62nd Legislature--One Month Down, Three to Go

Since the 62nd Montana Legislature convened, there have been many opportunities to blog, but I hadn't waded in...until today. Although the session is just four weeks along, it's been weird for weeks.

Let's start from today and work backwards...which is what the Republican-controlled House seems to be doing. (Important reminder, going forward: Republicans hold a 68-32 majority in the House of Representatives, and a 28-22 majority in the Senate.)

Today, on a vote of 60-40, the House passed on second reading a bill that removes the requirement that our State Superintendent of Public Instruction have a college degree. Currently, Denise Juneau, our State Superintendent, is the first Native American woman elected to state office. She's HARVARD EDUCATED, and pursued her undergrad degree at Montana State University. I am so proud that someone who's passionately pursued a career and public service in education serves our state as supertintendent. And I do NOT expect that vetting a candidate to hold that office means that I have to review his or her curriculum vitae to find out if he or she has earned a college degree in education, has taught, or has even a passing interest in schools!

Unfortunately, this is not the first affront, nor will it be the last, to sound processes which Montanans have built for years. Last week, a popular vote-by-mail bill in the making for years (and introduced, and failed, in at least the past two legislative sessions) was defeated. One day, 57 representatives voted for it. The next, after some Republican wood-shedding (strong-arming to change peoples' votes) 57 representatives voted against it. The County Clerks and Recorders supported it, and helped over the past two years to draft the bill. A former elections official and Republican representative, Pat Ingraham, carried the legislation. In Gallatin County alone, 68% of voters cast their ballots by mail in the last primary election. In the general election, 55% voted by mail. And the numbers of people voting by mail (permanent absentee ballot) have risen each election.

There are also bills to restrict voter registration. Let's back up just a second: on Day 1 of the legislature, all 100 representatives and all 50 senators swore an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Montana State Constitution, both documents that guarantee voting rights. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads in part, "a citizen's right to vote shall not be denied or abridged," yet Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, proposes to end voter registration 30 days before an election, and not to allow same-day voter registration on Election Day. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, proposes limiting the types of identification voters can present at polling places or the elections office to be only Montana driver's licenses. Are these efforts upholding the constitutional right that voting shall not be denied or abridged?

For the first gauntlet-throwing this session, we can go back to the House Bill 1, otherwise known as the "Feed Bill", because it's the bill that pays legislators their salaries and per diem, legislative staff for the session, etc. On January 12, morning committees convened and Republicans slashed state agency budgets an additional five percent. (State agencies were directed last year by Governor Schweitzer to decrease their budgets 7-10%, and in time for the legislative session, agencies submit a proposed budget, and, pursuant to state statute, a five percent decreased budget, too.) Then, AN HOUR LATER in the floor session, Republicans INCREASED their own per diem payments, passed themselves a laptop computer allowance of $1000, and increased their mileage reimbursement by...five percent. House Bill 1 passed on a party-line vote, all Republicans voting for their own increased monies, all Democrats voting against.

When the legislature convened Monday, January 3, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch opened the session and in her speech, gave sage advice to legislators: "Just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean it's the right thing to do."

Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams cautioned her fellow senators in her opening speech that (I'm paraphrasing) "the voters didn't elect us to rewrite the constitution."

That's right. In fact, that very question was ON the November ballot. Shall we have a Constitutional Convention? Voters said no. Yet, there are bills that propose changing our state constitution. One from Senator Dan Kennedy proposes adding a phrase to Article II, Section 3: "Inalienable rights. All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean, and healthful, [and economically productive] environment..." Really? Economically productive? How would that be defined? If a gold mine were next to a blue-ribbon trout stream, who'd figure out the "economically productive" value of each? Would one trump the other?

Montanans expect progress on issues from legislators. If legislative policy and laws cannot improve our systems or processes or livelihoods, we certainly don't want to lose any ground. To use a football analogy, if you can't move the ball down the field, at least hold the line. Montanans also do not expect that the year-long campaign that Republicans ran focusing on jobs and economic development suddenly changes into morality-based legislating. But that's what's happening.

In one of the more depressing and defeating actions thus far, Republicans voted against providing some meager funds for the counseling of children living in homes where crimes of domestic violence had been committed.

My former opponent, now the representative for House District 63, Tom Burnett, joined 44 House Republicans who voted against paying for the caskets of impoverished murder victims and mental health counseling for kids who witness domestic violence. The bill, HB 114, was recommended by the Department of Justice. It was not going to cost the State any money; the funds are paid by criminal restitution and federal match dollars.

A fellow legislator said, "Apparently they agreed with Rep. Krayton Kerns, who said that such children should not become dependent on or place themselves under the grip of oppressive government, but instead should turn to "their God, family, and friends." So apparently an 8 year old girl who has repeatedly witnessed her father beating her mother should simply pray, or ask a family member (who? her abusive father? her traumatized mother?) or a friend (who? the little girl next door?) to somehow help her through this nightmare?"

A staffer friend at the capitol said, "They [Republicans] voted no because they don't want government programs, at all costs."

This is the party that ran on the economy and family values.

And this has been just Month 1.

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