By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
While the 2017 Montana Legislature is sill a year away, Democrats from the state’s western reaches are shaping their political agenda, placing infrastructure, education and prison reform on the early list of things to accomplish.
What rises to the top of the party’s official platform remains to be seen, but Missoula-area Democrats are ready to start where they left off when the gavel fell on the 2015 session.
“We’re looking at what we want to present as our agenda for Montana right now,” said Rep. Kim Dudik of House District 94. “One thing that’s critical is the infrastructure bill. I hope we have bipartisan support on it. It’s a priority for us in the Legislature.”
The 2015 Legislature’s failure to pass an infrastructure bill remains a sore spot with members of both parties. Democrats blame a small group of conservative Republicans for blocking the $150 million measure. Republicans, however, blame Gov. Steve Bullock for failing to negotiate any changes.
The effort is expected to surface again next year as both parties – each aided by new members – enter the session. Missoula Democrats also look to reform the state’s criminal justice system. Dudik said Montana is currently working with the Council of State Governments and its Justice Center on potential reforms.
Doing so, supporters say, could limit future incarceration costs and improve public safety.
“We hope to improve public safety, and reduce the amount of time defenders have to stay behind bars so we don’t have to keep building more prisons,” Dudik said. “We need to ensure they’re rehabilitated and the reasons they’re there are addressed.
Democrats also hope to revisit last session’s failed attempt to pass funding for per-kindergarten education. The proposal was a major Bullock initiative that would have directed up to $37 million to fund a voluntary preschool program.
Rep. Andrew Person, representing House District 96, said local Democrats are also looking to improve Medicaid and pass a jobs bill. Person presented a bill last session that would have given employers a tax credit for hiring veterans.
The effort failed by a single vote in the Senate Taxation Committee.
“I feel like it’s my mission to go out and talk to voters on why this measure is important to vets, and why it’s important to all those in the workforce,” Person said. “I plan to do everything I can to make sure we pass a bill next session that helps veterans get good-paying jobs in Montana.”
While state unemployment continues to fall to historic lows, the rate of unemployment among certain groups – including women, minorities and veterans – remains higher than the state average.
Person, the only Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran serving in the House, believes his bill could help address the state’s mounting labor shortage. He also believes bipartisan support for sensible bills will benefit the state’s future.
“Another bipartisan interest is public lands,” Person said. “It doesn’t fit into the typical Democrat versus Republican divide. Over 80 percent of Montanans believe the big issue facing public lands is partisanship. We can’t manage our public lands if they’re being used as a partisan tool to divide Democrats and Republicans.”