Appropriations Committee taking up University System Budget

The House Appropriations Committee is starting up its budget talks on the education portion of House Bill 2 on Friday. HB 2 is the official name for the state’s general fund budget bill.

The Montana Board of Regents is meeting in Helena this week and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian briefed the board Thursday on legislative proceedings.

Commissioner Christian says he feels pretty good about the Montana University System budget ‘piece’ that has made its way to the full budget committee after first being approved by an education budget subcommittee. Although, he says “obviously there are some things on our list that didn’t get moved out (of the subcommittee) that he wished would have,” citing funding for new universal enrollment software and money for new campus veterans services.

Those two items are part of a list of over 15 amendments proposed to HB 2 asking for more education funds. Amendments to the budget will be discussed next week in committee. Christian says no amendments have been proposed to remove money from what’s allocated to the University already.

A top goal of the board of regents this budget cycle is to freeze tuition for the next two years for in-state students.The Regents have passed a resolution saying they will do that if the Legislature does two big things:

  • Approve extra money included in the budget to pay for the cost of inflation.
  • Approve pay increases for state employees, which includes the University System.

Christian says both of those two things seems to be moving forward, although he acknowledges there’s is still a lot of discussion left to go–especially on state employee pay.

The University System is also hoping for the passage of a major bonding bill which would allocate $100 million for building projects, mostly on state colleges.

Gun, sheriff bills challenge authority of federal government

Rep. Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel), left, with supporters of his bill to prohibit state enforcement of any new federal gun ban

Rep. Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel), left, with supporters of his bill to prohibit state enforcement of any new federal gun ban

Conservative Montana lawmakers are bringing forth a series of bills this session focused on the reach and authority granted by the 2nd Amendment.

Last week, The House Judiciary Committee looked into a bill allowing guns in locked vehicles on public K-12 school grounds. This week, the issue moves to college campuses. HB 240, sponsored by Representative Cary Smith (R-Billings) would remove laws restricting firearms on public college campuses. The Montana University System now typically only allows weapons on campus in authorized storage areas (see the University of Montana and Montana State University firearms policies.)

A number of students from both UM and MSU spoke in favor of Smith’s bill. Christine Gobrogge is pursuing her PhD in physical chemistry at MSU. Between her school work and teaching undergraduate courses, she spends the majority of her time on campus.  She says she has learned how to use a firearm in the class she took for her concealed carry permit.

“Because of the laws right now, I can’t protect myself or my students to the best of my ability,” she said. She walks to and from school in the dark most days and worries about fending off assaults.

Associate Commissioner of Higher Education Kevin McRae spoke against the bill, he says   campuses employ full-fledged police departments to respond to threats on campus. He says this bill would create a double standard between college campuses and other state government property.

“If this bill passes,” McRae said. “It will remain illegal to carry guns into this capitol building or any other state government building, but apparently welcome and encouraged to carry guns into college sports stadiums, tailgate events, college classrooms (or) dining halls.”

A legal review note from the Legislative Services Department also suggests the State Legislature may not have the authority to pass such a law, saying that authority falls to the Montana Board of Regents.

Federal Authority

The House Judiciary Committee also heard two bills from Representative Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel) asserting states rights over those of the federal government. With his HB 302, Kerns is seeking to prohibit the enforcement of potential new firearms laws being discussed in Washington D.C. in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting. Proposals from the Obama Administration favor a ban on some semiautomatic weapons and large magazines and would require universal background checks before new guns may be purchased. A handful of Montana Sheriffs have already said they won’t enforce new gun laws.

“This is the response of a sovereign state to the unconstitutional usurpation of power by the federal government,” Kerns said. The Representative and bill supporters brought up 2nd Amendment rights as those which guarantee the ability to protect oneself and say the government may not infringe upon them.

“Folks inside the beltway of Washington D.C. don’t think like we do and they don’t live like we do,” said supporter Lloyd Phillips. “This is Montanans standing together for our rights and against ideas that really are foreign to us, that aren’t our ideas and they don’t fit with our lifestyle.”
Former Navy SEAL John Bowenhollow opposes the bill, saying rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment are not unlimited and at times citizens of a state need to look at what’s good for the nation as a whole. “Do we do the citizens of Chicago any good
 if we say we’re not going to enforce a law and that becomes a pipeline down I-90 to them.”
Opponents to the bill also say deciding not to enforce certain laws passed by the federal government would be in direct conflict with the US Constitution’s supremacy clause (Article VI, Clause II).
Sheriff Supremacy
Rep. Kerns is also sponsoring a bill (HB 303)requiring federal law enforcement officers to obtain permission of the local county sheriff before being able to make arrests, conduct searches or seize property. Kerns says this recognizes a sheriff as “the supreme law enforcement officer in the county.”
Supporter, Montana Shooting Sports Association President Gary Marbut says sheriffs being elected to office by local constituents provides a level of accountability not available with federal officials.
The Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association opposes the bill. Spokesman Jim Smith says it’s an impractical and unworkable bill.


Montana University System considers making some funding ‘performance-based’

mus-logo (1)State higher education leaders are in talks with the  Governor’s office and the Montana Legislature to make some new funding for state universities performance-based.

The Montana University System is asking for $30 million in new funds from the Legislature to freeze tuition for the next two years. Legislators can essentially only decide whether or not to give MUS that money–they cannot dictate how it is to be spent; that’s under the purview of the Board of Regents.

However, lawmakers can certainly suggest how they would like to see the money spent. Senator Taylor Brown (R-Huntley) says he is introducing a joint resolution which would request the University System distribute five percent of their budget based on certain performance measures like graduation and retention rates and how long it’s taking students to get degrees. “These are standard measures that are in line with many organizations that compare universities across the nation,” he said.

Brown and other lawmakers are working with the Governor’s Office and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education on the proposal. Commissioner Clayton Christian says he likes the idea. ““In the future, to be competitive globally, whether it’s in agriculture or you name the market we need more people with a degree,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeking to do and I think this pushes us in that direction.”

The performance-based funds would come out of the $30 million in new money requested by MUS for the next two year budget cycle. Christian says the plan would only be implemented in the second year of that cycle, to give the colleges and universities time to figure out exactly how the system would work. The total amount of the performance-based money comes out to $7.5 million–five percent of the total MUS budget with the added $30 million.

That extra $30 million is still subject to Legislative approval.

Health insurance premiums on the rise for students on University System plan

Health Insurance prices for Montana University students are rising next semester. State universities and colleges require students have health insurance coverage. The majority of students stay on their parents’ plans or have insurance from an employer. But for the rest, the schools themselves have an insurance option for students that is supposed to save money over buying insurance on the open market. It’s that school insurance that’s rising and it’s rising a lot for older students.

Let’s do the numbers first.

If you are one of the 7,500 students that take the Montana University System health insurance and you’re less than 40 years old—your insurance costs will rise about 10 percent. It averages out to about $100 a semester. If you’re over 40 though, it goes up about 110 percent. That’s an increase of more than $900 a semester.

“No one was under any illusion that that was not going to be an impact on those students,”   said Montana University System Director of Benefits Connie Welsh.

She says this last year, the University System has been dealing with something it’s never had to before. For the first time in the history of this student health insurance program, it lost money—running in the red.

“This was the first year in 16 years that for every dollar in premiums that for every dollar in premiums we paid in, $1.30 was paid out in costs,” she said.

It’s a program with a $12.5 million annual budget. The University System had options. Officials could remove the insurance mandate. They asked student governments what they thought about that.

“And the feedback was yes, people did want to have that continue,” Welsh said.

So they started looking at increasing premiums. Welsh says they thought about flatly increasing everyone’s insurance fees. That would have resulted in a $300 to $400 dollar  for every student on the plan.

“That’s why we made a hard choice to go with age tiering. By law, it is not illegal but I understand that it feels unfair,” Welsh said.

She says unfair because the line between the 10 percent increase and 110 percent increase is right at age 40.

38 years old—10 percent increase.

39 years old—10 percent.

40—110 percent

Welsh says officials originally looked at a graduated system.

“10 percent for those under 25 and then 15 percent and 20 and 25.”

She says that didn’t reflect what they saw in the claims.

“What happened is when we actually look at the cost by those age strata it was very clear and there was a break and it was clear under 40 there was about the same cost increase and use,” she said.

Last year the program had 5 claims that were over $100 thousand. This year that number jumped to 15 claims.

The University System has had an increase in older non-traditional students. Many looking for new job skills in the down economy,

“Or in some cases people who just found that as a vehicle for easier health insurance coverage,” she said, means people taking the smallest number of credits possible to be eligible for the university insurance.

The University System has raised the minimum credit limit to prevent that, from 4 to 7 credits.

Welsh says this all will likely not be the final solution to fix the insurance plan’s financial woes and they are looking at their options.

She says even with the 110 percent increase for those over 40—premium prices are still 40 percent cheaper than on the individual market.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Neil Livingstone wants to bring business sense to state’s highest office

Neil Livingstone poses with fiancee Cynthia Tsai and dog Whisper outside of their Helena home

Republican Gubernatorial candidate Neil Livingstone has made headlines as a candidate for his diverse background. Stories have labeled him an ‘international man of mystery’. He’s considered a counter-terrorism expert and has written several books on the subject as well as making over 15-hundred television appearances. Livingstone is a former intelligence officer, part-owner of a Panamanian airline, director of a helicopter manufacturer, and founder of an international risk management and business solutions company.

The Helena native wants to bring that varied experience to bear in the state’s highest office.

Neil Livingstone lives in a beautiful stone home in Helena’s mansion district.

“Well, this home was built around 1903,” he said during a recent interview at the house. “It’s a a favorite home of many people in town. You’ll notice it’s not Victorian, this was considered a daringly modern design when it was built.” It was designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed the U.S. Supreme Court building. Livingstone says he often has visits from architects now who want to see the place.

He is a multi-millionaire, but says his blue-collar Republican values lead him to his prominent campaign pledge. Here he is speaking during a press conference in the Capitol Building earlier this month.

“If elected Governor, I will not take a salary until I have created a thousand new private sector jobs in Montana,” he said.

The Governor’s salary is almost $110 thousand a year. Livingstone acknowledges he would not feel a financial pinch from refusing that pay. He says it sends a message.

“It’s a symbolic action to show solidarity with those out of work right now. I don’t know of another way I can do that other than the fact that I’ve traveled from one end of this state to the other,” he said.

He says he has been campaigning in traditionally Democratic parts of the state as well as Republican strongholds—spreading his theme that he’s a candidate who comes with ideas, not a political background.

“I’ve actually created jobs. I’m not a politician, I am a businessman,” he said.

He says he has enough friends and connections in Montana politics on both sides of the aisle that he will be able to effectively lead the state government—even without inside experience about how it works.

Livingstone follows traditional conservative values on most social issues. He’s pro-life, pro-death penalty. He’s against gay marriage but says he has many gay friends and firmly supports civil unions.

And labor unions.

“Where I probably am different from many of my opponents is on the issue of (labor) unions.”

Livingstone is supportive of labor union rights, something he says may help him succeed in places like Butte, where many vote democratic while being socially conservative.

He says he’s campaigning for working class Montanans whether they are in a union or not.

“Working men and women today have more in common with the Republicans who are gonna get them jobs and get the economy moving than with the environmental radicals,” he said.

Like his Republican opponents, Livingstone wants to open up natural resource development in the state and increase government funding from that development. He wants to pay for K12 education largely through natural resource development, for instance.

“I’d like to see resource taxes essentially take over so we can phase out everything from the corporate income tax and the business equipment tax to local property taxes. And I’d like to simplify the tax system. I’m a flat taxer, basically,” he said.

As for higher education, Livingstone says he wants to enact sweeping changes.

“I see duplication and overlap across the Montana University System. And I think we need to reconfigure it,” said Livingstone.

He wants to eliminate redundant programs from one University to another to save resources. He wants to put more effort into two year and technical education in the state. He says there’s a greater supply of better paying jobs available through those degrees right now.

But he is quick to point out he’s no stranger to Universities. He’s a former adjunct professor and boasts three Masters Degrees and a PhD. And even though he has made his millions travelling the world running large companies based in other places—he says he is still no stranger to his home state. He says he’s never held a driver’s license from anywhere else, And he has never voted in any other state than Montana.