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In first week, Legislature deals with budgets, wolves

HELENA — Montana's 63rd Legislature opened its doors last week, welcoming a new governor, 150 lawmakers, and even more staffers and members of the public.

Legislators attended a number of introductory events while also getting down to business on several bills, marking the first five of 90 busy days off their calendars.

So far, the House voted 99-1 to pass a $9.2 million "feed bill" to fund the current session and the start of the next Legislature in 2015. Committees prepped for hearings on the budget and lawmakers listened to public testimony regarding suicides in jails and new wolf hunting regulations.

Legislators will introduce a flood of new bills during the second week. Proposals include repealing the legislative internship and D.A.R.E. drug education programs, allowing addictions counselors to treat gambling, criminalizing abortion and reducing the number of state legislators.

Here's a look back at what happened during the first week of the session:

Party leaders want cooperation

Republicans and Democrats often stood at odds during the previous legislative session, but party leaders made it clear during the opening week of the 63rd Legislature that they wanted to work with the other side.

"Let's make this session more about work, less about politics," House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, said during the first meeting of the House.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, echoed that sentiment, saying both parties need a willing partner in each other.

"Let's show Montanans what we can do and not what we can't," he said. "I think we've had a little too much of what we can't do."

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch also encouraged cooperation, and she instructed representatives to walk across the aisle and introduce themselves to three people from the other party. Laughter filled the chamber as lawmakers smiled, shook hands and hugged one another in the middle of the floor.

Suicide prevention

Proponents of two bills aimed at preventing suicide in jails addressed the House Judiciary Committee last week, urging lawmakers to consider all the victims of a suicide, including the inmate, his or her family and jail staff.

One bill would create a screening program for detention centers to evaluate inmates' behavioral risks and a 24-hour hotline for detention center employees to contact a mental health professional when concerned about an inmate's behavior. The other bill would direct the law enforcement academy to develop a course on inmate suicide prevention training for detention center personnel.

Montana's inmate suicide rate ranks among the highest in the nation, with 16 people committing suicide in jail between 2009 and 2012, said Niki Zupanic, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.

Wolf hunting

The House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee heard testimony last week on two bills regulating wolf hunting.

The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks-backed House Bill 73, which would bring the price of a wolf tag down from $350 to $50 for non-residents, increase the number of tags hunters can purchase, permit the use of electronic wolf-call devices, and allow hunters to opt out of wearing an orange vest outside of deer and elk season.

A second bill limiting Montana's wolf population to 250 drew criticism from the department over concerns that it would be difficult to maintain a set number of wolves and that trying to do so could prompt scrutiny from the federal government.

The budget

Legislators dove right into budget hearings the first week of the Montana Legislature. Lawmakers will first work off of Gov. Steve Bullock's two-year budget proposal. Here's a glance at what the governor's budget entails:

  • A $400-tax rebate for property owners.
  • The elimination of a business equipment tax for companies with less than $100,000 in equipment.
  • A 5 percent increase in base pay raises for state employees over each of the next two years.
  • A number of construction projects across the state, many of which will fund new buildings and renovations at colleges and universities.

Adding more than 50,000 Montanans to Medicaid by accepting federal money under the Affordable Care Act.

  • A $15 million grant through the Department of Commerce to help oil- and gas-impacted communities in eastern Montana maintain or improve utilities and transportation systems.
  • A $300 budget surplus at the end of the biennium.

Six appropriations subcommittees met for the first time Friday to begin discussions on components of House Bill 2, the state budget. Going forward, subcommittees will hear from government agencies and the public on their fiscal priorities, and many have scheduled hearings well into February.

The Montana Constitution requires that the Legislature pass a balanced budget, where spending does not exceed revenue. Once the House passes HB 2, the bill goes to the Senate. If the Senate passes a different version, the House must approve those changes, or members of the two chambers will form a conference committee to iron out differences. After both chambers pass the final version of HB 2, the bill goes to the governor for his approval.

Bullock begins new job as governor

Steve Bullock smiled as he enunciated each word of his oath of office last Monday, becoming Montana's 24th governor.

In front of a crowd of several hundred people bundled in overcoats, scarves and hats on the Capitol steps, the Democrat thanked those who helped him reach the state's highest office and acknowledged the thousands he met during the campaign who exhibit his enthusiasm for Montana.

"They share the same dreams that my parents had for my brother and me — it's the dream that our children will know an even better Montana than the one that we love," he said after being sworn in by Mike McGrath, chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.

Bullock, who grew up five blocks east of the Capitol, called it "extremely humbling" to stand before Montana's citizens as governor. He told the crowd he wanted to improve schools, expand opportunities for Montana businesses, foster 21st century industries and create jobs that did not exist when he was a kid.

He and his staff began to work on those initiatives as they moved from their temporary offices located off the Capitol's rotunda to those down the hall previously occupied by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his staff. They spent the first week of the session laying out the groundwork for the new governor's legislative agenda.

Bullock's budget director, Dan Villa, told a joint session of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance and Claims committees that Montana remains one of the nation's most fiscally strong states. He stressed the governor's wish to address long-term liabilities and fund essential services before discussing new programs.

New app increases access to legislators

Smartphone and tablet users can now contact lawmakers directly from their Android or Apple devices with a new app designed for the 2013 Montana Legislature.

The Montana 2013 Legislative Directory app features phone numbers, email addresses, social media sites, committee appointments, addresses and biographical information for members of the House and Senate. Users can simply tap the email, phone or social media icons listed for each lawmaker to contact them.

The Montana Electric Cooperatives Association, Montana Telecommunications Cooperatives and Montana Independent Telecommunications Systems worked together to develop the program, based on a similar app created for the Tennessee Legislature.

"I truly believe that people want to talk to their legislators but don't know how," said Ryan Hall, communications director for MECA. "This makes it much more streamlined."

In the past, constituents had to go to the Montana Legislature website or pick up a copy of the legislative guide to find out how to reach state politicians.

Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Butte, said he appreciates any innovation that makes it easier for constituents to contact their elected officials.

"It gives the public the same kind of access that we have standing up here," he said as he mingled with colleagues in the lobby outside the House chamber after a floor session.

The app can be downloaded for $1.99 from Google Play and the Apple App Store by searching for "Montana Legislature."

Hall welcomes feedback from users and can be reached at [email protected] or 406-761-8333.

(Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at 425-466-6633 or [email protected]. Follow her @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.)


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