With 2019 her final session in the Montana Legislature, Missoula Sen. Sue Malek has decided to wade into some serious issues, including Medicaid expansion, gun limits and campaign financing. She also intends to keep a close eye on the budget process after constituents took her and other legislators to task for 2017 budget cuts.
“It really hit me in the gut. It was like, ‘Why didn’t I dig in my heels and insist that we stay in a special session if we have to and get this budget right? Why did we walk away?’ ” Malek said in an interview with Missoula Current. “That’s how I’m feeling going into my last session – I’m going to be proactive rather than waiting to see what people behind the scenes have negotiated.”
Like many of Missoula’s legislators, Malek is seasoned, having served as a state representative from 2008 to 2012 and state senator since 2013. Legislative veterans know that more bills are submitted than can be passed during the four-month session. For example, Sens. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, and JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, have submitted more than 140 bills each.
So the earlier that bills are requested, the better their chances of being heard.
Malek submitted three of her 31 bills as early as July, including one to “revise gun laws related to people convicted of stalking or domestic violence.”
Malek said she knows she’ll probably get the same death threats as when she’s supported gun laws in the past. But having worked as a child welfare protective service worker in Anaconda, she’s seen the damaging results of domestic violence.
After reading a 2003 study that found women are five times more likely to be killed in a domestic violence situation if guns are present, she questioned why abusive partners were allowed to keep guns after being convicted.
One county attorney told her he respected her intent but couldn’t support the bill because it would be harder to get men to plead guilty if they knew they’d lose their guns.
“It’s a sad situation for perpetrators – they probably experienced domestic violence themselves. They probably have issues they need to address. But nobody ever says, ‘Stop,’ after a judge has determined that they are a danger,” Malek said. “It’s going to be an interesting hearing, and I’m sure it’s going to be emotional. But we just have to have this discussion of when it’s appropriate (to have guns).”
So far, legislators have submitted 18 bills related to gun laws.
Montana’s expanded Medicaid program ends this year for 100,000 citizens unless the Legislature extends it, and about two-dozen bills appear to either kill or extend the program.
One of Malek’s bills would repeal the 2019 sunset to keep the current HELP program going. She knows some Republican legislators will oppose that while others want to put tougher limitations on which Montanans qualify to reduce the cost to the state.
To address the cost issue, one of the November ballot initiatives sought to fund the HELP program using additional tobacco tax money, but it failed. Malek said it was probably a mistake to link Medicaid funding just to smoking and smokers; any tax should apply to all.
Another of Malek’s bills would expand the program so people who can’t afford or qualify for other insurance could buy into it for a fee. The New Mexico Legislature recently studied and is considering such an option, and seven other states are following suit.
“We’ve done such a good job in Montana; in fact, we’re known nationwide for the way we built the HELP Act, that is allowing people to voluntarily participate in training and get jobs,” Malek said. “If we expand Medicaid to everyone, we could reduce the cost to government by allowing more people to buy-in.”
Malek got more involved with campaign finance and disclosure laws after being selected last session to serve as the chair of the State Administration and Veterans Interim Committee. The bipartisan eight-member committee oversees the offices of the Secretary of State, the Commissioner of Political Practices, the Department of Administration and the Board of Veteran’s Affairs.
She was part of the Legislature in 2015 when it passed on a bipartisan vote the Disclose Act, which targeted dark money by requiring nonprofit organizations engaging in advocacy to disclose their donors and spending. Montana was recognized nationally for passing the law, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the act this May.
But the act and other campaign regulations aren’t flawless, so Montana’s Political Practices Commissioner Jeff Mangan asked the State Administration committee in July to support 11 bills, most of which would simply clean up the language in the laws.
Others would add a few more requirements for Legislative lobbyists and allow Mangan to deputize Chief Legal Council Jaime MacNaughton if Mangan needed to recuse himself. Currently, Mangan has to hire outside attorneys who cost more.
But that same day, the Secretary of State’s Office asked the committee to support three bills that weren’t as straightforward. One would give the Secretary of State control of the COPP staffing and budget, and another would give the land board approval authority over Fish, Wildlife & Parks conservation easements.
The Montana Supreme Court since ruled that the land board does not have authority over conservation easements.
Mangan was surprised Sec. Corey Stapleton asked for more control over the COPP. The Secretary of State is an elected position, so that could give the secretary’s political party – in this case, the Republicans – control over investigations of political wrongdoing.
“We enjoy a cooperative and collaborative relationship with the Secretary of State’s office,” Mangan said. “But there’s a reason why we’re separate and distinct.”
The third bill would have codified a Supreme Court rule limiting the number of times out-of-state attorneys could argue before a state court or agency. Democratic members argued the Legislature shouldn’t overstep and try to control the courts. Republicans said the committee should let the Legislature decide.
A stalemate resulted when the four Democrats on the committee balked at supporting the Secretary of State bills, and the four Republicans voted no on the COPP bills.
Bills tend to get more support in the Legislature if an interim committee backs them. In this case, the bills can move ahead without committee support, but other legislators must sponsor them.
Malek submitted the COPP bills in September. MacNaughton told the Missoula Current that Mangan has since found other sponsors for COPP bills. This will be the second or third go-around for the bill allowing deputization.
“It’s a cost-saving measure. I’m already familiar with the issues since I work on them,” MacNaughton said. “It’s come up a couple times before, and I’m never quite sure why it doesn’t pass.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, is sponsoring a bill to eliminate the COPP.
Malek knows it’s going to be another challenging session, but she says so much good could be done at the state level if Montanans become more involved by either contacting their representatives or testifying in committee hearings.
“I hope more Montanans will realize we can have a better state if we have better services and care about each other,” Malek said.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.