By Michael Siebert/UM Legislative News Service
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines addressed the Montana House of Representatives last week, touching on his role in Washington, his support for the Keystone XL Pipeline and support for the appointment of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Daines repeatedly said he and other Republicans in Washington are seeking less federal power and more states’ rights.
“Montanans are best at running Montana,” Daines said.
Daines opened his speech by applauding the “peaceful transition of power” from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. He said he presented Trump with a list of Montana’s needs, based on talks he had with constituents, and affirmed his support for the construction of the Keystone Pipeline. He also called for an end to the “war on coal.”
“You can be pro-energy and pro-environment,” Daines said, a principle he said he believes is also understood by new Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt.
Daines railed against judges “who legislate from the bench.” He touted Gorsuch’s academic credentials, and said the judge shares his belief that the high court is meant “to be an umpire, not a player on the field.”
The senator also touched on health care, expressing his commitment to repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with a Republican alternative that puts states in charge of creating their own policies.
After initially planning to speak on Feb. 21, Daines rescheduled his appearance for the following day. Hundreds of protesters hosted an event the day of his initial planned appearance, with multiple speakers criticizing the senator for what they say is an unwillingness to listen to his constituents.
Protesters chanted “you work for us,” and “do your job.” Speakers criticized Daines for his vote in favor of appointing Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, and demanded that he be a “check” on Trump.
Daines deflected these criticisms, and said, “Montana’s bigger than Missoula, Bozeman and Helena.”
Before and after his appearance on the House floor, Daines attracted both supporters and more protesters, who alternately cheered and booed during a brief press conference on Gorsuch earlier in the day.
House hears infrastructure bill funded by gas tax
The House Transportation committee heard a bill last week that would institute a new gas tax, which would go toward funding Montana road and bridge projects.
House Bill 473, introduced by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, is the latest bill to address Montana’s infrastructure, a subject named a priority by both Democrats and Republicans.
“You’re not gonna see a report that says everything is wonderful, because it’s not,” Garner said. “And you’re not gonna hear another long term solution.”
HB 473 would put a tax of eight cents per gallon on gasoline, which would be exclusively used for road and bridge projects. Garner said this ensures that those who use roads will be the ones who pay for their maintenance. He also said it would allow the state to capture revenue from out-of-state visitors and tourists.
“It would have been much easier for me to remain a spectator than to be the messenger,” Garner said. “But I would rather go home knowing we did our best to solve one of the state’s great problems and risk that criticism than go home and say we did nothing.”
The bill attracted 53 supporters, filling the committee room. Most of them were representing cities, counties and engineering firms.
“Our investments in critical infrastructure are woefully past due,” said Darryl James, executive director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, a group that has been heavily involved in other infrastructure legislation throughout the session.
James said the fuel tax proportionally affects those who use Montana’s roads the most.
“I ask the committee, can we afford to pass up an opportunity to capture an impact fee from those users?” James said.
Many supporters representing cities and counties listed infrastructure projects in their areas that needed completion. Mayor John Engen of Missoula said under current funding limitations, the 37 miles of Missoula roads that are in critical need would be completed in 77 years.
In contrast to the many supporters, the bill attracted three opponents, who argued against the bill primarily due to the gas tax.
“This is a tax that disproportionately hits those with limited needs,” said Brent Mead, executive director of the Montana Policy Institute, a free-market think tank.
Mead said low income families would have a harder time paying for gas if the cost increases, and argued that it would lead to other financial burdens as well.
“When you increase the gas tax, you’re increasing the cost of consumer goods for everyone,” Mead said.
The committee didn’t take immediate action on the bill.
Legislation would prohibit pipelines from running under waterways
A bill to prohibit fossil fuel pipelines from being constructed underneath waterways was tabled by the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations committee last week.
Introduced by Rep. George Kipp III, D-Heart Butte, House Bill 486 would have required that pipelines carrying fossil fuels like oil not run underneath navigable streams and rivers, instead requiring them to be located above ground.
Kipp pointed to recent oil spills like the one in the Yellowstone River, arguing pipelines located above ground would be easier to maintain in the event of a leak.
“This bill does not affect the actual construction, just the method and procedure,” Kipp said.
Representing Native Generational Change, Dustin Monroe showed representatives a bottle of dirty water to illustrate his concerns about how pipelines under waterways could affect water cleanliness.
“Montana has had some very high-profile pipeline disasters within the past seven years on the Yellowstone River,” said Derf Johnson of the Montana Environmental Information Center. Johnson said those spills had significant impacts on Montana wildlife and agriculture, and also polluted the area’s drinking water.
Jordan Thompson, a lobbyist for the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, said that while that tribe was able to deny pipeline permits in the past, other Montanans do not have that ability.
Opponents of the bill argued constructing pipelines above waterways leaves them more susceptible to vandalism and even terrorism.
“It looks to me like that’s just a perfect invitation for somebody that’s willing to create an act of terror,” said Gary Forrester, representing WBI Energy.
Others said pipeline standards are already sufficient at preventing leaks, particularly those created through horizontal rather than vertical drilling.
“This would simply add more regulations … and limit the opportunities we have for Montana,” said Webb Brown, representing the Montana Chamber of Commerce.
When asked by Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, if this bill would affect the construction of the Keystone Pipeline, Kipp said he only envisioned it could necessitate additional construction, and that difference in cost would be minimal.
Bill eliminating for-profit prisons tabled
The House Judiciary committee tabled a bill last week that would have prevented Montana from utilizing privately owned, for-profit prisons.
House Bill 493, introduced by Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, would have barred the state from contracting prisons from corporations, but would not have affected non-profit correctional and rehabilitative facilities.
“Their policies are adhered to and driven by corporate motive,” Schreiner said. “How much money can we make for our shareholders?”
In his opening remarks, Schreiner said he recognized it would be difficult to move away from using private prisons, due to the existence of the for-profit Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby.
“This is going to be hard,” Schreiner said. “There is probably some financial impact.”
But Schreiner said it is the right thing to do.
“The idea that we have corporations in Montana profiting off the hardships of families in our state is just not right,” Schreiner said. “That’s currently what’s happening.”
The bill’s supporters shared similar concerns.
“It’s our responsibility to reduce the number of people in that system,” said SK Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the Montana American Civil Liberties Union. “Not contract out their housing, and medical care and food responsibilities to private corporations.”
Robin Turner, public policy and legal director at the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the for-profit prison system incentivizes incarceration.
Opponents of the bill said the bill would unfairly impact the community of Shelby. Representing the city, Melissa Lewis said the private facility in Shelby is important to its economy.
“The facility currently employs about 177 workers,” Lewis said. “Many of which come from the population and the workforce within the city of Shelby.”
Others deflected criticisms of prisoner conditions in the facility. Crossroads was criticized in 2014 for having inadequate medical services when a patient died while awaiting transportation to a different facility.
“It’s a good place to be as far as prisons are concerned,” said Douglas Fender, the warden at Crossroads. “We have a very clean, sanitary institution.”
Bill creating body camera commission tabled
The House Judiciary committee tabled a bill last week that would have created a study commission on the use of body cameras for law enforcement.
House Bill 524, introduced by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, would have created a commission made up of a law enforcement agent, a Department of Justice representative, a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union and a private citizen.
The commission, which would have existed within the Department of Justice, would have adopted rules regarding policy and use of body-worn cameras.
“Instead of me dictating and trying to pass some model bill from some other group … I’m saying how about, ‘OK, you guys get together and create model legislation’,” Zolnikov said, on his decision to create a commission rather than draft legislation himself.
The Montana ACLU supported the bill.
“The issue itself is not simple, because you have to balance government transparency with privacy and that’s oftentimes hard to do,” said SK Rossi, representing the group.
The bill drew opposition from law enforcement, who argued a committee was not the way to go.
“I think it will take an interim to look at multiple solutions,” said Mark Murphy, representing the Montana Association of Chiefs of Police. Murphy argued for a legislative study between sessions rather than a committee within the DOJ.
Murphy noted the complexities of body camera usage, and said there was a lot to tackle regarding how those devices conflict with the individual right to privacy.
“Most of these videos are going to be pictures of people who are at the absolute worst moment in their lives,” Murphy said. “The issues involved in the public’s right to know to see how law enforcement is performing in these situations involve extremely complicated areas of privacy.”
Zolnikov maintained that a commission was the best possible route, saying he did not want to bring “chaos” to the Legislature.
“It’s much easier to have policy set ahead of time,” Zolnikov said.
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.