s House and Senate Districts. Compromise has been hard to come-by between the Democrats and Republicans on the commission. Many of the ultimate decisions are coming down to the board’s non-partisan chair.
The commission of non-elected citizens has been working together for the last three years–holding listening sessions around the state and looking to build district maps they say truly reflects Montana. Not surprisingly, the two Republican Commissioners prefer different maps than the two Democrats. And when it comes down to consolidating those maps into 100 House Districts, then splitting those to 50 Senate Districts, there have been plenty of hang-ups. They have been meeting all this week in the Capital Building trying to find solutions, and they are happening.
“Well, it’s starting to come together,” said the board’s chair, former Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier.
He’s supposed to be acting as a neutral arbiter between the commissioners, casting the deciding vote in the many impasses. Regnier says the new map will look pretty different than what voters have been using for the last decade.
“We’ve had some pretty dramatic changes in population since the last census,” Regnier said. Parts of Eastern Montana have lost substantial population. Gallatin, Flathead, and Missoula counties have all gained inhabitants.
The commission took multiple breaks through this final day of voting.
During the breaks, commissioners would chat with Regnier, or would try to broker last minute deals with each other.
Which is just how I found Republican Commissioner Jon Bennion and Democratic Commissioner Joe Lamson, negotiating on district lines outside the meeting room.
“As the Legislature,” Lamson said. “There’s always a lot of give and take in the halls.”
Chairman Jim Regnier says geographically the map looks more like that suggested by Republicans, with many alterations. Republican Commissioner Bennion says you can’t make everyone happy in these decisions—even Legislators in your own party.
“Sometimes you have to tell your friends that their seat might be going away. It may be evaporating in the East and go West. That’s not an easy thing to do,” He said.
Perhaps the most controversial decision from the commission is reducing Havre from 2 House Districts to one district—on a 3-2 vote with Chair Regnier siding with Republicans.
There is also contentious debate over the shape of districts in the Missoula area, but no final information as of our deadline.
There has been much compromise, but Democratic Commissioner Lamson says the tie-break has been required often too.
“It’s gonna be a plan that is neither the Republicans plan or the Democrats plan, it’s gonna be the Regnier plan, it’s gonna be the chairman’s plan,” Lamson said.
After today’s votes, the map will go before the public for comment, then to the Legislature. The commission will then have the option to take those comments to make changes.
The new map goes into effect in 2014.
Governor Brian Schweitzer is pointing to the latest state budget figures showing the second-highest budget surplus in Montana history.
The state ended this past fiscal year last month with $453 million in the bank. Schweitzer used the figure to blast Republican majorities in the state legislature for passing a budget based on predictions of a large deficit—predictions the Governor calls outright lies.
Republicans are not apologizing.
Governor Schweitzer called a Tuesday morning press conference with reporters the start of his “I told you so Tour.”
Schweitzer is finishing his final term at the end of this year and says the results are in when it comes to his fiscal management style. He says he has presided over the largest budget surpluses in Montana history, including this last year. Over $450 million in the black. Schweitzer then used the press conference to repeatedly call Republican lawmakers liars and thieves.
It comes down to the financial predictions Republicans were using to set the state budget last legislative session. These figures came from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Division, predicting a possible $400 million shortfall for last fiscal year. Instead, Schweitzer again points out the budget came out $453 million ahead, which is close to what his budget office had been predicting the whole time.
“So that’s $853 million in a $1.8 billion budget. that’s not even close. that’s off by 40 percent,” Schweitzer said.
The Fiscal Division is normally off by about 6 percent. Schweitzer says that proves that Republican Legislators are unduly influencing that nonpartisan office.
“See, you can’t possibly guess 40 percent wrong unless somebody has their finger on the scale,” Schweitzer said. “When you look at exactly the same numbers, the Governor’s budget Office and the Legislative Fiscal Division. They come up with crazy numbers and we come up with numbers that were accurate. Tell yourself, what’s going on?”
“The Governor certainly is correct that he was right that we had stronger growth that anyone had anticipated,” said Helena Republican Senator Dave Lewis, a proponent of those deficit predictions. Lewis says the Fiscal Division is not being inappropriately swayed by Republicans.
“They’ve worked with Republican majorities and Democratic majorities over the years and that’s I think an insult on behalf of the Governor to say that about the professional staff of that office,” Lewis said.
Hey says they have been putting these predictions together for 40 years and have found conservative budget predictions to be safer. Staff at the Legislative Fiscal Division declined comment for this story. But Butte Democratic Representative and Legislative Finance Committee Chair Jon Sesso also defends the Fiscal Division, saying that office should be held harmless in this situation.
“They gave us scenarios,” Sesso said. “They gave us the optimistic picture, the middle of the road and the worst case scenario and it was the republican leadership that concentrated on the worst case scenario and that’s why we have the wide disparity.”
State Republicans say the Governor is not being civil in his attacks regarding the budget. They say their budget helped make sure finances were sound. Again, Senator Dave Lewis.
“We’ve always been trained to be cautious in Montana because we have a volatile revenue situation here because we’re a resource based economy and so we generally tend to be cautious and I certainly don’t apologize for that,” Lewis said.
The Governor’s office has negotiated pay increases with the unions representing state employees.The deal for public employees includes a 10 percent raise over the next two years. This also applies for employees of the Montana University System.
But there’s a catch. The raises must be approved by the 2013 legislature, after current Governor Brian Schweitzer has already left office.
President of the state’s largest employee union, the MEA-MFT, Eric Feaver says many state employees will have gone without a pay raise for four years when the Legislature considers this deal.
“So the bill has come due,” he said, “and these state employees, they deserve the money.”
The 10 percent raise reached in the deal with the Schweitzer Administration spreads over two years. Five percent next year, another five the year after that.
The agreement also includes a 20 percent total increase in the state’s share of employee health insurance premiums. The state is projected to have a budget surplus of over $400 million this next biennium. Feaver says that’s enough money.
“For sure, the state can afford this plan. And so for us to argue differently is just simply to once-again tell state employees that we don’t value your service,” he said.
He calls that a solid argument.
“Whether the next legislature buys it, obviously will depend a great deal on the partisan makeup of that next legislature,” he said.
Feaver has no doubt a Republican dominated legislature would be less inclined to support the deal.
That’s what happened in 2011 anyway—heavy Republican majorities rejected a smaller negotiated pay raise.
“But, if we are able to shrink the margin of partisan difference perhaps folks will get on board and we will go forward,” Feaver said.
Wolf Creek Republican Senator Rick Ripley says it is an important issue.
“There’s some consideration that state employees do need a raise and I think that will be seriously considered,” Ripley said.
He suggests approving raises for those state employees on the lower tiers. He says those at the top have been receiving other raises outside of their base salary pay.
As for whether or not the Legislature will be willing to spend its budget surplus on state employees?
“There’s gonna be a lot of demand on that and how that is split up we’ll just have to wait and see. It’s a complicated process to work through,” Ripley said.
The raises would affect between 15-thousand and 16-thousand employees.
The Governor’s office says the total cost would be $138 million.
A committee of state lawmakers has voted to put a bill before the legislature deciding whether the Governor should have the authority to create a series of health clinics for state employees.
Governor Brian Schweitzer has pitched the state employee health clinics as a way to save money and provide better care.
Helena Republican Senator Dave Lewis says the Governor currently does not need legislative approval to make this move through the budget of the state insurance pool. Lewis wants that to change.
“So the Executive Branch, the Governor and his department can do whatever they want. We just felt major policy decisions in a pool of this importance should be reviewed by the Legislature and so we’re gonna ask a bill be prepared and submitted to the Legislature to require that in the future,” Lewis said.
The committee looking at the issue approved putting it before the legislature by a five to three vote. Billings Democratic Senator Kendall Van Dyk says the Governor has come up with innovative ideas in the health clinic proposal and Van Dyk says he supports the idea. He voted against putting its approval before the legislature in 2013.
“I don’t necessarily disagree with that in principal but I know the tone of this legislature and I know what they’re trying to do which is a backhanded attempt at preventing the governor from getting these facilities underway,” Van Dyk said.
The Governor’s office is in contract negotiations to open a clinic first in Helena then expand to other communities. Governor Schweitzer’s term in office expires at the end of the year.