Thursday, May 28, 2009

Two Town Hall Meetings in Two Days

On Tuesday following Memorial Day weekend, US Senator Jon Tester held a town hall meeting in Bozeman to discuss resuming passenger rail service in southern and western Montana. The meeting drew more than a hundred people, and included local representatives. Ray Lang of Amtrak spoke, as did Jim Lynch of the Montana Department of Transportation. When Senator Tester opened the floor for comments, I asked if Amtrak (a federally-owned rail corporation) had access to all the track it needed. I asked about on-track railcar storage, which was a hot topic at this legislative session (thousands of railcars are parked on tracks all across Montana). I discussed bills introduced in the session about captive shipping rates for grain haulers, rails-to-trails programs that might compromise passenger rail plans, and truly offering alternative transportation for the majority of Montanans who need to come to population centers for medical care, education, and work. In the session, a bill passed the legislature but was vetoed by the governor to establish a rail development authority. The poll of legislators is happening now to determine whether the governor's veto will be sustained or overridden.

Passenger rail service would be a welcome resumption in southern Montana, into western Montana, and on into Idaho. We could resume the Northern Hiawatha route, and beef up the Empire Builder from Chicago to the West Coast through Montana. I fully support restoring passenger rail service.

Yesterday, there was a town hall meeting--a "listening" session--by the staff of Senator Baucus (not in attendance) on health care reform. Again, the meeting drew an impressive number of people, from all over southern Montana: Livingston, Bozeman, Big Timber, Emigrant, Red Lodge. The topic was about health care and health coverage for all Americans. Many advocated a single-payer system. Others brought up reforming Medicare and offering a Medicare-for-all model. Others advocated a public insurance and private insurance option. A panel of health care providers offered their perspectives, and Lori, the head of Community Health Partners in Livingston, moderated the session. It was an emotional meeting; I raised my hand to speak, but didn't get the chance. Many, many people made the most cogent points of the debate, and I offer this:

I think Senator Baucus would do well to take a page from Montana's book, so to speak. This past session, the Montana Legislature, on behalf of the people of Montana

- fully funded the voter-approved Childrens Health Insurance Program (CHIP), also the Healthy Montana Kids act

- increased the state's Medicaid matching caseload payout. With the economic recession and more Montanans losing jobs--and health coverage, more Montanans will qualify for Medicaid. We anticipated a greater caseload, and funded the state's share.

- increased the eligibility for small businesses to provide health insurance to employees through Insure Montana.

- fought for community mental health centers and funding, and won it.

- provided more funding for critical care hospitals in rural Montana.

- provided more funding for community health centers across Montana.

- passed legislation for prescription dispensing at doctors offices in rural Montana when pharmacies are too far away for patients to travel for medications.

- passed my cancer drug donation legislation, which will make cancer drugs available to those who need them, but cannot afford these very expensive drugs.

I'm proud to do all I can to provide accessibility and health care--not just insurance coverage--to our citizens, my friends and neighbors. I've worked in health care, as a practice manager for an orthopedic surgeon, in a medical records department, and as an emergency medical technician (EMT). Treatment is key. Figuring out payment, then, is the muddying factor, but we (Montanana, and Americans) can figure it out. I hope that all options are considered.

In parting conversation with a gentleman at the health care meeting yesterday, I said, "Just as I was worried about the energy companies crafting our nation's energy policy, I have the same terrible worry over the health insurance companies crafting our nation's health coverage policy." I'll do all I can to make sure we have health care for all, not just health coverage.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Around Montana in Three Days

This Memorial Day weekend, I drove 1200 miles in three days and never left the state of Montana.

In Dupuyer, Montana at Pierre's Cafe, also the Bear's Den, also the Watering Hole Saloon, capacity 50 (or so).

Chester, Montana had a lovely line-up of semi-trucks of all colors.

A grain silo along the train tracks on the hi-line (Highway 2), Montana.

Malta, Montana: rusted bridge.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

For Legislators, It's Now Back to Our Regularly-Scheduled Lives

In the three short weeks since the Montana Legislature adjourned, I've been really busy. (Today's Adjournment Plus 23, but who's counting?) I've spoken at four events: I gave a keynote address at our Gallatin County Treatment Court graduation, and gave legislative updates at the League of Women Voters meeting with Rep. Gordon Vance, at the Bozeman Business and Professional Women with Sen. Gary Perry, and solo to a Montana Women Vote meeting.

I've received, as have all of the other legislators, polls from Secretary of State McCulloch on vetoed bills. If a bill is passed by the legislature with more than a two-thirds vote (67+ of 100 votes in the House, 34+ of 50 in the Senate), and the governor vetoes the bill, the veto must be voted on by the legislators. The Secretary of State send the veto, the governor's letter explaining his veto, the bill, and the vote record in each chamber. When I receive the veto packet, I read through the legislation again, go back through my notes on the bill, get online and listen to the committee hearings on the bill, the floor debate, and make my vote to sustain or to override the governor's veto.

The Greater Gallatin Watershed Council has been ramping up its activities, and I serve on the board of directors. We recently got the results of E. coli bacteria sampling on Sourdough/Bozeman Creek, and I designed a pamphlet with the news. It includes recommendations for people to minimize the contamination in the creek, asks for volunteers to continue taking water samples for testing, and warns of the health risks of some types of E. coli bacteria exposure. The pamphlet was distributed at the Watershed Festival this past weekend; I'm honored to serve on the Council board.

In the days since adjournment, I've also reconnected with regular life-stuff. For instance, for the four months during the legislative session, I really didn't go grocery shopping; just picked up a single meal item every once in a while, and very rarely cooked. Almost every evening, there were constituent and interest group events, and almost every legislator attends and eats there. Now I'm grocery shopping again. I'm also catching up on some favorite TV shows, for which I had NO time during the session.

Last weekend, I attended events at the Council of State Governments (CSG)-West conference in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Discussions in which I participated focused on state changes in juvenile detention policies and facilities, transmission line placement for energy access and delivery, and drug and treatment courts.

Family events have come fast and furious, too. Four days after I got home, my niece, Lauren, had her eleventh birthday, and my 91-year-old grandfather visited. Five days later, to Boise for a mini-family reunion (in-laws). Last weekend, I visited my dear cousin Stacey and her family in Spokane. She has a three-year-old daughter, Blythe, and I met her new six-week-old baby boy, Porter.

There's been some real fun these past weeks, too. Music!

Last Wednesday, I saw La Boheme on opening night at the Willson in Bozeman. Wonderful! Last Saturday, to the Columbia River Gorge in George, Washington, a natural amphitheatre venue, to see the Doobie Brothers, the Allman Brothers, and The Dead (which is The Grateful Dead, minus Jerry Garcia, rest his soul). And last night, Lyle Lovett at the Emerson in Bozeman! I love Lyle Lovett! He did an acoustic show and played a bunch of his early stuff, my favorites. His lyrics are really great, band so talented...or is it that I love a pompadour to rival mine?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Gallatin County Treatment Court

Today I spoke at a graduation ceremony for two participants in Gallatin County Treatment Court, an alternative to straight jail or prison time that addresses its clients addictions and their crimes. I have seen first-hand the success of Treatment Court. Here are some of my remarks:

Treatment Court is one of the best on-the-ground, real-world models for helping people change their lives. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. People often say that something has changed their lives, and it’s usually something like ‘that movie or that book changed my life!’ or ‘this haircut totally changed my life!’ Certainly some people do have truly life-changing events like educational opportunities, or relationships, or traumatic events; but Treatment Court is about changing fundamental behaviors, addressing addiction, and requiring personal responsibility, in a last chance.

I’ve seen our Treatment Court participants make profound changes.

This is a process that brings first discipline, then acceptance, then respect. That’s one of the most profound changes that happens. The resentment at the start--of the court and of the whole situation--changes to respect for the court and the judge and the Treatment Court team, but most importantly, I see you respect yourselves. Once your addiction is addressed, you feel better. You do more. You think clearly. You work toward integrity in your jobs and your relationships. You make your own decisions, instead of letting an addiction make them. That goes on for a while, and then I see your individuality. After a while longer, and on a day like today, for Mike and Jimmy, you regain a true freedom—from addiction, from supervision or punishment, from dependency in many forms, from sentences of jail or prison time—and our Treatment Court participants really do change their lives. The dramatic changes that you make are perhaps the most substantial anyone can make.

The fact that Treatment Court can offer people the opportunity to help themselves and start reclaiming what their lives are meant to be is immense. That’s what Treatment Court is all about. Not everyone chooses to follow the program, not all succeed, but those who do have totally changed their lives. They—you—have overcome a mighty dependence and a destructive path, and changed your lives and the lives of many, many people around you.

In 2007, 16,000 people nationwide graduated from Drug Courts and more than 840 babies were born drug-free to Drug Court clients.

We’ve celebrated graduations and births in our Treatment Court. Mike and Jimmy, you’re a graduating class of two here today, but really, this year, I hope you’ll be among a graduating class nationwide of 20,000 people.

Our current Attorney General, Eric Holder, said this about Drug Courts: This is crime fighting. This is tough. But you save money in the long run. It is government at its best. It is helping people win when they are at their most vulnerable moment.

There is more help, everyone, and more people who are trying to help you succeed, than you know. I’m a state representative, and just twelve days ago finished my second term of service in the state legislature. I was proud to fight like a dog for $1.4 million in funding for Treatment Courts statewide, including Gallatin County’s Treatment Court. I have seen its successes, and I will do all I can to support this program on your behalf. I sponsored a bill hoping to make state law to reduce the length of time of a suspended driver’s license for a participant in treatment court. Mr. Bryson, your court coordinator, came to Helena and testified with me in support of the bill. We tried to get it passed. But as happens with quite a lot of legislation, my bill was killed in committee, didn’t reach a full vote of the legislature, and was not signed into law. This time. But I will not give up. I will do all I can, however I can, to help you and this program.

There are many people who help. The Gallatin County Commissioners are dedicated to this Treatment Court, and to you. The community of Bozeman and the people of Gallatin County support you. The Friends of Treatment Court contribute whatever they can: employment, household goods, bikes, beds, gift certificates, whatever we can to help you reassemble your lives. The Treatment Court team is constant and unshakeable in its devotion to this program and to you. And I hope that you are as dedicated. You’re the reason we’re here.

I came to Treatment Court to see an alternative to the jail system. I came to Treatment Court to see if a program could work that offered a mix of penalty with treatment, accountability, and opportunity. I came to see if people in Treatment Court were committed to making this work. Then I came to know you. And now I come to Treatment Court to see the process and to see you. To know how you’re doing. Some sessions are awfully difficult because when you’re starting a new and hard path, one that’s unfamiliar and not fun, temptation can drag you back into the same situations that got you here. There have been days when it’s been just about heartbreaking to see our fellows in jail jumpsuits, or to hear that the recommendation is that someone be terminated from the program.

But for those of you who persevere, I want you to remember the Treatment Court graduates who visit this court every once in a while. They don’t come regularly because they’re busy with their lives, their work, their families, their recovery, doing things they enjoy. They work hard, and they’ve come out on top.

Now, I come to Treatment Court for another reason, a selfish reason: you inspire me.

I take inspiration from many sources, and I’m reminded of a quote by Winston Churchill, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II. It’s a simple quote—five words—but in light of the situation in England in the war, I think it’s an amazing testament to the spirit of fortitude that any of us can have. When London was being bombed to rubble, night after night, bomb after bomb falling and destroying buildings, killings Londoners, when there seemed there was nothing left to wreck, when Britons were losing their families and friends and homes, when there seemed to be no hope, Churchill said in a speech, “Never, never, never give up.”

Churchill also said, “If you're going through hell, keep going.”

You will overcome addiction, dependency, irresponsibility, and some bad earlier choices through your work in this program. You’ll resume the lives you are meant to be living.

I also try to follow the wisdom, and I hope you will, too, from a line in Ghostbusters II—“look fast, stay sharp, make good decisions”. I also follow the title of a film by Spike Lee: do the right thing.

You have a grateful and congratulatory roomful of people here today who want you to do well and who wish you well.

I’m honored to know you, honored to do all I can for you and for everyone who makes the most of Treatment Court. Mike and Jimmy, congratulations and best of luck.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Adjournment Plus Eight

Every few days, there are more bills signed by the governor from this year's legislative session. There's still concern about budget bills and line-item vetoes, and still a few days for bills to be acted upon, so I'm diligently checking (as are others).

Back at my regularly scheduled life, I'm back attending meetings of boards of directors (I serve on the Bozeman Business and Professional Women board, and also the Greater Gallatin Watershed Council board) and preparing to give legislative reports to BPW and the League of Women Voters. There is much to report.

My reviews will focus on school funding, money for the voter-approved Childrens Health Insurance Program, and money for Bozeman: for our wastewater treatment plant upgrade, our drinking water source security (guardrails on the road to Hyalite Reservoir), and money for debris removal from the downtown explosion and fire in March.

I'm also honored to speak at our Gallatin County Treatment Court this Friday, when two participants will graduate; I've been working on my remarks for the occasion.

And I need to write and detail some of the legislation I sponsored and passed that's really good for Montanans, like the cancer drug donation program, security of personal information at state agencies, revaluation of property in TIF districts (like downtown Bozeman) after local disasters, protecting freedom of speech for people in homeowners' associations that restrict political expression, and state matching funds for start-up companies that have innovative technologies and federal SBIR/STTR grants.

One bill of mine remains on the governor's desk: a committee bill that revamps the gravel pit permitting process. It doesn't do all it should for people living near the pits, or for public participation. It changes the fee structure so that the state agency, the Opencut Mining Division in the Department of Environmental Quality, gets around $400,000 more for new hires to process gravel applications, so the agency supports the bill. And the bill, after months of wrangling, suits the gravel industry well. It shortens the application review time and does not provide the agency any authority to deny a permit, even if a pit isn't appropriate somewhere. (That provision came out of the bill months ago.) The lobbyists from the Montana Contractors Association twice said they couldn't support the bill without changes, so we made the changes. Then the MCA members came to the House and Senate committees as opponents, requesting more amendments that they'd already agreed not to request. The bill was signed by the Speaker of the House a week before adjournment, but not by the Senate president; if it had progressed then as it should, the governor's office could have proposed governor's amendments that the legislature could have considered when it was still in session. But the Senate president signed the bill after the last day of the session, and so it advances to the governor's desk as is. We'll see what happens to it.

From this past week, and the last days of the session, here are some photos.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Adjournment Plus Four

It's Saturday, May 2, four days after the 61st Montana Legislature adjourned. On Tuesday, we called to order twice and passed legislation for the federal stimulus dollars, companion bills to the state budget bill, and House Bill 2, the state budget bill itself, fulfilling the only constitutional requirement that each legislature do: pass a balanced budget.

I'm proud to say we did better than that: Montana has a balanced budget and an ending fund balance, one of only three states in the nation not in a terrible deficit spending situation. We funded Healthy Montana Kids, a ballot initiative passed by more than 70% of Montana voters last year to enroll all eligible kids in the Childrens Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. We funded projects in the Treasure State Endowment Program (TSEP) for water and sewer systems for Montana towns. We allocated the federal ARRA (stimulus) dollars so that roads and bridges will be built (or rebuilt), so that three of our communities can use dollars for debris removal after terrible events there: the Bozeman downtown explosion and fire, the Whitehall explosion and fire, and the Miles City fire. We allocated dollars for community mental health centers, for forest fires, for greater and extended unemployment benefits, for job training. And we funded our Montana public schools and our state universities.

I'm back in Bozeman, glad to be home, and jumping right back into work here: I serve on the Greater Gallatin Watershed Council Board of Directors and attended the board meeting Thursday. There are amazing things happening in our Gallatin watershed, with volunteer water quality monitoring, measurements of impaired streams for TMDL (total maximum daily load) monitoring and improvement, and other efforts to keep--or make--our waters clean.

Yesterday, May Day, I celebrated my niece's birthday (she's 11!) and last night had dinner with friends to celebrate the wedding on Monday of one of our number. We ate at a popular restaurant downtown on Main Street, across from the explosion site. There was a street festival in appreciation of MSU, with barbecues and music on Main Street. We Bozemanites embrace our town. A nice moment, too, as I walked to my table of friends, to pass a couple who thanked me for my work in Helena. It's good to be home, and good to be at work in the service of the poeple of Bozeman and of Montana.

There's much still to do: I'll write soon about an amicus brief to the Montana Supreme Court supported by legislators for state policy (in lieu of state law, as of yet) for death with dignity, or physician-assisted death.

As always, I'm truly honored to serve. It's good to be home. More soon.