HELENA—Calls for unity across party lines abounded throughout the opening day of Montana’s 65th legislative session.
Hundreds gathered in the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 2 as top state leaders were sworn into office.
“Before any of us are Democrats or Republicans, we’re Montanans,” Gov. Steve Bullock told the audience in his first speech of the session. “And Montanans elected us to serve.”
The ceremony featured local school children performing Montana’s state song and Rep. George Kipp III, D-Heart Butte, performing two Native American songs.
Shortly after, the House of Representatives held its own opening ceremony. Secretary of State Corey Stapleton recounted the story of the World War I Christmas Truce, in which British and German soldiers on the Western Front held a temporary cease fire and celebrated the holiday together.
On Tuesday, legislators had the opportunity to learn the basics of Montana law at “Law School for Legislators,” which featured speakers from the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana and state Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice and Attorney General Tim Fox.
Bruce Spencer, president of the State Bar Association of Montana, said new and seasoned legislators alike attended the event, which helped them understand the law and how it relates to their duties as lawmakers.
Infrastructure emerges as key issue
Bullock’s proposed plan for infrastructure investment dominated talk throughout the 2017 legislative session’s first week.
Bullock’s plan would invest in the construction of basic infrastructure, like roads and sewers, and other projects like the renovation of Montana State University’s Romney Hall and the creation of a new shelter for Montana’s veterans. His plan proposes paying for the development through a combination of bonding, or incurring debt, and increased revenue through taxes on resources like gas and coal.
While both Democrats and Republicans acknowledged a need for infrastructure development, their positions on getting there stood in stark contrast.
In a press conference Monday, Republicans outlined their party’s priorities for a “basic” infrastructure bill. House Majority Leader Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, said he worries about bonding, or the state incurring debt to fund projects. Ehli said in the past, when Montana was “flush with cash,” Republicans remained resistant to bonding to avoid incurring debt. Now that the state is facing a budget shortfall due to a decrease in overall tax revenue, Ehli said he is skeptical of taking on additional debt without a clear definition of what infrastructure encompasses.
“Once you define infrastructure, our caucus has a better idea of whether we can stomach it,” Ehli said.
Democrats argued that widespread infrastructure growth is necessary. Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, specifically cited the veterans shelter as a priority.
“These projects are just as much about critical infrastructure as a roadway in my town,” Sesso said.
He also argued that bonding is necessary to ensure that these projects come to fruition, adding that now is an ideal time to use bonds as a funding source, in light of Montana’s recently increased bond rating.
“We’ve got to begin to define bonding as a means to invest in our future,” Sesso said. “To me we are doing a disservice to future generations by not making these strategics investments.”
Budget talks dominate first week
The powerful Montana House and Senate budget committees began working last week on two key bills that will shape the state budget.
House Bill 1, also known as the “Feed Bill,” covers legislator pay and benefits and pay for legislative staff and travel expenses between sessions. It allocates $3.8 million for the Senate and $6.1 million for the House. It passed the House Appropriations Committee 21-1.
House Bill 3 appropriates money to various state agencies that will be incurring unanticipated budget shortfalls, allowing them to complete fiscal year 2017. According to the bill’s fiscal note, it also authorizes Bullock to reduce as much as $16 million in general fund expenditures.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the job of the committee is to create a budget that balances by fiscal year 2019.
HB 3 allocates money to several state agencies, including $16.5 million from the general fund to mitigate shortages for K-12 schools. It also gives $3.1 million to the Department of Corrections to correct its shortfall.
The budget committees met throughout the first week to address proposed amendments to the two pieces of legislation. Both the Senate Finance and Claims and House Appropriations committees—each controlled by the Republican majority—decided to increase program cuts from Bullock’s proposed $74 million to roughly $120 million.
The committees got commitments from various agencies to cut roughly $5.5 million for the current fiscal year.
The Department of Justice agreed to additional cuts of $1.7 million, while the legislative branch itself agreed to a reduction of $1.2 million. Other programs, like the Office of Public Instruction and the Department of Revenue, agreed to smaller cuts. The additional cuts are intended to correct the revenue and budgetary shortfalls facing the state.
Bills would update rape and sexual assault laws
The 2017 Montana Legislature heard five bills in its first week that would revise state laws dealing with rape and sexual assault.
Senate Bill 29, the most notable of the bills, would redefine consent in sexual assault cases, eliminating the need for victims to prove they were “compelled to submit by force.” Just saying no is not enough under current law.
“No means no is not the law,” Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jennifer Clark said in testifying for the bill Friday.
Montana Department of Justice prosecutor Ole Olson gave context to the Senate Judiciary Committee, comparing the current law to a man stealing a purse from a woman outside a bar.
“This is not theft,” Olson said. “She says, ‘But he took my purse after I told him no.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ they say, ‘but the law of theft requires us to prove that he used some kind of force when he took your purse or that you were incapacitated, and we just don’t see that here.’ Does that seem just to you, ladies and gentlemen?”
Another bill, Senate Bill 26, seeks to eliminate the necessity that 18-year-olds convicted of sexual intercourse without consent be placed on the sex offender registry, as long as no coercive action or force took place.
“We want the sexual and violent offender registry to list people who are actually a danger to their communities,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula.
Supporters included Russell Foster, a Glasgow man who was convicted of sexual intercourse without consent in 1996, when he was 19. Foster had sex with Amber Foster, now 36, when she was 15 years old. The two are now married, with three children.
“With me being like the victim, it hasn’t done me a lot of justice,” Ambe Fosterr said. “It’s placed a lot of guilt on my head.”
SB 26 would not have changed the outcome of the Fosters’ case, because Russell was 19 at the time. Many who supported the bill argued for increasing the age to beyond 18.
“We would like the committee to consider expanding limits,” said Brenda Erdelyi, president of the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Association. Erdelyi cited research that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which deals with impulse control and problem solving, does not finish developing until a person is in his or her 20s.
“To be predatory involves a lot of variables, and so we don’t want to heighten or exacerbate community fears unnecessarily,” Erdelyi said.
Senate Bill 17 received similar support. Introduced by Sen. Nels Swandal, R-Wilsall, it would eliminate the requirement that juveniles convicted of sexual offenses be placed on the sex offender registry. Courts would be allowed to make that decision on a case-by-case basis.
The bill had support from Montana’s county prosecutors. “(Prosecutors) can still go forward and can make a positive presentation that registration is appropriate in this case,” said Mark Murphy, speaking for Montana County Attorneys Association. “We’re willing to take that on and make that presentation.”
Lawmakers also heard Senate Bill 22, which would allow rape victims who became pregnant to disallow the perpetrator parental rights, and Senate Bill 30, which would raise the statute of limitations for sex crimes committed against minors to 20 years.
Click here to read a related story on the Legislature’s first week.
Michael Siebert is a reporter with the Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association. Freddy Monares contributed to this report.