May. 13 - Session Wrap Up--the Budget Deal
T he Governor started us off last December with a balanced budget as required by law. I thought it was a pretty good budget. There were some gaps in services for the elderly; there could have been more for education; people struggling in these economic hard times could have used more support. But those were the issues we would deal with during the session, I thought.
But no. Republicans started the session by cutting the heart out. Their actions caused unnecessary alarm to Montanans and step the stage for the ugliest session in recent memory. The cuts left a budget that was $300 million below the legislature's own conservative estimates of how much revenue would come in. The cuts included over $100 million slated to be given back to Montana in federal dollars for low income energy assistance, supplement food for the hungry, health information technology, and family planning. In a mid-session report the Montana Center on Budget and Policy detailed the damage that would have been done to children, seniors, businesses and students is Republicans had had their way.
In a heart-breaking, late-night session, the Republicans passed their inadequate budget on to the Governor without accepting any of the 50+ amendments offered by Democrats to restore the cuts. The Governor threatened to veto the bill, setting us up for the "deal." Essentially, it restored most of the Governor's original budget-including all the federal funds. Here's part of Montana Women Vote's wrap up email:
The Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS): The current budget restored $123 million to DPHHS, bringing the current total to roughly $23 million below the governor's proposed budget
- Cuts to Healthy Montana Kids, Big Sky Rx, and personal services for seniors and people with disabilities were fully restored!
- Although federal funding for family planning was restored, state funding appears to still be eliminated in the final budget.
- Tobacco use prevention, which was eliminated entirely in the Legislature's original budget, was restored to $9.4 million for the biennium, reflecting $7 million in cuts from the governor's originally proposed budget.
Federal Funds: Virtually all federal funds have been restored to health and human services. Enough was added back to fully restore federal funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (food stamps), Low-Income Energy Assistance (LIEAP), and Title X Family Planning.
K-12 Public School Funding: Base aid funding for K-12 public schools throughout the state was cut by $5 million compared to the governor's proposed budget. The result will likely be laid off teachers and staff, larger classrooms, compromised quality, and larger local property taxes.
Higher Education: The final budget restored $15.5 million in funding to higher education. It is still approximately $15 million under the Governor's original proposal. Tuition increases may be necessary to make up for the cut in state funding, putting higher education further out of reach for Montana families.
Pay Plan: The Legislature cut a $21 million pay plan for public employees that do the work that keep our communities safe, healthy, and educated all across the state. This is the first time in history that the Legislature has rejected a proposed pay plan that the unions and the governor bargained as the law directs. By fiscal year 2013, base salaries for state employees will have been frozen for 5 calendar years.
The Montana Budget and Policy Center's final report discusses how the budget still falls short in terms of job creation.
Apr. 15 - Sex (Ed) in the City
ex (Ed) in the City
The Helena community's divisive battle over the school district's health curriculum was brought to the legislative forum in HB 456, by Billings Republican, Rep. Cary Smith. Governor Schweitzer recently vetoed the bill... with good reason. I heard from many constituents on all sides of this issue. In those cases, I believe it is my job to make the best judgment I can with all the information I have, for what I believe to be the benefit of the most Montanans across the state. My constituents deserve to know that I stood and spoke in opposition to HB 456.
The local issue stimulated broad public participation on all sides and anger from parents who did not like the curriculum design and were unable to turn back the process, despite forcing significant changes. Ugly as it became, it was appropriately a local process.... because that's where school curriculum decisions are made according to the law. So what was it doing at the state legislature?
Well, the local controversy was fed to Fox News and the Montana Family Foundation received lots of out-of-state money to make it a state-wide issue. They crafted HB 456 to make any public school curriculum dealing with human sexuality a matter for state regulation. In Helena, and likely every school district in the state, parents are provided the opportunity for their children to "OPT OUT" of any school classes or activities. HB 456 would have required an "OPT IN" process for all course material dealing with human sexuality. Presumably that would include biology and literature in addition to health classes.
The administrative burden would have been significant, and the students who most need the information-those with parents who are absent, living in poverty, or uninvolved-would be those most likely to be left out.
I support comprehensive sex education for all children because it saves lives and helps prevent unintended teen pregnancies. Teens who receive comprehensive sex education that includes discussion about contraception are more likely to delay sexual activity and to use contraceptives when they do become sexually active. Parents are the ideal people to deliver these messages, but it does not always happen. Schools have a duty to provide good information and local school boards have jurisdiction over all curricula.
HB 456 also would have prohibited schools from inviting experienced reproductive-health educators from Planned Parenthood to provide information to Montana's young people. That is not good policy and usurps local control. These trained educators have been working with schools around the state to provide Montana youth with medically-accurate, comprehensive, and age-appropriate information about reproductive health. They work with schools to increase awareness about preventing unintended pregnancy, preventing STDs, and promoting healthy relationships and self-esteem.
Teens need reliable information to make healthy and responsible decisions about sex. Knowledge is power, and we should be empowering our teens, not misleading them or censoring information about contraception and other ways they can protect themselves from STDs.
Apr. 5 - A Necessary Good
A Necessary Good
As I finish my tax preparation, it strikes me that I'm getting a pretty good deal for my investment in the common good. I get a safe community. I certainly could not pay for police and fire protection, clean air and water, a public health system to protect me from communicable diseases, a criminal justice system, or disaster services-- all on my own. So I'm happy to join with my neighbors through government to pay for those services.
I get a functioning community. I am assured the children in my neighborhood are learning academic and life skills in the free public education system to help them participate productively in the social, economic and cultural life of the community. The financial systems function behind the scenes to allow for the creation of wealth. Social safety net programs are there for my neighbors and me when the economy doesn't work equally well for all of us. I'm safer when my neighbors are secure. I could never pay for this on my own.
I get a livable community. It grows in a more or less orderly manner. Streets, sidewalks and trails seem designed to provide a way to get where I want to go. The infrastructure delivers water, heat, and electricity and carries away garbage and human waste. There's a thriving arts community and ready recreational opportunities. It doesn't happen by accident. It happens when government teams up with the private sector to make it happen.
We all get safe, functioning and livable rural and urban communities. But who should pay for them? That is a central question in a democracy. The foundation of progressive policy is fair taxation. It is a necessary good. Those who benefit from public investment must contribute to it. Those who have benefitted more and have greater ability to contribute should contribute more.
It's not fair that low wage earners have the same tax rate as the wealthiest in our community. I introduced SB 398 to raise the tax rate by 2% for persons earning over $250,000.
It's not fair that the oil and gas industry gets a tax "holiday" for the first 12 or 18 months of drilling when they are making huge profits extracting a non-renewable resource. I introduced SB 408, to remove the "holiday" when the price for oil and gas reaches highly profitable levels.
It's not fair that owners of mansions pay the same property tax rates as their neighbors who are forced from their family homes by increased property values. For the past few sessions I have argued for a property tax system based on the ability to pay. This session I introduced SB 428 to equalize property tax mills statewide for K-12 education. Property taxes would have decreased for 82% of Montanans, while school funding would have stabilized. Republicans voted down all these ideas at the first opportunity.
Advancing such policies is not politically correct in either party. Politicians take polls and ask people and businesses if like paying taxes and want to pay more. Not surprisingly, most of them say "no."
Rather than starting a conversation about safe, functioning and livable communities or how to make the tax system more balanced and fair, it's easier to pledge not to raise taxes. But taxes should be raised for some of us. The community structures and services we expect from government cost more just like everything else. Without a system of fair and adequate taxation, everything collapses.
It's time for a new conversation about taxation-a necessary good.
Mar. 28 - Poverty of Spirit
overty of Spirit
Greetings from the Senate Floor where we are on a short break from the debate on the budget. It promises to be a long night as Democrats seek numerous amendments to protect Montanans from the draconian cuts inflicted by Republicans who are more worried about their Tea Party flank than average Montanans just trying to make ends meet.
The state budget will be the final telling statement our values and our ability to work together. The budget is more than columns of numbers that need to add up; it's a reflection of lives of Montanans. It tells you who the majority values and who they don't value; who they want to reward and who they want to punish; what work they think is important and what work they consider irrelevant; and finally, who lives and who dies.
It is government's obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the rights guaranteed in the Constitutions we live by. We cannot do our job without making investments in our communities and families. Of course we need to have a balanced budget; we also need a moral budget. It should be motivated by the objectives of equity, fairness, participation and sustainability. Republicans are motivated only by restraint. They are cutting services only because they want to.
Republicans have used their large majorities to make severe cuts to critical services, even though we have the resources to invest in Montanans who are hard pressed in this economy. Nearly $100 million has been cut from human service programs including nutrition assistance, children's health insurance, energy assistance, family planning and preventive health services. This includes turning back millions in federal funds. It leaves our most vulnerable populations of children and seniors without a safety net. Republicans voted down nearly 40 separate attempts by Democrats to restore these services.
A quality education lays the foundation for success for both Montana's children and the state as a whole. However, funding for both the state's K-12 schools and higher education system has been cut by a total of nearly $36 million. These programs educate Montana's next generation of qualified workers and leaders. A lack of investment in an educated workforce deters business growth and compromises the state's chance for economic prosperity. Republicans seemed poised to resist most attempts by Democrats to restore these cuts.
We have clear options. Currently, Republicans are crafting their budget using outdated, pessimistic revenue estimates. Montana's economy is recovering, and state revenues will increase. I am working every way I can to restore these cuts. I believe government has a vital role to play in our economic recovery and in providing security to Montana families in these tough times.
Many years ago, I met Mother Theresa while volunteering in her Home for the Dying Destitute in Calcutta. She urged me to work against poverty in my own country, "where there is even greater poverty-- a poverty of spirit." Friends, this budget is based on a Poverty of Spirit.
Mar. 21 - Kaufmann's Bills Defeated; Healthcare Agenda Falters
aufmann's Bills Defeated -- Healthcare Agenda Falters
My bill to prohibit texting while driving was defeated on the Senate Floor on Friday. Another of my bills was signed into law by the governor the same day. So, it seemed like a good time to update you on how some of the bills I sponsored have fared. I should preface this report by admitting that I am slightly embarrassed that any of my bills would actually make it through this crazy session where reason has been thrown to the wind.
I also want to point out that I have never believed that sponsoring bills that will pass is the only way to be effective. I often sponsor bills to initiate discussion, to make sure minority points of view are represented, or to help another bill pass. I believe I am more often effective behind the scenes, amending the bills that come to committees I sit on to make them better, working with constituents to have their voices heard, and providing points of discussion that help pass or defeat the bills on the floor.
The texting bill started out prohibiting hand-held cell phone use, but it was amended in committee to just ban texting. Not exactly what I what I wanted and very difficult for officers to enforce, it none-the-less would have "sent a message" that texting and driving is neither safe nor acceptable. It's just not OK to take your hands off the wheel, your eyes off the road, and your mind off your driving. But only 20 out of the 50 of us agreed, and the bill died. I had hoped the bill could pass, given the momentum from the enactment of bans in Billings and Missoula since last session.
The bill that was signed will allow an acupuncturist a voting seat on the board that regulates their activities. I was happy to carry the bill for the acupuncture association and it passed without controversy. A couple more of my bills may make it. For a list of all 13 bills I have introduced and their current status, click here.
I am most disappointed that my health care bills have been defeated, despite that fact that they received no opposition in the committee. Republicans are playing politics with every bill having anything to do with health care-an irresponsible protest of federal reform that will hurt Montana families. Federal reform provides many resources and opportunities to Montana to set a health care system tailored to the needs of Montana. It is foolish to let these opportunities pass. Republicans are threatening to do just that, inviting the federal government to implement the law as it sees fit.
My four bills were not directly related to the federal bill. One of them would have increased the insurance payment for mammograms. When insurance companies were first required to cover mammograms in 1991 they had to pay a minimum of $70. The amount has never been increased. My bill would have raised the payment to $180. While many employers' group plans routinely cover the entire cost, most individual plans pay only the minimum required by law. It seemed fair to me. Not to Republicans who killed it on a party-line vote in committee.
A second bill would have created a Healthy Montana Kids buy-in program, allowing parents of any income to buy the insurance for their children, as long as they paid the entire cost. It seemed like a good way to cover more children. Not to Republicans.
A third bill would have merely asked to department to study the cost effectiveness of covering more Montanan's on a new public program. Federal law provides full resources to put a plan in place for families up to 200% of poverty. It seemed like a good way to provide for families and help out small businesses in these tough times. Not to Republicans.
Finally, a fourth bill would have set up a state-wide protocol and data bank for collecting information on Childhood Body Mass Index from schools and health departments that already collect the data independently. It was requested by the Children and Families Interim Committee on which I sat the past two years. Seemed like a good way to establish baseline data to address the problem of childhood obesity. Not to Republicans.
Mar. 15 - On Your Minds - Medical Marijuana and the Veteran's Home
n Your Minds -- Medical Marijuana and Veteran's Home
I'm getting hundreds of comments on HB 161, the repeal of medical marijuana. I do not think the legislature should repeal a voter-approved initiative and will not be supporting the bill. Currently the bill has been defeated in the Senate committee, but I'm sure that's not the end of it.
I have heard from numerous constituents that this substance has provided relief from the pain caused by serious and debilitating illness and injury. I do not think they should be denied that relief. I agree, however, with those who think the current system has been abused and this is not what the majority of voters had in mind. That only points to the legislators' duty to carefully consider how to regulate this industry to prevent those abuses, not to the need for repealing the law. There are numerous bills being considered to put a stronger regulatory framework into place. I will consider which of those to support.
As I consider the current abuse of other legal substances such as prescription drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, I see far greater negative impact on society. Rather than taking those products away from people who can legally use them, we approach those abuses through regulation and public health education.
I am startled by the recent raids by federal agents on marijuana growing operations in Montana. Until more information is made public, I cannot comment more fully. Regardless, regulation of this emerging industry is the answer, not repeal.
I'm also hearing a lot about the proposal to privatize the Montana Veterans Home in Columbia Falls. Although the House recently restored funding to operate the home, the budget will now come to the Senate where Sen. Dave Lewis, the Republican sponsor of this idea has a lot of power as chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Earlier, Lewis convinced all the Republicans on the sub-committee to vote to close the home and have the services for veterans offered by a private provider. No Democrats voted in favor of the proposal.
I oppose this measure because privatization is likely to lead to valuing profits over the care of our veterans. Our veterans risked their lives defending this country and they deserve better than this. Quality treatment of these veterans should be the driving factor in decisions relating to the home. Lewis said that reducing costs of operating the home is the main reason for the amendment. However, he admits that the cost savings will likely come from cuts to salaries and benefits for the employees of the home. This will make it harder for the home to recruit qualified and experienced workers to care for our veterans.
The Veterans Home employs 143 full-time employees. Because of this proposal, these jobs are all at risk. In addition, the state would have to pay the federal government back about $821,000 for a recent expansion at the home.
It's a bad idea and I cannot support it.
Mar. 7 - Budget Update - Prescription Drugs for Seniors
udget Update -- Prescription Drugs for Seniors
Many constituents have contacted me about Big Sky Rx. Providing affordable prescription drugs for Montana seniors is great public-health success story. But the story is being rewritten as Republican legislators needlessly cut funding. Despite the voters' directives, Republicans first voted to entirely eliminate Big Sky Rx and later restored an inadequate portion of the funds. Without Big Sky Rx, thousands of Montanans would simply not have access to affordable prescription medicine.
Although a portion of the funding has been restored, that's not good enough for me or other Democrats. When I have an opportunity to hear the budget in the Senate, I pledge to do everything I can to see that the program is fully restored. We have the money to invest in health care for senior citizens, and there is no better investment. Republicans are playing games with numbers at the expense of senior citizens. This is not about numbers; it's about who we value; it's about the dignity of senior citizens; and sometimes, it's about life and death.
A few years ago, the overwhelming majority of Montana voters said we should increase state tobacco taxes and use the revenue to create a program to help Montana seniors participate in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. The voter initiatives are working as intended and should be continued for the benefit of Montanans. This year, Big Sky Rx is paying monthly premiums for 11,000 Montana seniors of modest incomes. These folks don't qualify for federal premium assistance.
The budget is not settled. The remaining weeks will no doubt bring many changes. I need your continued involvement. What keeps me going every day is knowing that I'm working for people like you and believing I can make a difference in the lives of Montanans. Thank you for participating.
Feb. 25 - Half Way to Somewhere
alf Way to Somewhere
The legislature wound up its first half of business with the Republican Majority touting its "jobs" agenda. The bills to implement the agenda, however, are remarkably in line with their long-stated priority of crippling environmental protection. Only now, they get to do it in the name of "jobs."
To tell you the truth, I'm a little tired of the "jobs" mantra from both sides. Of course jobs are important, but we really ought to mean something when we say it. At least Democrats recognize that resource extraction jobs are not the only jobs-there are education, health care, recreation and tourism jobs. There are consulting, research, technology, and yes, government jobs. And they all count.
Much of the Republican anti-environmental "jobs" agenda passed through the Senate in the last two days. SB 317 completely rewrote the Montana Environmental Policy Act. The purpose of MEPA is to provide adequate review of state agency actions in order to ensure that environmental impacts of a proposed project are adequately considered and that public health was protected. If SB 317 passes, the purpose of MEPA will be to facilitate natural resource development and to encourage free enterprise.
Under the existing MEPA, for projects that could have a significant impact on the environment, an agency must consider whether there are different ways to accomplish the same objective. The alternatives they examine must be practical, technically possible, and economically feasible. If SB 317 passes, an agency could not analyze any alternatives unless the state is the sponsor of the project or the private applicant volunteers to do. In any case, the state can only use existing information and cannot conduct studies to generate new information. Where do they get these ideas? From industry lobbyists.
Another Republican bill, SB 306, would side step the voter-passed initiative banning the use of cyanide in gold-mining operations. The bill allows new gold mines to ship new ore to existing mines that were allowed to continue cyanide operations as the failed technology was phased out. Voters have twice voted to end the practice. Republicans want to expand the practice and increase the amount of poison in the environment, all in the name of "jobs."
SB 312 is one more piece of their destructive agenda. It completely changes the metal-mine permitting process, allowing the industry to charge forward with little oversight. Agencies would be limited in their ability to require industries to make changes in their plans to protect the environment and public health.
The House is sending us the other center piece of the Republican "jobs" agenda-cutting benefits for injured workers in the work comp system. While everyone agrees Montana businesses are paying too much into the system, Democrats will look for a balanced approach by sharing costs broadly among insurance companies, medical providers, businesses and workers. Republicans want to load the burden entirely on to the injured workers.
Feb. 20 - Reflections on the Death Penalty
eflections on the Death Penalty
Many constituents have contacted me about the death penalty. I wanted you to know why I voted to abolish the death penalty last week. It passed the Senate because there are so many different reasons to oppose the practice and the 26 of us were able to reach the same conclusions from differing places, based on the values we hold. The debate was heartfelt and high quality, one of the best of the session. I was prepared to speak on the floor, but time ran out, so you'll hear my speech in this note.
As I reflect on the role of government, I have to conclude that government should not use public resources to execute anyone in our names. It is the role of government to respect and protect human rights. Those rights are fundamental; they accrue to humans just because we are humans. They are not privileges to be handed out to "deserving" people. The death penalty is an ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights. We have alternatives.
I agree with the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights that "abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights" for society as a whole. Two-thirds of the countries of the world and 15 states do not have the death penalty. I think we should join them in recognizing that the death penalty cannot be reconciled with respect for human rights. We have alternatives.
In addition, racial and economic biases permeate our legal system. People in poverty and people of color are much more likely to receive a death sentence. Ninety-five percent of defendants charged with capital crimes are impoverished and cannot afford their own attorney to represent them. The race of the victim also matters. A black defendant who kills a while victim is 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white defendant who kills a black victim. Even in Montana over 20% of those we have sentenced to death in this state have been people of color. The death penalty symbolizes whom we fear in society and whose live are more or less valued. We have alternatives.
The exonerations of innocent people have shown that human error is inherent in our criminal justice system. Despite our best efforts, we get it wrong sometimes. In the U.S. 138 people have been exonerated from death row after being found innocent. In Montana, Jim Bromgard served 14 years for a crime he didn't commit. Use of DNA evidence helps, but is only available in 12% of cases. We should not be willing to risk executing an innocent person in Montana. We have alternatives.
The best alternative is to sentence killers to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Many families of victims believe this will give a greater sense of closure than the continued appeals over decades when the death sentence is given. This is not a life of freedom, but an opportunity for reflection and remorse. It costs less than the legal proceedings in a death sentence.
Some constituents have asked how I reconcile my position on the death penalty with my support for abortion rights. Truthfully, I find it a wholly different discussion. In actively carrying out the death penalty, the state uses tax dollars to take life in our names. In staying out of abortion, the state allows a citizen to make a private medical decision without interference. I do not believe life begins at conception. Prior to birth, a fetus holds the wonderful potential for life. Not everyone agrees with me. I need to leave this private choice to the beliefs and values of those who are a personal situation that calls for this difficult choice to be made.
Feb. 12 - Is There Hope for the House
s there Hope for the House?
I usually report on Senate Bills because that's where I sit, and there's always plenty of material. But there are some unconstitutional and unfortunate bills coming up in the House that I can't ignore. Let me describe a few of them.
All the following bills are carried by Republicans and can be accessed by typing in the bill number at http://laws.leg.mt.gov/laws11/law0203w$.startup.
HB 392 is titled "Eliminate the Misapplication of the 14th Amendment." This bill challenges the intent of the 14th Amendment and over a hundred years of legal precedent that says if you are born in the United States, you are a U.S. Citizen. The bill is deeply prejudiced and comes out of the heart of the anti-immigrant movement.
The "Birther" Movement got a hearing at the Capitol. HB 205 would require all candidates for President or Vice President of the United States to file proof of citizenship with the Montana Secretary of State. This bill is based on a deeply racist conspiracy theory that has been disproved time and time again. To hear the Montana Public Radio story, click here A bill, LC1865, has been requested that repeals Missoula's locally-passed Nondiscrimination Ordinance. The ordinance protects gay, lesbian, and trans individuals from discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations. It doesn't stop with Missoula. It would prohibit any locality from passing an ordinance, resolution, or policy that protects a class of people beyond what the Montana Human Rights Act already covers! And it's retroactive, which calls into question any personnel policy or resolution that a locality has already passed.
HB 332 would turn the judicial system upside down based on right-wing theories of jury nullification. Essentially it allows juries to find someone innocent because the jury doesn't like the law, regardless of whether they believe the defendant broke the law.
HB 167 bill creates crimes against an "unborn child." These crimes would be separate and distinct from acts of violence committed against pregnant women, and would create huge tension with our constitutionally-protected right to privacy. Instead of focusing on actually protecting pregnant women, the bill opens up yet another political debate on choice. It has passed the house.
HB 283 allows insurance companies to discriminate based on gender when they offer insurance plans. This bill would nullify Montana's Non-Gender Insurance Law, a law that for 25 years has ensured Montana women and families have access to affordable insurance. HB 283 has passed the house.
A bill that would require every woman to have an ultrasound prior to an abortion, regardless of whether her doctor thinks it is medically necessary or beneficial may have been defeated on the house floor. HB 280 can come back with the help of various political maneuvers.
Helena School District' health curriculum debate may be replayed in hearings on HB 456. The bill would spell out greater control for parent's to interfere with a school's programming that mentions sexuality.
HBs 152 and 180 would put up barriers to voting. The first eliminates most forms of identification currently accepted when registering to vote and require all voters to have a current MT Driver's license, MT ID card, or tribal ID. The second eliminates late registration from Friday through Election Day. Since 2006, over 40,000 Montanans have used late registration options with over 18,000 voting on Election Day.
Let's go nuclear! HB 326 would repeal the provision of law, enacted by ballot initiative in 1978 that requires a statewide vote before any nuclear power facility can be built in Montana.
HB 244 would have repealed the Montana Renewable Power Production and Rural Economic Development Act, including the Renewable Energy Standard - an important provision of law enacted in 2005 that has encouraged the development of clean energy resources. Thankfully this bill failed in committee.
HB 321 attempts to nullify the federal endangered species act.
Feb. 7 - The Assualt Continues
he Assault Continues
On women: Last Saturday, Senate Republicans voted to pass SB 176, a bill that would ban abortion coverage in almost every health insurance policy. This discriminatory ban goes far beyond the federal prohibition on public funding and would prevent women from buying coverage for a medical procedure using their own money. It prohibits women from protecting themselves from the costs associated with unpredictable and sometimes absolutely essential medical treatment, while allowing men full protection for their medical needs. This is the first of many attacks on women's privacy and reproductive freedom I expect to see on the Senate floor before the session ends.
On Montanans: The deep cuts to health and human services by the Republican majority continue. Services for Montanans, such as home-based services for the elderly, foster care, family planning and disability support, have already been slashed by over $113 million and more carnage is expected this week. Over half of that total is federal dollars we will be leaving on the table. With nearly $400 million in the bank, and another $400 million in the projected ending fund balance, these cuts are cruel and completely unnecessary.
On the Environment: Republicans continue to throw roadblocks in the way of renewable energy development. They seem to think coal, oil and gas are the only kinds of energy worth state investment-and they get plenty of subsidies. Bills I support to encourage wind, solar, and conservation, have no chance. In the full Senate we'll be debating SB 226 which strikes at the heart of Montanan's efforts to become energy independent. It would cripple the vibrant small-scale renewable energy industry in Montana and discourage investment by businesses and homeowners in clean energy. Several bills in the house are just as bad, but I'll worry about them when they make it to the Senate. There are several good articles in the Helena Independent Record today. http://helenair.com/news/article_cb360e5c-327f-11e0-9027-001cc4c03286.html
SB 233 would significantly undermine the only remaining value of The Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA)-public participation in government decisions. Industry proponents absurdly blame all the problems with Montana's economy on MEPA, even though they successfully stripped most of its provisions in 2001. Today, MEPA's most important function is to inform people about a project's impacts and allow the individuals affected to provide the State with information about how a proposal will affect their environment, health, property, cultural resources, and livelihoods. This bill says the project will proceed regardless of citizen input. It will likely pass Senate Natural Resources Committee today over my objections.
Jan. 31 - Checking in on the Evironment
I'm very concerned about legislation that will weaken our environmental laws in the name of promoting development. I sit on the Senate Natural Resources Committee where just today we heard SB 206 which would allow power companies to site transmission lines anywhere in an approved mile-wide corridor. A landowner would just have to trust the company. The committee will be voting soon on SB 89 which arbitrarily cut in half the time local and state officials have to review new subdivisions without providing additional staff to do the job. In the full Senate, we'll be debating SB 159 which lowers energy efficiency standards in current building codes that save money in the long-term for homeowners and small businesses.
A number of bills have been introduced on these topics which I plan to support.
Jan. 27 - Session Begins
The 2011 legislative session has been underway for three weeks and I want to remind you that I am always happy to hear from my constituents. I will again provide updates and give you my view from the inside. You can get off this list easily by following instructions at the bottom, but I'm hoping you stay with me for the ride.
At the request of a number of my constituents, I plan to again introduce a bill to prohibit texting and handling a cell phone while driving. If you are interested in telling your story to the committee about accidents or near misses caused by cell phone use, please contact email@example.com and he'll keep you informed about the date and time of the hearing.
The budget is the big story, of course. Thankfully, the economy is now looking up, and revenue is coming in better than predicted. Unfortunately, Republicans set a dismal tone at the beginning by needlessly making more than 200 cuts to the budget; They cut local schools, higher education, drug courts, foster care, and prescription drug assistance for seniors. These cuts will hurt vulnerable children by cutting education, healthcare, or family support. At least 60 of the cuts will either eliminate jobs or reduce income to Montana families. A full 35 of the cuts will cancel or limit contracts to the private sector.
I want to live in a state that invests for the future by at least maintaining public services at their current levels. I believe we need a more balanced approach to the budget that acknowledges the real struggle we and our neighbors are facing. We can enhance state revenues in ways that help middle-income Montanans--by closing loopholes in the tax laws and making sure we fairly enforce current laws so that out-of-state individuals and businesses pay their fair share. Our tax laws could also be made more progressive and fair to middle-income Montanans by limiting tax breaks for businesses and individuals who are doing well in this economy.