Governor lays out his agenda; lawmakers
study construction, concussion and sex ed

By Amy R. Sisk University of Montana Community News Service

HELENA – In the half-hour before Steve Bullock delivered his first major speech as governor of Montana, chatter filled the House chamber as legislators, state officials and members of the media speculated about what he would say.

Bullock spent much of his first State of the State address discussing education. He promised to focus on job training in Montana schools, which coincides with his plan to put 2,500 people to work on construction projects at colleges and universities around the state.

He again called on the Legislature to accept federal money to expand Medicaid to serve nearly 70,000 low-income Montanans currently without health insurance. He also advocated for a $400 one-time property tax rebate, the elimination of an equipment tax on 11,000 Montana businesses, and the end of dark money in elections.

Although he had already publicly addressed many of the priorities outlined in his speech, Bullock made a surprise announcement about a new website to view the state’s checkbook.

“We’ll have a searchable database so that anyone in Montana – or anybody across the world, for that matter – can look at how we spend the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do and it’ll lead to a more effective government.”

He unveiled the website, transparency.mt.gov, the next day. Visitors to the site can search for information on state spending and employee salaries.

Republicans praised the announcement, which came two years after former Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a bill proposed by a Republican lawmaker to create a similar website.

In the official response to the Democratic governor’s speech, Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, stressed Republicans’ desire to work with the governor, but he also outlined some key differences.

He said members of his party worry about federal funding and cannot trust Washington, D.C., to keep its promises.

Although Knudsen did not mention Medicaid by name, state Republican leaders have expressed concern over the federal government’s ability to uphold its end of the bargain, as outlined in the Affordable Care Act. The expansion of Medicaid would require the state to pick up 10 percent of the tab by 2020.

Knudsen also suggested the Legislature reduce taxes for all Montanans – not just those who own property. He also said he sees opportunity for lawmakers from both parties to agree on how to reduce the business equipment tax.

Here’s a look back at other highlights of the session’s fourth week:

Construction projects at colleges

The University of Montana plans to construct a new Missoula College (formerly known as the College of Technology) on its South Campus, but some Missoula residents want the new school built elsewhere.

Lawmakers heard testimony on House Bill 14 last week, which calls for about $100 million in state bonds to fund nine construction projects at Montana campuses. The measure, as outlined in Bullock’s address, would create 2,500 construction jobs.

A $29 million provision to fund construction of the new Missoula College drew heated debate at the hearing. Opponents want the new facility to be built next to its counterpart near Fort Missoula. The current plan calls for the college to move to a location closer to the main campus, where it would interfere with the university’s golf course.

Administrators from Montana’s higher education community said the current plan reflects a decades-long vision for the university. They also stressed the urgency of building the new two-year school. An increasing student population has led to crowded classes, some of which are held in trailers because there’s no room in the school’s two buildings.

Sex education

Parents would have to give written permission for their children to take sex education under a new proposal that awaits a vote on the House floor. The measure also prevents organizations that perform abortions from providing informational materials or instruction in schools.

House Bill 239 passed the House Education Committee 11-7 last week in a straight party line vote with Republicans in favor.

Supporters of the measure told the committee that parents should decide whether to allow their children to learn about reproductive issues in school. They also said parents must be made aware of the curriculum. Currently, parents can choose to opt their children out of the instruction.

Several proponents also criticized Planned Parenthood, whose Teen Council visits several Montana high schools to teach students about health and sexuality. Marybeth Adams, a family nurse practitioner from Belgrade, said that the earlier the organization educates children about sex, the earlier young women get pregnant and have abortions.

Opponents argued that sex education is vital to preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Several members of the Planned Parenthood Teen Council said their peers often feel more comfortable discussing reproductive issues with people their age rather than parents or other adults. They also said they help clear up misconceptions about safe sex.

“Some teens believe that consuming enough Mountain Dew will lower their sperm count enough to not impregnate them,” Teen Council member Hattie Lunceford said. “This myth is exactly why sex education deserves to be a part of our schools’ curriculum.”

Campaign finance

Several proposals to combat anonymous money in Montana elections faced wide opposition last week during hearings in the House State Administration Committee.

House Bill 265, sponsored by Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, would double the amount of money an individual can donate to campaigns. He said the bill would “level the playing field” by providing candidates with more money to respond to attack ads paid for by third-party groups.

Opponents said allowing more money in elections would only make the problem worse.

Matt Leow, who organized November’s successful initiative calling for limits on corporate campaign spending, urged lawmakers to listen to their constituents.

“We need to deal with the problem of corporate personhood and the concept of money as speech because those are the two concepts on which the Citizens United decision was based – not by inviting more big money into the process,” he said.

Another measure, House Bill 229, sponsored by Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, faced similar opposition. His proposal also calls for increasing individual contribution limits and ending restrictions on how much money political parties can give to candidates.

Concussion education

Schools, doctors, the state’s student athletic association and individual citizens have come together to promote better education about the signs and effects of concussion injuries.

Standing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Cydni Steigers told the story of how her son, Dylan, had received multiple concussions while playing football. He died in May 2010 when he was removed from life support, just one day after he stumbled off the football field with another concussion.

“If we can keep one child and one family from suffering the tragedy we have suffered, the value of passing this bill would be immeasurable,” Steigers said.

Senate Bill 112, sponsored by Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, calls for school districts to inform coaches, athletes and parents about the nature and risks of brain injuries. It also requires that athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion be removed from play and receive a medical clearance before returning to the team.

Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at (425) 466-6633 or amy.sisk@umontana.edu. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.