Havre Daily News
Returning legislators say health care, water, education and the economy were their top priorities during the recent legislative session.
As far as Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, is concerned, accomplishments abound.
"It seemed like people tended to want to work together in this session than they had in the past and that was a surprise with some change over" to Democratic control, Tester said. "People took it in stride."
He is finishing out his fourth and final term as a state senator due to term limits. He said this session was the most collaborative he's seen.
Tester said helping Montanans get affordable health care was a goal he felt he accomplished this year. He sponsored one bill that would help make prescription drugs more affordable, and another that would help the state regulate prescription drug discount cards to protect people from scams.
The prescription drug benefit bill, SB 324, was the bill Tester said he was most proud of.
Guiding education legislation through the Senate, he said, was a major task as Senate president.
"We defined a quality education and that's something most people didn't think we could do" in one session, he said. "We pumped in a historic amount of money" as well.
Tester said more work remains, some of which will be completed by an interim committee that has until October to come up with a new funding formula for schools. Tester is on the committee, and Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller is an ex officio member.
"We've got two legs of the stool firmly on the floor," he said. "We've got one more to get down."
Tester also worked on encouraging the use of renewable resources, with a bill that would make sure wind energy producers are taxed fairly. He also sponsored a funding measure that provides money toward rehabilitating the St. Mary Diversion.
Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, is proudest of his work on a bill he chose to kill, a tax law that would make railway companies pay higher state taxes if they charge higher shipping fees to Montanans. BNSF chairman Matt Rose agreed to meet with Gov. Brian Schweitzer to talk about rates if Bergren dropped the measure.
"I got what I was asking for all along," Bergren said. "That was a series of meetings with the CEO of BNSF."
Bergren also secured some immediate concessions, including a 5-cent-a-bushel reduction in shipping rates and a market-based fuel surcharge.
The idea for the bill, Bergren said, came from a Havre-area constituent. Bergren agreed to kill the bill once railway executives decided to negotiate.
"I don't know if to have that on the law books would have helped negotiations," Bergren said.
Negotiations between BNSF and state officials will be set this week, he said.
Bergren also sponsored a bill that requires retailers to label meat with the country of origin, and also allows Montana beef to be labeled as a Montana product.
This was Bergren's second term. He served as Democratic House whip.
Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, said his most important accomplishment was securing funding for the cleanup of water at the Zortman and Landusky mine sites until 2018, an effort that gained widespread support in the Legislature.
"It's been a good bill, not only for the people of Fort Belknap, but for the state of Montana, stepping up to the plate" and taking responsibility, he said.
Windy Boy also sponsored a bill that will help provide Medicaid to more state residents, transferring some of the burden of providing low-income residents with health care to the federal government and making room in the state's program for uninsured Montanans.
"If we can identify more who are eligible, we can serve more who are eligible," he said.
The hearing that Windy Boy said was the most emotional was over a bill he sponsored to fund the Montana Youth Leadership Forum, a two-week summer program for students with disabilities that was previously paid for by fund-raisers. The state will provide $50,000 for two years.
"It was really a moving hearing," Windy Boy said. Alumni of the program came to talk about the difference it made in their lives.
A bill Windy Boy sponsored that did not pass would have imposed harsher penalties for people repeatedly convicted of domestic violence.
"It's going to be the first one I am going to propose in the next two years," Windy Boy said. "The existing statute protects the offender more than it does the victim."
Windy Boy is in his second term in the Legislature.
Sen. Ken Hansen, D-Harlem, gave soil and water issues much of his attention this year. As vice chair of the Senate Natural Resources Subcommittee, Hansen said getting resources for the St. Mary Diversion was a top priority. Hansen was a member of the Senate natural resources subcommittee.
He worked to fund two positions for the project, an engineer and a hydrologist.
"I think in general in this session I did more for water than in any other session," Hansen said.
Hansen worked on an unsuccessful bill intended to help the state find uninsured motorists. The bill would have meant a yearly polling of 10 percent of the state's motorists, at random. People would receive a form asking them to list their insurance carrier and type of insurance. Respondents' answers would have been verified with insurance companies, and those without insurance would have been fined.
The idea came from Chicago, which in a short period cut its number of uninsured motorists in half, Hansen said. Hansen said he will work on the bill and re-introduce it next session.
Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, as a member of the House natural resources subcommittee, worked to get funding for the St. Mary project as well, he said.
Musgrove was also happy to get the chance to introduce a bill that would have the state buy the hydroelectric dams that were sold by Montana Power Co. after energy deregulation in 1997.
"I knew that it probably wouldn't get much of a chance other than having a hearing," Musgrove said, but he wanted to get the issue aired and keep it in people's minds.
"In 1997 we made a huge mistake," he said.
Musgrove also helped clear away some paperwork, allowing car dealerships and fleet owners to register vehicles on the Internet. In addition, a Musgrove law will set up a formal system of accountability for state employees who work at home.
This was Musgrove's third term.