Legislative Roundup – Week 13
By Michael Wright
Community News Service
UM School of Journalism
Senate injects money into budget bill
A Montana Senate panel put about $50 million into the state budget bill last week, after Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said the budget crafted by House Republicans was unacceptable.
The panel added about $25 million in amendments to House Bill 2, the $4 billion state general fund budget for the next two years. The amendments injected some of the money the governor asked for in his budget proposal.
The committee also added another $25 million in what’s known as a supplemental appropriation, which covers some debts for the remainder of this fiscal year. That money would have been included in another bill, House Bill 3, but the House killed that bill last month.
After that bill was killed, furlough notices were sent out to some state employees and schools were told they would have budget shortfalls.
Dan Villa, the governor’s budget director, said the governor and Senate members made a deal on the budget to include the supplemental appropriations, and that some of the state agencies that faced a shortfall could “breathe a sigh of relief.”
House Bill 2 moves on to the full Senate next.
House votes down bill to allow concealed carry on campus
A proposal that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons on college campuses went down on a narrow vote in the House last week.
Senate Bill 143, sponsored by Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, failed 51-49. It would have nullified existing rules set by the Board of Regents governing where students can have firearms on a college campus.
Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, carried the bill in the House, and he said the university system has denied students their constitutional rights by barring concealed weapons on campus. He added that because people would still be required to get a permit, mostly responsible people would be carrying guns on campus.
“The type of people who generally get concealed carry permits are extremely responsible,” Berglee said.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said he was a law student at the University of Montana during the Virginia Tech shooting that killed more than 30 people, and that because of “an arbitrary line in the soil” he wasn’t allowed to carry a gun to school.
“I was denied my right to defend myself,” Knudsen said.
He listed off a number of shootings at college campuses, and said they all happened in places where people weren’t allowed to carry guns, and that it gave shooters access to “unarmed victims.”
“That is unacceptable to me,” he said.
Opponents of the measure said college students aren’t in a good position to be carrying guns.
Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, who has worked as an adjunct instructor at Montana State University, said college students could be dealing with mental health issues, experimenting with drugs or alcohol for the first time, and might make poor decisions if guns are around.
“Some are responsible, some not so much,” Woods said. “All of them are in a high pressure environment.”
Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, said the Board of Regents has the power to make those rules because of the state constitution, and that they should keep that power.
“We don’t tell the Board of Regents what rules to set,” McConnell said.
The bill passed the Senate on a tight vote last month. Similar bills have failed in previous sessions, including on a veto in 2013.
Infrastructure bill clears Senate
The Senate passed a bill to fund building projects in Montana, including a crime lab and updates to university buildings.
Senate Bill 416, carried by Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, would use $50 million in cash and $50 million in bonds for a number of building projects around the state.
This bill passed the Senate as the House advanced its own Republican-sponsored infrastructure package of bills – House Bills 6, 7, 8 and 11. Three passed the House on near party line votes, but House Bill 8 remains in limbo because it needs the support of 3/4s of each house.
Those bills are a response to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s House Bill 5, a $400 million infrastructure bill funded with a combination of cash and bonding that is tabled. House Republicans said the governor’s bill was too big, and decided to put some of the projects into separate bills and cut out most of the bonding.
Brenden said his bill is a compromise between the two parties. He said Republicans want to pay for projects in cash and Democrats want to borrow money, and his bill combines those two ideas to bankroll the important building needs across the state.
“It was apparent that perhaps cash and bonding were never going to get done on their own,” Brenden said. “To get something done for infrastructure we’re going to have to compromise.”
The bill funds an Eastern Montana crime lab, as well as building updates at Montana State University and the University of Montana.
To pass, it needs the support of 2/3 of each house. It got the votes it needed in the Senate, and now moves on to the House.
By Michael Wright
Community News Service
UM School of Journalism
Employees from a Dickey’s BBQ franchise in Billings called their boss when the cash register went down in January, but he didn’t answer. He was busy.
“Of course I don’t check my phone in committee meetings,” said Rep. Don Jones, R-Billings, the owner of the restaurant, who was sitting in the joint appropriations subcommittee on education at the Montana Legislature at the time.
Right afterward? Sure. After the meeting, he saw the messages and missed calls, discovering a problem he had to fix.
It’s a feeling most in Montana’s citizen legislature know. They’re only politicians for 90 days every two years, and outside of Helena they have jobs and lives that inform their policy decisions and sometimes require their attention.
The 150 citizen lawmakers work in more than a dozen different fields, according to data from the Legislative Services office. Lawmakers are also attorneys, farmers, ranchers, government employees and teachers, and 27 who are retired.
Several own their own businesses, and some, like Jones, can’t afford to step away completely for 90 days every two years.
“There’s always something exciting going on,” Jones said.
Story and Photo by Michael Wright
Community News Service
UM School of Journalism
Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, sent his kids to preschool after searching for a couple of months to find the right fit.
“I’ve got kids. I’ve been through this,” Woods said in a recent interview. “Preschool helped them.”
Woods, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, will be one of the Democrats pushing to get Gov. Steve Bullock’s $37 million Early Edge Pre-K plan into House Bill 2, the major budget bill. The plan would give grants to public school districts around the state to expand existing preschool programs, create new ones or partner with private programs.
It would be voluntary – students won’t be forced to go to preschool, and schools won’t be required to offer it – and would add Montana to the list of more than 40 states with publicly funded preschool.
But not everyone at the Capitol or in the state is convinced.
“I think it doesn’t do what it’s purported to do,” said Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, the chair of the House Appropriations committee.
Backers cite studies showing effects both behavioral and academic. Students come out of preschool more prepared for kindergarten, and are less likely to become criminals or teenage parents.
At a joint subcommittee on education hearing in January, teachers and administrators from schools in Helena, Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls, Three Forks and Boulder supported the proposal. Some said it improved children’s confidence, others said it gave them a jump on what they’d learn in kindergarten. Major public school lobbying groups supported the governor’s proposal at the same hearing, including the Montana School Boards Association and the Montana Rural Education Association.
Yet some lawmakers and educators still have concerns.
Ballance called preschool “daycare with accredited teachers” and said the so-called “edge” wears off for students by third or fourth grade.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau rejected both of those arguments, saying students do learn – for example, the basics of reading and counting, among other concepts – and that she doesn’t think learning wears off.
“We’re going to have better students,” Juneau said.
Other criticisms center on whether it would work in smaller schools or reach the students who need it most. Senators Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, and Llew Jones, R-Conrad, both said school representatives told them Early Edge won’t help small schools and that students who need it most won’t enroll in the programs.
One of the more outspoken critics is Gordon Hahn, superintendent of Saco Schools. Hahn wrote an opinion piece that ran in the Billings Gazette in late January, calling for higher teacher pay instead of investment in Pre-K.
“I care about the $37 million that’s being spent on it,” Hahn said, stressing that he isn’t opposed to preschool. His own kids went to preschool. “It’s money that could be used to solve a problem.”
Hahn has worked at schools along Montana’s Hi-Line for more than three decades, spending the last seven years as superintendent in Saco. He said schools in places like Saco – with a population around 200 people – have trouble attracting teachers. He’s seeing fewer applicants for open positions than he has in the past, which he blames on not being able to offer high enough salaries.
“I’m trying to fill my positions, and the governor wants me to start a new program,” Hahn said.
As for starting a new preschool program, Hahn said only two or three students would enroll, and the teacher would only work part time.
“Who am I going to get to come to Saco and teach part time?” he said.
In Helmville, just west of Helena, teacher Brooks Phillips shares some of the same concerns.
Phillips teaches seventh and eighth grades at Helmville’s K-8 school. Two others teach there also, with one covering fourth through sixth grades. The other teaches the earlier grades.
Helmville offers a once a week preschool program, where students around 4-years-old join the younger classroom. Phillips said the purpose is to sort of show the children how school works, to get the feel for a classroom setting.
But Phillips said adding 4-year-olds to the mix in a school as small as hers can disrupt classroom dynamics. With each instructor covering more than one grade, students at different levels are already in the same classroom. In that sort of setting, while third and fourth graders are studying math, a preschooler might be nearby playing. Phillips said that could be a distraction.
“They need to be little children, like they are,” Phillips said. “It’s a very difficult situation when you’re in a rural school with multi-grades, multi-ages and multi-levels.”
Teaching at a school like that is already hard on teachers, she said. Not because of the number of students – fewer than 20 attend Helmville School – but because students are different ages and at different levels. Five students in a classroom may be learning five separate things.
Phillips also said she worries that even though it’s voluntary now, that doesn’t mean the program won’t be mandatory for schools to offer in the future. She points out that kindergarten was at one time optional.
Schools in Montana have been required to offer kindergarten since the 1980s, though students aren’t required to attend school until age 7. Superintendent Juneau said the debate surrounding
Early Edge is similar to what was debated about kindergarten, but she wouldn’t say whether preschool would become mandatory in Montana.
“It’s hard to tell,” Juneau said. “We’ll have to get it funded first.”
And funding it won’t be simple. A joint subcommittee on education didn’t act on the proposal.
Members of that panel said they wanted to leave it up to the larger House appropriations.
Ballance, the chair, is stiffly opposed to it, as are some other Republicans on the committee.
Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, said the $37 million request is a big ask.
Bullock spokesman Mike Wessler said in an e-mail that the governor thinks his request is “responsible” and an investment the state “can’t afford not to make.”
Other committee Republicans shared that concern, others said they don’t think the request addresses the right population of students, while at least two others said they are undecided.
“We’re not throwing sand in the governor’s face,” Hollandsworth said. “Everything is in play until the end.”
Rep. Woods said the Democrats will do everything they can to get the program funded every chance they get, no matter how much rejection they get during the 90-day session.
When’s the stopping point?
“Day 90,” Woods said, smiling.