Montana receives “F” for its disclosure laws

Map of grades on disclosure laws given by the National Institute on Money in State Politics

Map of grades on disclosure laws given by the National Institute on Money in State Politics

A report released this week by the National Institute on Money in State Politics gives Montana a failing grade on its disclosure laws related to campaign spending in elections.

Twenty-five other states received “F”s in the report, while 15 states received an “A”.

“What we found interesting was that the state’s were either great or awful,” said the Institute’s Managing Director Denise Roth Barber. “There were very few in between.”

Barber describes NIMSP as a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization that takes as one of its charges strongly advocating full disclosure in political spending. The report graded states on “disclosure requirements for super PACs, nonprofits and other outside spending groups.”

Barber said there is quite a bit of interest right now on the national level to require more disclosure on spending in federal races.

“But at the state level,” she said, “we don’t actually know in too many states, including Montana, how much money is even spent, let alone where it came from.”

She said the major campaign finance overhaul pitched by Gov. Steve Bullock and carried by Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, called the TRACE Act, could have single-handedly brought Montana’s grade up from an “F” to an “A”. On top of increasing disclosure, that bill would have increased the fines for violating Montana’s current election laws. The bill passed the Senate 29-21 after a heated debate. However, the bill never made it to the House floor and died when the Legislature adjourned.

Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, complimented Sen. Peterson and supporters for their intentions with the TRACE Act, but said he and other opponents believe the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear: money equals speech when it comes to political spending.

“The protection of anonymity in political speech has been a part of this country since before the founding of the Republic,” Moore said.

Governor to kick off economic development initiative with roundtable discussions

Gov. Steve Bullock (center) unveils the new Main Street Montana Project Monday with D.A. Davidson & Co. CEO Bill Johnstone (left) and Washington Companies CEO Larry Simkins (right)

Gov. Steve Bullock (center) unveils the new Main Street Montana Project Monday with D.A. Davidson & Co. CEO Bill Johnstone (left) and Washington Companies CEO Larry Simkins (right)

Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., on Monday announced a new economic development initiative aimed at developing a blueprint for job creation based upon the suggestions of Montana businesses.

“Montanans have shown that they’re national leaders in business, ingenuity and hard work,” Bullock said. “I think those qualities really helped us come out of the recession stronger than most states.”

Bullock wants to draw on the experiences of business owners to create a plan to tackle challenges faced by those companies and identify steps to attract and retain new businesses. The governor said it would be a bottom-up approach. He was joined at the press conference unveiling the initiative by its two co-chairs, CEO of The Washington Companies Larry Simkins and CEO of D.A. Davidson & Company Bill Johnstone.The project will start with a series of roundtable discussions:

  • Billings–Tuesday, May 28th, 2:00 PM at the Broadway Downtown Center, 2804 3rd Ave. N.
  • Missoula–Tuesday, June 4th, 2:00 PM at the UM University Center, 3rd Floor Meeting Room Foyer and Room 330-123
  • Great Falls–Wednesday, June 12th, 2:00 PM at the Great Falls Civic Center, Missouri Room
  • Miles City–Wednesday, June 19th, 2:00 PM at Miles Community College, Room 106-107
  • Bozeman–Tuesday, June 25th, 2:00 PM at the MSU Strand Union, Ballroom A

“Everything is on the table,” Simkins said. “The idea is we want to gather as many facts as we can before we sit down and start talking about what’s necessary for economic development.”

Simkins said the project hopes to publish a report outlining specific metrics to improve the state’s business climate sometime in early 2014.

Learn more about the Main Street Montana Project on their website.

What happens now with the Flathead Water Compact?

Credit: Flickr,  Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ

Credit: Flickr, Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are now mulling their options after the 2013 Montana Legislature failed to pass the Flathead Water Rights Compact; but CSKT officials are hopeful the agreement can be passed by the 2015 Legislature.

The Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, made up of nine appointed members, has been working with the CSKT on the Flathead Water Compact for 12 years. The commission crafts agreements with the tribes to settle water disputes between the general public and tribes, who hold senior water rights guaranteed in treaties signed in the 1800s. Flathead is the last compact left for the state to pass with a tribe, and it’s the only one not to have passed through the Montana Legislature.

The House Judiciary Committee tabled the bill after its March hearing. Lawmakers heard long testimony from supporters and opponents of the compact. Some felt more time needed to be taken to evaluate the concerns of those opposed, who say the compact will be taking the water rights of non-tribal irrigators.

“Well, the Legislature hasn’t been working on it for twelve years,” said Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. “It was dropped on our lap at the end of February and it’s a 1200-page document.”

Fielder said she wanted to understand a document as complex as the compact before voting on it. Fielder supports the House Judiciary Committee tabling the bill and hopes the Legislature will be able to take the next two years to address concerns.

CSKT Communications Director Rob McDonald says negotiations on the compact are finished.

“They’re hard-forged agreements that took a lot of hard work,” McDonald said. “(The negotiations) were aired out in the public very intensely for the last four years.”

Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill from Sen. Verdell Jackson which would have attempted to re-open negotiations between the state and CSKT. Water Rights Compact Commission member Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said he agrees with that veto.

“You can ask the tribes to come back and it’s entirely up to them whether they do or not,” Salomon said. “We can’t force anyone to renegotiate like some people want.”
In Bullock’s veto message, he directs the Compact Commission to draft a report addressing the concerns of Flathead Water Compact opponents. CSKT hopes the legislature decides to adopt the compact in 2015, otherwise the tribes have the option of taking their disputes to court. The state estimates as many as 10-thousand claims may be filed if that happens.

Bullock vetoes draw GOP criticism

Governor Steve Bullock has finished working through bills from the 2013 Legislative Session. Bullock signed 393 bills this session.

But Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce says he vetoed 71.  

In addition, check out this report from Matt Gouras of the Associated Press:

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A legislative session that began with promises of compromise ended with a whole bunch of vetoes from Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday — and plenty of criticism from Republicans who argued the governor was undermining bipartisan efforts.

Bullock let 10 low-profile measures become law without his signature on Tuesday, the last of the bills sitting on his desk from the session that adjourned late last month. A day earlier he was much more active when he issued 27 vetoes to bring his total to 71 for the session — just shy of Brian Schweitzer’s record of 78 from two years ago.

Republicans — including members of a coalition that helped advance the session’s biggest bills — criticized the governor’s moves as overly partisan. The lawmakers had entered the session hopeful of improved relations after mostly coming up short in battles with former Gov. Brian Schwietzer.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, addresses the House Taxation Committee. He is proposing legislation to change Montana's income, property and business equipment taxes. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk. Community News Service. University of Montana.)

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, addresses the House Taxation Committee. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk. Community News Service. University of Montana.)

“I wish the governor had taken a different tact. It appears he took an aggressive tact just like Brian Schweitzer,” said Republican state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, a Kalispell farmer. “It hurts. Truthfully hurts. At least we knew with Schweitzer that he didn’t respect us. And while there was never a quid pro quo with this governor, we were working with him to deliver good responsible legislation and now when it was his turn to do the right thing for the right reasons it appears he took a very partisan attitude.

Tutvedt, who is among a dissident GOP group billing itself the “responsible Republicans,” noted that Bullock took out many measures from that group such as plans to improve agricultural research and to help oil-boom towns deal with overloaded infrastructure.

Tutvedt said those Republicans who had been willing to work with Democrats will be much more cautious next session.

“I had high hopes for Gov. Bullock,” Tutvedt said. “We are going to have to take a more guarded view next time.”

Bullock argued in veto messages sent to the lawmakers that he needed to save money with the vetoes to get closer to his targeted surplus of $300 million, compared to the less than $200 million left by lawmakers. He also argued the GOP tax measures disproportionately helped the wealthy.

The governor was planning a news conference for later Tuesday.

Republican leaders bemoaned the loss of some of their priorities, including income tax cuts that included a plan for simplification that reduced rates and got rid of most tax credits.

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Republican House Speaker Mark Blasdel criticized the governor for vetoing a bill that would have exempted businesses from paying equipment tax on pollution control equipment mandated by the federal government. Yet he noted the governor signed money-spending measures, such as those to fix the state’s pension system and give state employees a pay raise.

“I think a lot of his actions show that his interest has been to take care of state government and not to take a look at addressing concerns of everyday citizens,” Blasdel said.

Blasdel commended Bullock for improving the tone in Helena, compared to when Schweitzer was torching Republican bills with a hot-iron VETO brand. The results, however, were the same, Blasdel said.

“I still think his vetoes show his ideology and his political stances. I think the tone changed, but his ideology and stances didn’t,” said Blasdel, a Somers restaurant owner.

Lawmakers will be polled on many of the measures for a veto override, which requires a supermajority of lawmakers and would require unlikely Democratic support. Such veto overrides are rare.

In total for the session, the governor received 490 bills. He signed 387 of them, vetoed 71, used line-item veto authority on three spending bills and let another 28 become law without his signature.

Conservative Republican leaders — who rarely supported any of the budget bills that were largely crafted by Democrats and some Republicans — bashed the governor. Estimates show spending goes up about 13 percent over the next two years under the plan becoming law.

“His vetoes show that he just wants the status quo. He wants the establishment running supreme over taxpayers,” Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman said.

Retirees ask for veto on pension fixes

capitolA group representing retired public employees has written a letter urging Governor Steve Bullock to veto the bill fixing the very pension systems they rely on.

The letter from Association of Montana Retired Public Employees President Russell Wrigg  faults the bill (HB454) for reducing the annual cost of living increases guaranteed to retirees.

“The Association feels betrayed by your office and is adamantly opposed to House Bill 454 at this time,”  Wrigg writes to the governor, “House Bill 454 could have been modified in a way that would be much more palatable to the Association and its members, and all retirees, without inflicting the harm that it has.”

Montana’s two biggest retirement systems are facing more than a $4 billion shortfall over the next 30 years if the bills passed by the legislature to shore up those plans are not signed by the governor. The measures balance the budgets of the pensions by requiring both employers and employees pitch in more money, some natural resource or general fund money is kicked in, and benefits are reduced slightly. It’s that last part that has angered retirees.

The AMRPE initially supported the fix to the Public Employee Retirement System, before it was amended to reduce the cost of living increases. Wrigg says the AMRPE was not consulted on those amendments.

“It is our understanding that your office was actively involved in those amendments that further trampled on the rights of retirees,” Wrigg writes in his letter.

Gov. Bulllock’s Budget Director Dan Villa says the administration understands the concerns of the retirees on the reductions and admits they will likely be found unconstitutional.

“We believe that ultimately when current and retired employees bring challenge to them that they will be successful,” Villa said, adding the bill fixes the retirement system with or without the reduction in yearly raises which he said just make the fix more aggressive.

“When and if they are found unconstitutional by the state courts, we will still have a solvent public pension system that does not increase taxes and we’ll be the first state in the country to do so,” Villa said.

Wrigg said he wants the pension fix bills to pass without the raise reductions–he would prefer that to them dying through a veto. He says the group will consider legal actions against the bills if the governor signs them, which is expected. But, he doesn’t approve of the tactic.

“Legislation through litigation is really not the way to solve our problems in this state,” he said.

Could state employees still get a 5 and 5 pay plan?

The president of the state’s largest public employee union said Wednesday he will still try to negotiate five percent base pay raises for state employees each of the next two years even though lawmakers only appropriated 75-percent of the funds necessary to do so.

“The bill as introduced had five and five on July one,” MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said, “but you can make five and five happen anytime.”Legislators cut $38 million from the pay plan bill originally negotiated between employee unions and former-Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Conservative lawmakers argued a full five and five plan was too expensive and would be giving pay increases to many employees who had received other types of raises over the past couple of years. These Republicans wanted a leaner pay plan that specifically requested the governor and unions give greater emphasis to the minority of state employees who have not received any raises for more than four years.

“We see that as a legislative encouragement, but not a mandate,” Feaver said. “It doesn’t say ‘you will do this’ and, in fact, we would believe that would be violative of collective bargaining.”

Feaver said MEA-MFT is standing firm on negotiating the five and five. He says the state can get there by delaying the implementation of raises, lowering their overall cost.

“If you start (the 5 and 5) January 1, you save $34 million,” Feaver said, although he advocates starting at the beginning of October.

“It’s a big priority to me to make sure that we do this the best way that we can with the money that was given to us,” Gov. Steve Bullock said. He said his first priority is to start working through the 200 or so bills delivered to his desk after the close of the 2013 Legislature. Afterward, he said his administration will begin negotiations on the state pay plan–probably in the next few weeks.

Unofficial ‘pocket vetoes’ kill several bills

pocket vetoGovernor Steve Bullock says GOP leadership blocked a number of measures during the 2013 Legislature using an unofficial parliamentary procedure called a ‘pocket veto’, where a presiding officer will fail to schedule a bill for a vote or hearing by the deadline to do so.

At least two bills in the House have been identified as ‘pocket vetoes’–HB217 and SB19. Both made it to the Governor’s desk in their original forms but were not scheduled in the House after they returned with amendatory vetoes from Bullock. At least one bill in the Senate, SJ27, was not scheduled in the Senate.

“Nowhere in how we explain the way government works to kids is it ‘Well, you provide an amendatory veto and then if one individual doesn’t like it he can just not schedule it and make sure the bill dies,'” Bullock said.

“Well, obviously I have the opportunity to choose when to schedule them,” House speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers said, adding the Legisature has rules in place that can override a speaker’s decision not to schedule a bill.

“Part of my job is to stand up for legislators when their bills take a turn for the worst and something they didn’t intend for and didn’t expect,” he said.

HB217 was originally designed to clarify election laws regarding religious organizations. Yet, after Bullock received the bill he amended in disclosure provisions from his failed campaign finance overhaul legislation, the TRACE Act. Speaker Blasdel calls this a ‘hijacking’ of the bill’s original intent.

“Bills like that, and my vetoes,” Bullock said, “they should rise and fall on their merits. Let individuals actually vote them up or down. Don’t just try to hide them away in some desk drawer.”

In a Thursday interview, Bullock also said dozens of bills that passed both the House and Senate have yet to be signed by Republican Leadership and delivered to his desk. Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, was in his office at that time signing those bills. Essmann’s office said Friday all were signed and delivered.

Governor, GOP leadership react to 2013 Legislature

Montana Capitol. Jacob Baynham, Community News Service, UM School of Journalism.

Montana Capitol. Jacob Baynham, Community News Service, UM School of Journalism.

The 2013 Legislature garnered largely positive remarks from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and a host of criticisms from conservative Republican leadership after lawmakers concluded their business Wednesday.

“The Democrats were able to work with commonsense Main Street Republicans, and we got a lot of great things accomplished,” Bullock said, citing the passage of state employee pay raises, a fix of indebted retirement systems and funding for major construction projects on college campuses.

The governor did not see his entire legislative agenda passed, however. House Republicans halted legislation to use federal Medicaid expansion money to extend health insurance to tens of thousands of Montana’s poor. Bullock also lamented the failure of his plan for a $400 per homeowner tax rebate.

This session saw an often-dramatic split between GOP leadership and a group of moderates who label themselves “Responsible Republicans,” as Jackie Yamanaka of Yellowstone Public Radio reports. The conservative leadership team of Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, and Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, say few, if any, of their priorities made it through the process.

“The people who like to spend a lot of government money were winners,” Wittich said. “The losers were the taxpayers and the people hoping for reform.”

Wittich believes at least a quarter of the state’s record-setting $500 million dollar surplus should have been given back as tax relief. He sponsored a tax rebate bill which passed the legislature and is on the way to the governor’s desk, yet Bullock has been critical of the proposal as providing too much relief for corporations and the wealthy when compared with his failed $400 rebate plan.

Wittich also calls the pension fixed passed by the legislature a “bail-out” of a failed system, and believes the pay plan spends too much.

“We, in effect, had three minority caucuses,” President Essmann said about the split in the Senate GOP,  “that at various times on various issues would coalesce as a majority to act.”

“We kept track,” Wittich said, “and for every vote where we held firm on a partisan basis, we lost two.”

But Wittich says conservative Republicans still accomplished more this session than in 2011.

Legislative Services reports that 1201 bills were introduced in total during the 2013 Session. The Governor has signed 268 as of Thursday afternoon. At least another 200 bills passed by the legislature wait for his decision.

 
 
 
 

Last ‘Medicaid Expansion’ proposal in Montana Legislature probably dead

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter (D-Helena), right, speaks with Montana Legislature Chief Legal Counsel Todd Everts about a vote to refer HB623 to committee, effectively killing it.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter (D-Helena), right, speaks with Montana Legislature Chief Legal Counsel Todd Everts about a vote to refer HB623 to committee, effectively killing it.

The last plan before state lawmakers to use federal Medicaid funds to expand health insurance to tens of thousands of uninsured Montanans is mostly likely dead after being referred to a committee hostile to the bill in the legislature’s final days.

HB623 would have used Medicaid Expansion funds provided to states through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to allow eligible low-income Montanans to buy private health coverage on the insurance exchanges also set up by ACA. The other, more standard, Medicaid Expansion bills have already been tabled by the legislature.

During Friday’s House floor session, House Speaker Mark Blasdel (R-Somers) said he was referring that bill back to the House Health and Human Services Committee. As far as Minority Leader Chuck Hunter (D-Helena) is concerned, that move probably kills the bill.

“That is the Committee that was built for the very purpose of saying no to any kind of expansion of Medicaid and that will no doubt be the fate of this bill as well,” he said.

Hunter appealed Speaker Blasdel’s decision to move the bill to committee—which takes a majority vote. But when the body took that vote, a few Representatives were confused on what their vote meant, like Great Falls Democrat Tom Jacobson.

“I hit my yes button, my green button in support of that motion which in my mind was in support of Chuck,” Jacobson said. “But apparently the way the motion was read, it should have been a no.”

Here’s how speaker Blasdel described the motion on the floor:

“Members of the body, this is a majority vote, a yes vote concurs with the ruling of the chair. A no vote does not.”

That would mean a yes vote agreed with Blasdel’s decision to send the bill to committee. The final tally was an even 50 to 50—with Jacobsen’s accidental vote the only Democratic yes. A tie vote in this circumstance went in Blasdel’s favor—sending the bill to the committee. House Members took a break shortly thereafter and leadership discussed options to reconsider that vote. The break lasted over an hour.

“I think that vote was a failure that didn’t adequately represent the true feelings of the members on the floor,” Hunter said. “When we came back to do a reconsideration the other side had whipped their votes and coerced some folks into changing their votes on those bills.”

A majority vote of 51 would have brought the bill back up to the floor—in theory that’s what the original vote would have been if Representative Jacobsen had voted with the Democrats like he intended. But the reconsideration vote failed 48-52. Speaker Blasdel agrees some minds were changed while leadership discussed reconsideration options.

“There was a lot of misunderstandings about what got put into that bill and what wasn’t,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion among members, obviously I just wanted to take time to look at things with the minority leader and figure out how we were going to proceed.”

Democratic Governor Steve Bullock strongly advocates Medicaid Expansion—and he was quick to condemn the decision.

“These legislators who voted to send our tax dollars out of state are going to have to go home and tell their bosses that they stood in the way of lower health care costs, they stood in the way of good paying jobs and they stood in the way of access to affordable health care for tens of thousands of Montanans who desperately need it,” he said. Great Falls Tribune Capitol Bureau Chief John S. Adams posted the Governor’s full comments.

The Governor did not outright refuse using a veto of the state budget as a bargaining chip to get lawmakers to reconsider some kind of Medicaid Expansion, saying “I think everything’s on the table but we really should be responsible to make sure this gets done, be that this week or the weeks ahead.”

The Legislature is set to wrap up sometime next week.

Law banning gay sex in Montana removed from the books

Linda Gryczon, the lead plaintiff in the MT Supreme Court case throwing out the state's ban on homosexual sex, celebrates the law's official removal Thursday

Linda Gryczan, the lead plaintiff in the MT Supreme Court case throwing out the state’s ban on homosexual sex, celebrates the law’s official removal Thursday

“I am not going to speak too long,” Governor Steve Bullock told the cheering crowd packed into the rotunda of the state capitol building. “Because frankly, the longer I talk the longer this unconstitutional and embarrassing law continues to stay on our books.”
Bullock shortly thereafter signed Senate Bill 107, which officially removes a law criminalizing homosexual sex in the state. The Montana Supreme Court struck down the law 15 years ago, but state legislators kept the law on the books.
Helena lobbyist Linda Gryczan filed the original suit which led to the Supreme Court nullifying the ban. A gay woman, Gryczan said the Thursday ceremony to remove the defunct law meant a lot more than if the legislature would have dropped it shortly after the 1997 Supreme Court decision.
“Because (that) would have followed the normal course of what you’d expect, unconstitutional law, you take it off the books…it makes sense,” Gryczan said. “Unfortunately to a lot of people, prejudice got in the way and we had to fight that prejudice.”
A bill to toss the law failed every other attempt before the Montana Legislature before this year. This time, the Senate voted 38-11 to pass the law. The House passed it with a 64-35 vote.

Representative Jerry Bennett (R-Libby)

Representative Jerry Bennett (R-Libby)

Representative Jerry Bennett (R-Libby) was one of the 35 Republicans who opposed the bill. He says he’s against the bill on religious grounds, but it was not a hateful vote. “God says we’re to love one another…but I still have to remain true to my beliefs in God and what he asks of us and so balancing that is a very difficult thing at times.”

The final debate on the House floor was largely between Republicans, with many arguing to remove the law to recognize individual rights and privacy. Arguably the most passionate testimony in favor of SB107 came from Representative Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip), who has a gay daughter.
To say she is any less of a person, or she is a criminal for her lifestyle, really upsets me. And for anybody that would feel that way—upsets me,” Ankney said, pointing at the other lawmakers. “I don’t think God thinks any less of my daughter than he does of any one of you in here.”
Montana Human Rights Network Lobbyist Jamee Greer says the passage of SB107 is “the first explicit victory for the LGBT community through the (Montana) legislature in history.” He believes it may be a watershed moment for gay rights in the state.

Governor Steve Bullock signs Senate Bill 107 with Rep. Bryce Bennet (left) and Senator Tom Facey looking on.

Governor Steve Bullock signs Senate Bill 107 with Rep. Bryce Bennet (left) and Senator Tom Facey looking on.