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School choice, legislators with guns, veterans home spark debate at Montana Legislature

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By Michael Siebert

UM Community News Service

University of Montana School of Journalism

HELENA – Montana lawmakers heard broad support last week for the construction of a new veterans home in Butte. During the final hearing on House Bill 14, which would fund a wide variety of infrastructure projects primarily through bonding, dozens of Montana veterans spoke to the shelter’s necessity.

“It’s time that we make a commitment to these veterans,” said Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, a Vietnam veteran. “If we’re gonna send them, we’ve got to take care of them.”

Montana currently has two state-run homes for veterans. The Butte home was initially approved in 2009, when $5 million in funding was secured through a diversion of cigarette tax funds. The remaining $10 million needed to fund its construction was promised by the federal government but hasn’t arrived yet.

Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said Montana has the second highest number of veterans per capita in the nation. However, other states have been prioritized due to having more veterans overall.

HB 14 would fund the veterans home, as well as projects like the renovation of Montana State University’s Romney Hall, through bonding, a funding method in which the state incurs debt. Sesso said the state would be able to pay that debt back, because the home is guaranteed federal funding.

Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, the bill’s sponsor, expressed frustration during his closing remarks, calling it a “damn disgrace” that the state had not yet funded the home.

“I don’t want to thank them for their service,” Keane said. “I want to do something for them.”

The site for the home sits on ten acres of donated land in Butte. Many supporters noted a clause in the contract for the land that requires that the land be returned to the owners if construction does not begin within ten years.

Tom Goyette, a Vietnam veteran, said if the legislature doesn’t move on the bonding measure, all the groundwork they put in would be for nothing.

The facility would feature multiple cottages, and would serve veterans of all ages, including those currently serving when they return.

School choice rally brings more than 100 advocates to Montana Capitol

More than 100 people gathered on the steps of the state Capitol last week in celebration of School Choice Week.

Students from Butte Central Catholic Schools, as well as many homeschooled children and their parents, wore yellow scarves advocating school choice. Prominent Republican legislators were also in attendance, including Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, and Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson.

“Each and every child deserves to find their right educational fit,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, an ardent supporter of the school choice movement.

Supporters of school choice argue not all students thrive in a public school environment, and students should have be given more options and more support to explore those options. Typically, this has included private schooling, charter schools, and homeschooling. Some states with more widespread school choice legislation allow families to take a portion of taxes paid for public schooling and use them to pay for private school.

“Our children’s education shall not be controlled by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” said Steve Daines in a written statement read at the rally.

School choice is a contentious issue across the nation. Those who oppose it argue public schools are already underfunded, and diverting additional funds would be detrimental to school systems.

Senate Minority Whip Tom Facey, D-Missoula, said many schools that fall under the choice umbrella are not held to federal educational standards.

“There’s no accountability with charter schools,” Facey said.

In Montana, corporations and individuals can receive a tax credit for donating to private school scholarship funds, a feature of many states with stronger school choice legislation.

Health care workers advocate against patient assault

Health care workers from across the state supported a bill last week that would create a felony offense for knowingly assaulting a medical professional.

House Bill 268 makes it a felony to attack nurses, emergency responders and other professionals, punishing offenders with up to 10 years in prison and/or $50,000 in fines.

“Nursing has become the most dangerous profession in Montana primarily because of violent assaults,” said Rep. James O’Hara, R-Fort Benton. “We cannot let violent assaults on health care providers become the new normal.”

Twenty-six people spoke in support of the bill. Over 100 nurses and health care workers came prepared to testify. Roughly 80 student nurses showed up were unable to speak due to the hearing being rescheduled.

“Unlike police officers and security guards, nurses are not trained to deflect a physical attacker,” said Vicki Byrd, director of the Montana Nurses Association.

Byrd said nurses are in the unique position of not being able to run away from their attackers, which often requires them to remain caring for individuals who have assaulted them.

“We deserve the same workplace safety protections that so many other professions enjoy,” Byrd said.

Brenda Donaldson, who works on the MNA’s “Your Nurse Wears Combat Boots” campaign, said currently police dogs are afforded more protection legally than nurses.

Several health care workers testified in support of the bill, retelling their experiences being assaulted by violent patients. Several nurses described being groped, slammed into walls and having bodily fluids thrown at them. They also noted that oftentimes these individuals only received minor citations, and in some cases were released back into the hospital’s care soon after.

But opponents of the bill argued laws against such assaults already exist.

“Most of the testimony I heard sounded like issues of underreporting, undercharging and not prosecuting,” said SK Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.

Others felt the language in the bill was too broad, and could unfairly criminalize actions by patients suffering from dementia or psychosis.

Beth Brenneman, representing Disability Rights Montana, said although the bill did not directly target those individuals, the Montana Supreme Court has “narrowly” interpreted mental illness defenses.

“We have seen prosecution of individuals with serious mental illness … who have gone to prison,” Brenneman said.

Bill would give Montanans public land access through private lands

Members of the Montana House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee heard a bill last week that would require landowners to allow anyone access through their land in order to reach nearby public lands.

Introduced by Rep. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, House Bill 243 specifically prevents landowners with property that surrounds state land from allowing only certain wildlife outfitters access, sometimes through leasing.

“There’s 1.2 million acres of inaccessible state land in the state of Montana,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson said it’s an issue of equity. He argued landowners should not be able to restrict access to publicly owned land just because they own property adjacent to it.

“We’re just saying you can’t license somebody to do outfitting on state land that is not legally accessible to the public,” Jacobson said.

The bill would make this action a misdemeanor, and would create a $500 fine for each section of leased state land. Jacobson said he would be open to reducing that penalty, but felt landowners needed some incentive to obey the law.

Opponents of the bill said this law unfairly targets private landowners.

Representing United Property Owners of Montana, Shelby DeMars said the bill “does numerous things that infringe on a very serious level our constitutional right to private property.”

DeMars said the state should work with landowners to find public land access solutions, rather than “forcing” the landowner to do so.

Jacobson said the issue is more about accessing publicly owned land than it is restricting landowner rights.

“Nobody is telling landowners what they can and can’t do with their property,” Jacobson said. “We should have a say over who gets to access our land, and whether we get to access [it.]”

Lawmakers debate allowing guns in the Capitol

Montana lawmakers debated a bill last week that would allow legislators to carry guns in the state Capitol.

House Bill 280 would allow only legislators to either open or concealed carry handguns on publicly owned property, excluding prisons.

“We are at higher risk,” said Rep. Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell.

Brodehl said the reason he restricted his bill to only lawmakers was because he didn’t feel allowing everyone the ability to carry firearms in government buildings would gain enough support.

“I support open and concealed carry for all who meet the requirement of the law,” Brodehl said. “I don’t think we have the support at the end of the day to go all the way through the process without losing this legislation.”

HB 280 had no supporters.

The bill had two opponents, who both voiced safety concerns.

“[The Capitol] should be a safe place, free of that threat where robust discussions about policy can occur,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network.

Representing Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers, Don Jones argued that the presence of guns would discourage constituents from speaking freely with legislators.

Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.

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