Friday, April 24, 2009

Chair of the Day Again, Legislative Day 88 of 90

Today, I took the chair at 8:30 a.m. to run the House of Representatives' Order of Business 7, Second Reading of Bills. In these last days of the regular session, we'll call to order two or three times a day as conference committees consider bills and move committee reports. The committee reports then are referred to each chamber, the Senate and the House, for concurrence, and then to the governor's desk.

We reconvene at 1, with the second agenda of the day, when I'll resume my duties as chair of the day.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Five Democrat Maidens All in a Row

Today after the House floor session, some impromptu photos. Here we are, five in our row: Wanda Grinde, Margie MacDonald, Caroline Pease-Lopez, me, and Sue Malek. We look pretty good for the 87th of 90 legislative days, I think.

Desperation Legislation

Perhaps it's that we're in the late days of the session or that there's a sense of urgency to "do something", but there are a number of bad motions in floor action in the House of Representatives these days. When I've asked representatives why they're trying to move bad bills off the table (resurrect the bills, in essence), more often than not they say that we need *something* to move.

Bad idea.

As terribly hard as it is to pass a law, it's harder still to change or repeal a bad one. Why on earth would we pass a marginal or outright bad bill just to have *something* on the books?

That's like saying that a half-baked idea has merit as an idea. I say, it's more important to recognize that it's half-baked!

Desperation as a motivation for any action is questionable for that wisdom. It's just such a bad idea to move legislation to the floor when legislative committees have held public hearings, heard testimony from the public and from experts on issues, done research on the topics, discussed the legislation, considered amendments, and decided, in bipartisan votes, to table a bill. Now, that's not to say that good bills weren't tabled for no good reason, but generally, if a bill cannot pass the vetting process of a committee, it probably lacks the substance to advance to the floor. Using procedural motions in the last days of a session to "blast" bad bills is bad practice.

Bozeman Shooting

Just heard about a shooting in Bozeman. One woman dead, one man in custody after a shooting at Wagon Wheel Trailer Court.

Montana Legislature, Day 87, 8:30 a.m.

There are surprises every day at the Montana Capitol, but some are more dramatic than others. This morning, there's a lovely mule tethered to a pine tree outside the House chambers on the west side of the building. Its presence prompted any number of responses.

I said, "My ride's here!" and "Well, it IS the Montana capitol."

Others thought we should send some security officers down to guard it, since Representative Butcher sponsored a bill for a horse slaughter facility.

Just now, Jesse the Mule was introduced on the House floor! (He's not ON the House floor, just introduced.)

Also, there are moments that are so familiar as to color the rest of our actions wherever we go: every morning, we have an invocation at the start of the session and then recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Immediately following that, the Speaker of the House directs the Chief Clerk to take the roll.

So now, most of us, whenever we recite the Pledge, will be tempted to end it thus: "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The Clerk will take the roll."

And yesterday, the sunshine in the House chamber was so bright, Michele Reinhart had to wear shades.

Here I am, with another enrolled bill. Nice.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Budget Negotiations Heat Up...with the Weather

In the Montana Legislature this 86th day, conference committees are meeting about the budget bills. This year, there's the usual House Bill 2, the state budget for the next biennium, along with its related policy bills, but there's also the legislation that authorizes and details the federal dollars and the projects they'll buy.

The House, with bipartisan support, passed the budget bills a few weeks ago, and the bills went to the Senate. That body changed things. Now, the changes in one bill affect another; some changes don't jive anymore, and some policy decisions and deletions are unacceptable. The conference committees are meeting to make the budget right. Again.

For House members, and most especially for House Democrats, the crux of the issue are three points that were included in the budget originally but were stripped or severely underfunded in the Senate.

We want the Healthy Montana Kids initiative funded. Voters last November, by a margin of 70%+, passed this initiative to ensure that all Montana children have access to affordable health care. The legislature must fund the will of the voters.

Education funding is paramount, and after years of court action about the legislature's failure to adequately fund education, the last two legislatures did increase education funding. We continued that funding in this budget, only to have the numbers slashed in the Senate. We have a responsibility to provide a quality education to Montana kids, and we must not underfund education. I'm a proud product of Montana public schools. We have the budget in conference committee, where we'll work like dogs to restore the education funding. I believe in not just adequate but ample education funding.

Agencies' budgets were cut an additional 2% across the board when the budget reached the Senate, after the House had cut budgets to a hair's breadth of acceptability, including a 7%--that's 7%--vacancy savings plan. An additional 2% cut is unjustified and guts key programs and departments, like the Commissioner of Political Practices and the Montana Historical Society.

The House Appropriations committee heard months of testimony on budget bills from the public and legislators and crafted a budget that was intricate, balanced, and slim. It is a responsible budget. Now, the task is restoring it to that state.

With tough budget negotiations, we must find some levity: some pics from this past week. Bill Wilson, looking the way we all feel these days:

Michele Reinhart's great turquoise and brown cowgirl boots, PERFECT for a Montana legislator. I've got to have a pair.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bills Passed for Gravel Mining and Oil and Gas Leases

Today in floor debate in the Montana House of Representatives we came to the end of a very long road with the passage of two bills: the House Natural Resources committee bill on gravel, and a bill on public notice of oil and gas leases on state lands.

I've been fighting for better policies and laws on these issues for quite some time now, and the bills that passed are truly compromise bills. They do good things. As one representative said on the floor, they're not perfect, but there's more good stuff in them than bad. That's true.

The gravel bill includes measures that haven't been done before, like public notice of an opencut mining operation (gravel pit) that includes mailed letters to neighbors within a half mile of a proposed operation, notice in the local newspaper, and posted notices on the site. The notice will include a description of the site, the estimated volume of gravel or sand to be extracted, facilities on the site (like gravel crushers, which require air quality permits, or concrete mixing or asphalt batch plants), the duration of mining and related activities, and access points of the operation. It also includes a provision that if a certain percentage of those notified request a public meeting, the department will hold a meeting.

The bill includes many new victories for the gravel industry. Current law assesses a resource indemnity tax that industry did not support, so the bill removes that tax and assesses a per-cubic-yard fee instead. The money will support 3 or 4 new people in the Opencut Mining Division, the agency tasked with reviewing applications, issuing permits, inspecting sites, and tracking reclamation efforts. In recent years, delays in permitting have driven industry to court, and last summer, judges ordered permits to be issued because timelines for review had been exceeded. The permits were issued without any environmental review, a requirement of opencut application review and a constitutional right protected by the Montana Constitution, and so the judges rescinded their decisions.

House Bill 678 also favors industry for changes that shorten timelines for consideration of applications. The bill also does NOT allow for the department to deny applications. Current processes allow a 30-day review and a 30-day period for acceptance (with approved plans of operation); each of those periods may be extended another 30 days, so the maximum time now for consideration is 120 days. The new timeline provides for a 5-day review to find the application complete, then 45 days to find it acceptable, hold public meetings (if thresholds are met), accept public comment, and address plans of operation. That's 50 days versus the current allowance of 120.

There is concern that an understaffed and underfunded department cannot meet the new timelines, but with the revised fee structure for funding the department, new requirements for applicants to meet, and advances in public notice, I'm hopeful if not confident that the new system will be far better than the current broken system. If anything has become evident during these few years of big operations, delayed permits, court cases, and rescinded decisions, it's that the current system is terribly broken.

Parts of the bill were amended to remove good public participation measures, including fixes for concerns of neighbors about operations that include asphalt batch plants and concrete mixing, and the discretion of the Opencut Mining Division to hold public meetings or to send some applications to extended review. I opposed those amendments, but for the sake of passing a bill with more advances than setbacks, the House passed the bill.

A public notice bill for oil and gas leases on state lands passed the House today, and it's a close cousin--exactly the same in some sections--to a bill I introduced early this session that requires notice in local newspapers (not just in one newspaper in the state for all state leases) of oil and gas leases, notice to surface landowners, and maps and meaningful data on the state agency's website. It accomplishes a lot, but the bill I proposed also included provisions for public meetings, notice to adjacent landowners, and authority for the department to pay for the public notice from the state lands administration account.

I'll keep working on these issues, and I and many others will be watchful of the progress of the state agencies and departments, the responsiveness and responsibility of operators, and the impact on livability of neighboring uses to gravel operations and oil and gas drilling. But for now, these are the vehicles that managed to survive the ugly and wrenching process of lawmaking. I'm proud we have bills that gain some ground for everyone: the public, the state agency, and the gravel mining and oil and gas drilling industries.

Friday, April 17, 2009

You Know Me So Well

Day 82 of 90 in the Montana Legislature's 61st Session, and we'll be considering Senate amendments to budget bills in the House today. Last night, all of us, representatives, senators, staff, and lobbyists, made fun of ourselves with comedy parodies at our Attache Party. I assembled a 'legislator look-a-likes' for the party. Some of the resemblances are freakishly accurate. Perhaps I'll post some. In the meantime...

Friends, this morning I found on my desk on the floor of the House of Representatives this card. It reads, "Sometimes, the best thing to do is just look in the mirror and say..."

And moments later, my seatmate, Edie McClafferty, came by to show me her shoes and painted toenails, very fancy:

It's the little things that make me so happy. Now, onto the state budget bills, in floor debate at 10 a.m., twenty minutes from now. The Montana Constitution tasks the legislature with passing a balanced budget, and this year, we have the budget bills and the American Recovery and Rehabilitation Act (ARRA) or stimulus money; it's all tied together, and there are fixes that must be made. The House calls to order today at 10, and Saturday at 8 a.m. I'll work like a dog to get a balanced budget passed that's responsible in its spending and responsive to all of us.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Last week, the House beat the Senate--mercilessly--in the biennial legislative basketball game. The game was a benefit for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and the House raised more than $4000 for BBBS. The House, however, has not, until today, received the trophy back from the dratted Senate. We sent our team captains to retrieve the trophy, which they brought back into the House chamber straight away. (Note, no injury to House Sergeant at Arms Ed Tinsley!)

Also today, Governor Brian Schweitzer signed one of my bills into law. A picture from the event.

Groove Thing

Today in the capitol rotunda is a celebration of women elected to serve the State of Montana. Current and former legislators were honored, and Dorothy Eck, a state senator and Montana Constitutional Convention delegate from Bozeman, spoke; great to see the ladies who've worked on behalf of the state. Montanans elected the first woman to serve in elected office: Jeanette Rankin, elected to the US Congress in 1916, even before the vote for women was won in the nation. We're a long and proud tradition in Montana, women elected to serve, and I'm so proud to be among them.

Last night, the Democratic Women's Caucus hosted a Pay Equity Dance Party in Helena. A fundraiser for the women's caucus, it also was structured (through the cover charge) to illustrate the disparity of unequal pay for equal work by women. Gals paid $4 cover, and men $6. It was a GREAT party; apparently, given any opportunity to blow off some steam, we legislative gals will shake our groove things and sing along to the 'best' of the 80s and 90s. Some of our male counterparts danced, too (nice moves, Mike Phillips!) We were shaking our tailfeathers!

From this past week:
Jill Cohenour was fouled in the House vs. Senate basketball game by Ryan Zinke, and here is an impressive bruise from the event. She made one of her two free throws from the hit. Take that, Zinke!

Monday, April 13, 2009

House fun and games, (Re)Budgeting, etc.

Last week in the state legislature, the Senate hacked and slashed the budget that the House had approved, and also took big slashes to House Bill 645, the federal recovery money allocations. So this week, the Senate amendments--more than 50--will come back to the House for concurrence. I expect we in the House will not concur, since the budgets of our public schools, public services, voter-approved Children's Health Insurance Program, and other services were cut. Most likely, the budget bills will go to conference committees, seven legislators (four representatives, three senators) to wrangle over. But all of us will be involved, since the budget touches all of our families, our friends, neighbors, cities and towns and counties and school districts.

So the budget will be returned to the House, and we'll make it right. Again.

Last week was the 18th Annual House versus Senate basketball game, a benefit for Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The House of Representatives fielded a talented, tall, and youthful team, compared to that of the geriatric Senate. We also had a secret weapon: for our team shirts, we ordered referees' jerseys! Nice! The House won the game to lead the series 10-8. All proceeds go to BB/BS, and for months preceding the game, we take up collections in the House for "bribe" money with which to buy key plays, fouls, time on the clock, whatever.

Favorite quote from the game: "We bought this game, fair and square!" --Janna Taylor, holder of the bribe money for the House.

This week, five of my bills were enrolled (passed by both chambers, the House and Senate, and returned for signatures of the sponsor, me, the Speaker of the House, and the President of the Senate) and on their way to the Governor's desk for his signature. Last session, the enrolled legislation coming my way started earlier, but it was amazing to have five bills in green folders this week. Nice.

Two new additions to the House family: Pat Noonan's newborn baby daughter (here he is with the pile o' baby gifts at his pink-decorated desk) and Chuck Hunters nine-week-old new puppy, Rocky, a Golden Doodle who came home Tuesday night. Chuck reported on Wednesday that Rocky's first night home had been really pretty good; no whimpering or unsettled puppy activity, and Rocky only peed on the carpet once. Good boy, Rocky!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Monday, April 6, Legislative Day 75

A busy day today: this morning, there were five bills to be heard and considered by the House Taxation committee, on which I serve. I found out during the hearing on the second bill that the House Natural Resources committee bill on opencut mining (gravel pits) was scheduled to be heard this very afternoon by the Senate Natural Resources committee. It's indeed a rare (thank goodness) thing that a bill is scheduled and heard on the same day; we try to adhere to at least a 72-hour notice for public participation. I got the call out (with much help) so that those who could come started for Helena.

At noon, I had lunch with the Gallatin County delegation and many representatives of NorthWestern Energy, who invited us to hear their explanation of the gas leak, unquenched natural gas fire, and suppression efforts from the explosion in Bozeman. I had many questions about safety measures, after the devastation in my hometown.

It was a busy day in floor action in the House and Senate, too; two of my bills passed third reading today (to pass from the House, bound now for the governor's desk). The Senate passed a bill of mine unanimously, 50-0, to allow re-valuation of urban renewal districts after a disaster which devastates the value of the real estate in the district. The bill was prompted by the terrible explosion and fire in Bozeman a month ago.

At four o'clock, I served on a special conference committee of seven legislators to consider the House amendments on a Senate bill. The conference committee worked through the language and we agreed on a final version of the bill; now the conference committee report will be reported back to the House and Senate, and the bill will advance.

At nearly six o'clock, I presented House Bill 678, the gravel committee bill to the Senate Natural Resources committee. The bill was amended, and badly, so it may well be on its way to a conference committee, too.

The pictures here are from a short drive I took yesterday to Unionville, three miles southwest of Helena, up Last Chance Gulch. These buildings are at the end of Last Chance Gulch in Helena, where gold was discovered in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Here's the cathedral; note the moon between the twin spires. And today, wonderful news in the House: Pat Noonan of Butte and his wife, Jennifer, welcomed a baby girl to their family! That's two daughters for Pat. Girl power!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Capitol Action

This week in the capitol, Dad visited me and spent the day on the House floor, in committee hearings, etc. Great to have him here. Just as a chance happening, we had our pictures taken with Governor Schweitzer!

Thursday was also picture day for the House of Representatives. Edie McClafferty's husband caught this picture of me while we were waiting for the next shot.

And here's a switch: Usually, the blood-letting at the capitol is figurative; on Thursday, it was literal, with a Red Cross blood drive in the capitol rotunda.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

A bad month in Montana

Good grief, people. March and early April have been a terrible time for disasters in our state.

In the news this morning is an account of a plane crash near the Hungry Horse Reservoir. The plane was found at around 2:00 a.m. on Friday west of the reservoir; the craft is registered to Hugh A. Rogers of Whitefish. Officials say that at this time, that only the pilot was known to have been on board the plane.

This crash was the third fatal airplane crash in Montana in just over two weeks. Sparky Imeson of Helena was killed when his Cessna 180 crashed near Canyon Ferry Lake on March 17th and 14 people were killed on March 22nd, when their Pilatus PC-12 crashed in a cemetery near the Bert Mooney Airport in Butte.

In early March, we had our share of disaster. On March 5, a natural gas explosion and fire in downtown Bozeman killed one woman and destroyed numerous downtown Bozeman businesses.

The very next day, a gas explosion and fire in Whitehall, about forty miles from Bozeman, destroyed three businesses housed in historic downtown buildings.

On March 23, fire engulfed businesses in a city block of Miles City.

Everyone, be safe. Keep your heads down. Help your fellow man.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Legislature Levity

I've reported on the pranks and fun in the Montana Legislature before, and here's the latest installment.

Mike Jopek, a legislator from Whitefish and a farmer, carried a bill in the House of Representatives this week proposing to revise the milk control laws and transfer certain functions from the Department of Livestock to the Board of Milk Control. The bill was contentious, pitting smaller local producers against larger corporations that operate in nearby states and ship milk to Montana stores. Country Classic, a producer in Gallatin County, emailed a bunch of us to relate how the bill would hurt their good operation, and many legislators opposed the bill after hearing from Country Classic and other Montana milk producers.

When Jopek stood on the floor to present the bill, he was serenaded by gentle mooing. Today, his desk was adorned with Country Classic milk cartons, out of love.

And if there's Lesson One that anyone learns in the legislature, it's this: don't be absent. If you're absent, your compatriots punish you. In Shannon Augare's case, his desk was the receiving site of all of the recycling from a day's floor session, hundreds of bills piled on his chair and desk and taped into place. Again, just out of love for our fellow representative.

Lastly, it's the little things in life that one must appreciate. Hopefully, you've seen in previous posts how enamored I am of goldfish crackers--good and so good for me. But this week, I discovered Bunny Grahams, possibly the cutest food ever. Just look at the ears!

Focus on Women

Michelle Obama is on her first overseas trip as First Lady, and all the media asks is "What will Michelle wear?" Now, I'm as interested and enchanted with fashion as anyone, (see my earlier blog entries, rife with pictures of shoes), but really, everyone, this woman graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She has worked as part of the staff of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and for the University of Chicago Medical Center. This is a very intelligent, talented, driven woman, who also happens to have a keen fashion sense.

During Obama's presidential campaign, Michelle Obama's former law professor was interviewed and said that he had expected Michelle to hold elected office before Barack Obama did.

I'd much prefer the questions to be, "What does Michelle think about the G20 convention and capitalism around the globe?" and THEN, the follow-up to be, nice coat. Because, wow, it is. And LOVE the yellow cocktail ensemble.

The conversation about fashion leads me to a thought for girls when they're wondering what to be when they grow up. Whether it's a doctor, lawyer, astronaut, teacher, president, the most important thing?...

Be smart.

Intellectually and fashionably.