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.

 
 
 
 
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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.

Senate passes first state employee base pay raises in four years


The Montana Senate has passed a $116 million dollar two-year pay plan for state employees on a 37-13 vote.

It has already passed the House, but is heading back to that chamber for consideration of a Senate amendment.

Lawmakers have not given state employees base pay raises for more than four years. Senator Alan Olson (R-Roundup) said it’s time to give the raises to ensure the state retains a quality workforce.

“We want to permit coal mines, we want to permit oil wells, we want to build highways, and we need to have the qualified people there to do it,” Olson said. 

The bill removes a quarter of the funding from the $152 million pay plan originally negotiated by unions and former Governor Brian Schweitzer. That deal would have given all state employees a five percent raise each of the next two years. 

Several lawmakers complained the legislature is not included in those negotiations. Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek) believes it’s a flawed system, saying “the whole problem is that there’s a negotiation that takes place and this body is not at the table and yet, (the legislature) comes back and is responsible for funding it.”

The new plan would give the smaller amount back to Governor Steve Bullock for re-negotiation, requesting special emphasis on the employees who have not received other types of raises over the past few years. The amendment added by the Senate also changes how future pay increases will be determined. Currently, the state compares the pay of similar government jobs in surrounding states as well as comparable jobs in the private sector in order to set wages. The amendment removes the consideration of the private sector.

“It is ironic that the legislature that wrote the law enabling the executive to give raises is now complaining about that very same law as a way to suppress what our employees are paid,” said the Governor’s budget director, Dan Villa. He says Governor Bullock is disappointed with the lower dollar amount in the pay plan and will be trying to convince the House to add more money back in as the body debates the Senate amendment.

State employees in 2009 volunteered to freeze their base pay as the Great Recession took hold. The 2011 Legislature rejected a smaller pay plan than that being considered now. Thus, base pay for employees have not gone up for more than four years. However, Republicans in favor of the smaller pay plan point out more than 60 percent of state employees have received other types of raises over the last few years.

Top state budget priorities set to become clearer this weekend

Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek)

Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek)

The Senate has its work cut out for it this weekend. The chamber’s Republicans and Democrats will be focused on pushing forward the state’s two-year, $9 billion budget. The main budget bill, HB2, unanimously passed the House last month.

“Almost all the work’s left to do yet,” said Senate Finance Chairman, Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek). Senators will be considering amendments to make room in the budget for other major proposals being considered by the wider legislature, such as a fix to the state’s pension debts, state employee pay raises, and funding for construction projects.

“It’s a complicated process to begin with,” Ripley said, “but…we have so many unusual circumstances that normally in a regular legislative session we wouldn’t have to deal with.” He’s referring to the large bills for fixing the pensions and state employee pay raises.

The Governor’s Office wants the Legislature to close on the budget with $300 million left in the bank, otherwise known as the ‘ending fund balance.’ But a balance sheet put out this week from the Legislative Fiscal Division shows the fund almost $95 million in the hole.

Senator Jon Sesso (D-Butte)

Senator Jon Sesso (D-Butte)

“It’s not as bad as the status report really looks,” explains Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, who is also on the Finance Committee. That balance sheet includes the costs of all bills still working their way through the Legislative process at this point. “If we went home today, passed House Bill 2… and didn’t pass any other bills, we’ve got $700 million in the bank.”

The question now is what’s going to make it in out of the major projects yet to pass. Sen. Ripley predicts most big projects will probably make it through, “but chopping away at the edges of them and whittling them down to where we can deal with ’em” rather than killing the ideas. He mentions the House removing large portions of money from Sen. Llew Jones’ (R-Conrad) major education funding legislation.
Senator Sesso looks to a number of major tax cut bills still in the works. “Some of the permanent tax relief is premature,” he said, saying those could put the budget out of structural balance in the long term. He prefers some one-time tax cut options. Democratic Governor Steve Bullock did not comment too much the budget, which he calls ‘a moving target.’ But, he echoed some of Sesso’s thoughts on tax cuts.
“What I said at the start is we’re gonna fund essential services and long-term liabilities before we start new programs or tax cuts,” Bullock said.
Although he does have veto power, it’s not Bullock’s call what to fund. That responsibility falls to the Republican-controlled legislature.

“Grateful Nation” statue designated Montana’s official Iraq/Afghanistan war memorial

Photo Courtesy the University of Montana

Photo Courtesy the University of Montana

A University of Montana memorial to soldiers lost in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been designated the state’s official memorial to those conflicts.

Governor Steve Bullock signed the bill Monday recognizing the memorial spearheaded by the group Grateful Nation Montana.

President David Bell says his group was founded in 2007 to provide tutoring and mentoring to the children of Montana soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The group also provides a full year college scholarship to those children. The idea for the memorial came afterward and the bronze statue of family members standing before a soldier’s boots, rifle and helmet was unveiled on the University of Montana campus in November of 2011. Bell says the statue provides a tangible symbol of the group’s commitment to the families of those killed in battle.

 “This provides us an opportunity to stand there and reflect on the 42 names and their hometowns in Montana and their short lives and it gives us an opportunity as civilians to reflect upon the enormous sacrifice,” Bell said.

Governor Steve Bullock signed the bill recognizing the statue as the official Montana memorial to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars surrounded by state military and University leaders as well as veterans’ families. He says he’s happy to acknowledge the work of Grateful Nation Montana, including the memorial “and also placing it there, the recognition that contemporary days now, our Universities are supporting our fallen soldiers and the relationships. And it just made great sense and it’s exciting to see it done.”

The bill sponsored by Representative Champ Edmunds (R-Missoula) was unopposed in both the House and Senate.

Photo Courtesy Governor Steve Bullock's Office

Photo Courtesy Governor Steve Bullock’s Office

 

Montana Senate uproar over missing Democratic Senator, referendum bills

Senator Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) holds a copy of the Legislature's rulebook while Democrats pounded their desks and shouted in protest Friday

Senator Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) holds a copy of the Legislature’s rulebook while Democrats pounded their desks and shouted in protest Friday

Decorum in The Montana State Senate dissolved into an uproar Friday over a missing Democratic Senator.  Republicans saw the absence of Sen. Shannon Augare as the use of an obscure parliamentary procedure by the Democrats to stall floor action and kill some GOP-backed bills. The decision of Republican leadership to take votes on the bills anyway resulted in the Democratic minority leaping to their feet, shouting loud objections and pounding on their desks with anything from glass mugs to copies of the Montana Constitution.

“I don’t want to characterize what they did as a Hail Mary or failed, but we did what we had to do and it’s done,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich about passing the bills which, if also passed by the House, will put measures on the 2014 ballot asking to remove the state’s same-day voter registration practice and put in place a new primary election system that only allows the two political parties receiving the most votes move forward to the general election.

Any ballot-measure bills which pass the Montana Legislature with a simple majority of both chambers move right to a public vote—bypassing the governor’s office. Historically, this was rarely utilized, but that’s changed the last couple years. The majority Republicans in both chambers have been using the tactic more often as a way to get certain measures past the veto of the state’s Democratic Governor.

“Just as they used the rules to their advantage to try to move those referenda forward, we were gonna use the rules to our advantage to stop that nonsense in its tracks” said Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Jon Sesso. “Enough is enough with this stuff.”

Friday was the deadline for referendum bills to transfer over to the opposite chamber from where they started. In a caucus meeting, Democrats discussed using a seldom-employed procedure known as a ‘call of the Senate’ to find Senator Augare, who had gone missing. Using that procedure would halt action on any bills until Augare was found. If the floor was halted for the remainder of the day, the bills objected to by the Democrats would not make the deadline and die for this year’s legislative session.

Meanwhile, Republicans were meeting too, including with legislative legal staff, and decided they could take the votes before recognizing the Democrat’s motion to call the Senate. Senator Wittich said the rules exist to keep the chamber in order so “it was important that we do the people’s business and transfer those bills to the House in time.”

“I’m saddened by what we saw today—it’s worse than Washington, D.C.” said Governor Steve Bullock. “I’m not embarrassed by men and women demanding a right to speak—I’m disappointed by those who denied it.”

Democrats say the votes taken on the referendum bills should not count because the party’s objection to the votes and their motion to call the Senate were not recognized by Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann.

The story in the Senate so far this session has been over a split in the body’s GOP caucus between conservatives and more moderate Republicans who have been siding with Democrats on some key issues including education funding and Medicaid Expansion. Now, some Republicans are saying the actions of Democrats have re-unified the party.