The Montana Legislature heard emotional testimony last week on a bill that would include gender identity and sexual orientation in the state’s non-discrimination laws.
Introduced by Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, House Bill 417 would add LGBTQ-identifying individuals to a list of classes protected by the Montana Human Rights Act, meaning it would prevent them from being discriminated against when seeking housing and employment, and when using public accommodations.
“I don’t know that discrimination is a privilege that’s worth defending with this body,” McCarthy said.
Twenty-seven people testified in favor of the bill, including many people from the LGBTQ community who shared experiences of discrimination. Other supporters brought letters of support from colleagues and friends. Anna Doran, owner of Big Dipper Ice Cream in Helena, brought a letter signed by more than 60 Montana business owners, while the Rev. Susan Otey of Christ United Methodist in Great Falls brought a similar letter with signatures from 53 church leaders.
Eighteen people from around the state also came to testify against the bill.
Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, said the notion that people are discriminated against because of their gender identity or sexual orientation is false.
He also had concerns with the protections provided to transgender individuals seeking to use the facilities that align with their identity.
“It will give boys and men unfettered access to girls’ locker rooms,” Laszloffy said.
Rick Vaught, chairman of the Christian Education Association, said he believes there is an agenda behind this legislation, one that seeks to “destroy people who actually have a conscience.”
“Legislation like this will not eliminate but merely exacerbate the problems,” Vaught said.
Several opponents argued the bill was an attack on their religious freedom.
SK Rossi, advocacy and policy director for the Montana American Civil Liberties Union, noted that the bill does not change any existing religious exemptions. Rossi said businesses being required to serve to LGBTQ people does not constitute a breach of those freedoms.
“Most courts will agree that selling goods in the public sphere is not a religious practice,” Rossi said.
Bill to seal youth court records tabled
The House Judiciary Committee tabled a bill last week that would make youth criminal records filed with a state district court unavailable to the public.
House Bill 398, introduced by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, would have also eliminated the minor offender’s criminal history after the records were sealed.
“The point is to basically make this information less accessible … so it doesn’t catch up to somebody later on,” Zolnikov said.
Representing the Montana Coalition of Safety and Justice, Steve Cape argued that minor criminal records can make offenders noncompetitive in other states. He outlined a hypothetical situation in which a person who committed a crime in his youth later goes on to become an electrician, and is denied a job based on a record of his offenses being available to potential employers.
“It says what you did as a kid stays as a kid,” Cape said in his testimony supporting the bill.
Beth McLaughlin, an administrator with the Montana Supreme Court, noted that only 15 percent of youth criminal cases are handled in District Court, with the remainder being informally reviewed with no record.
Opponents argued that information about crimes committed by youths is already public to a certain degree in the offender’s community, and this bill would encourage them to lie about their criminal history.
“You will have a public record of some kind of conduct, but then the individual after they’re 18, can come in and deny reality,” said Mark Murphy, representing the Montana County Attorneys Association.
John MacDonald, representing the Montana Newspaper Association, agreed, saying that while Montana newspapers do not print the names of minors suspected of crimes, that information is not difficult to find.
“It wouldn’t take a whole lot of work for anybody to figure out who that person was,” MacDonald said, referring to juveniles suspected of crimes.
Liquor license bill debated
A group of residents from Buffalo Hill Terrace, a senior living facility in Kalispell, want the ability to drink alcoholic beverages in their home, they told the House Business and Labor Committee Thursday.
House Bill 430 would make that possible by allowing senior living facilities to apply for liquor licenses.
In his opening statements, Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, jokingly called the bill the “Make Retirement Homes Great Again Act of 2017.” But these seniors, some nearing 90-years-old, didn’t think that was a joke.
Currently, retirement facility residents are able to bring in alcohol of their own and drink it at will, but that’s not what’s missing for them.
Lois McClaren said she remembers having friends over for dinner and drinks. Even though she can still do that, she said it’s hard to get downtown to buy those beverages.
She said she enjoys the living facility, but misses being able to easily provide drinks for her guests.
“Now we can have them in for dinner, but they would have to have their drink before they came or we would have to find some way to go downtown and buy whatever we thought they wanted and bring it back to our apartment,” McClaren said.
McClaren said her storage drawers are now filled with fabric instead of adult beverages.
John Iverson, lobbyist for Montana Tavern Association, opposed the bill and said he’s worried about mixing alcohol with an older population like the one at the facility in Kalispell.
“There is a very good chance that a lot of these people are on pharmacologicals that are going to be negatively impacted by alcohol,” Iverson said.
Other opponents of the bill said along with liquor licenses comes heavy regulation on establishments. Iverson said that with the passage of this bill, residents of senior living facilities will be restricted to bringing their own beverages into the main dining hall.
“They’d actually lose the privilege they currently have,” Iverson said. “They would have to purchase that alcohol from that facility.”
Hertz said Montana law already provides exemptions for resorts, and these living facilities would fall under similar exemptions.
“Really this is, in many ways, an all-inclusive resort for retired people, so I think that’s a really good comparison that that license already exists,” Hertz said.
Jean Tyser is also a resident of Buffalo Hill Terrace and said she never sees other residents abusing alcohol on the premises.
“I don’t drink a lot. I don’t care what you do, but I think you ought to have the right to live like you want to,” Tyser said.
Food Choice Act gets a hearing
Montana lawmakers heard a bill last week that would allow farmers and ranchers to sell goods direct to consumers without government oversight or inspection.
Known as the Food Choice Act, House Bill 352 would allow for the sale and consumption of “homemade” food products, so long as those products are sold direct to the “end user,” meaning the person who consumes it.
“This is between neighbor and neighbor,” said Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson. Hertz said goods do not specifically have to be sold directly from the producer’s home, and both parties would be allowed to arrange a meeting place.
Jenna Reno, a Bozeman resident, said she wants to be able to sell produce in her community without having to find transportation to a farmer’s market. She said health problems make it difficult for her to do much other than garden and raise chickens without assistance.
“I want the opportunity to utilize my property and to feed my community,” Reno said.
The bill’s opponents, however, argue the Food Choice Act would have significant community health risks.
“What the bill does is it creates a 100 percent unregulated industry,” said Krista Lee Evans, representing the Montana Milk Producers.
Evans said HB 352 does not provide adequate bacteria and disease testing for the products, which include everything from raw milk to meat.
“It takes one bad actor,” Evans said. “That’s all it takes to make somebody very, very ill.”
Representing the Montana Environmental Health Association and the Montana Public Health Association, Hillary Hanson said the bill would nullify the already-existing Cottage Food Act, which allows individuals to sell low-risk foods like baked goods, jams and candies with minimal oversight.
“This would have those high-risk foods that really increase the chance of food-borne illness,” Hanson said.
But Hertz said selling food on a person-to-person basis is an old Montana tradition.
“[This is] something we’ve been doing in Montana since we became a state, and even before statehood,” Hertz said.
Charter school bill sees first reading
The subject of school choice has once again made its way into the Montana Legislature.
Introduced by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, House Bill 376 would allow the state to establish public charter schools.
Democrats have expressed opposition to charter school establishment, making Windy Boy’s sponsoring of the bill remarkable. Windy Boy said he did so to allow for additional education options for students in his district who are failing at traditional public schools.
“How do we know that something’s [not] going to work if we don’t try it?” Windy Boy said.
Windy Boy specifically noted the bill does not allow for the formation of private charter schools. Proponents of the bill echoed Windy Boy’s statements about the need for diversity in schooling options.
“Charter schools are just one more tool in the toolbox to help kids that are not succeeding to succeed,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation.
Laszloffy pointed to Arizona’s robust charter school laws as a model for Montana, saying most Arizona students still attend traditional public schools and that charter schools can exist alongside them.
But critics argued the bill would have numerous detrimental effects on Montana’s public school system.
Peter Donovan, executive director for the Board of Public Education, said the bill would divert supervisory authority from the school board to a separate commission for charter schools.
“These public charter schools would not have to meet the minimum standards that all other public schools in the state’s system are required to meet,” Donovan said.
Rob Watson, superintendent of schools in Bozeman, said Montana’s public school provisions already allow the creation of charter schools. He pointed to Bridger Alternative School as a successful public charter school created using existing channels. Watson said the decision to create a public charter school received unanimous approval from both the Board of Public Education and Bozeman schools’ board of trustees.
Gov. Steve Bullock expressed discontent with the notion of creating a public charter school system in Montana.
“The idea that we’re going to divert public taxpayer dollars to institutions that have no accountability when it comes to accreditation standards … is certainly troubling to me,” Bullock said.
Michael Siebert and Freddy Monares are reporters with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.