Thursday, July 30, 2009

“Camp Baucus” could have a raucous welcoming committee

Political donors from across the country will descend on Big Sky tomorrow for the 10th Annual “Camp Baucus” fundraiser. Here’s a link to the invitation.

But in order to get to Big Sky Resort, the site of the three-day hike/fish/horseback ride event, donors will have to drive Big Sky Highway past dozens of single-payer health care reform advocates who are steamed over the direction Congress is taking on reform.

Max Baucus, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is the Senate’s point man on health care reform. For weeks hand-picked members of his committee have been meeting behind closed doors to hash out some a compromise on a reform bill.

At that same time, Baucus is busy raising money for his 2014 Senate campaign. Baucus’ people aren’t saying who’ll be at the event, but if you look at the list of industries that gave most to Glacier PAC in recent years you’ll find that health professionals, pharmaceutical/health products, insurance companies, and hospitals and nursing homes top the list. Organizers of Friday’s protest expect lobbyists and executives from those industries will be driving up Highway 64 on Friday.

"A lot of biggies show up at these events. When Max has a fundraiser, they show up. That's what we're trying to bring attention to," said Gene Fenderson of Helena, a retired labor leader and co-founder of Montanans for Single Payer.

Fenderson, one of the chief organizer of the rally, said protesters will line the road holding signs with slogans that read "Buy Back Baucus" as well as large scale faux checks that read "Max — A seat at the table. What does it cost? $4 million. Buy Back Our Senator!"

According to the invitation for Camp Baucus, the event is billed as "a trip for the whole family" where attendees will "enjoy Big Sky's fly fishing, golf, horseback riding and great hiking." The minimum "requested contribution" to Glacier PAC — Baucus' primary political action committee — is $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for PACs.

Baucus’ people say the event isn’t as unseemly as Fenderson and other activists make it out to be because A) Max can’t be bought, B) Camp Baucus was scheduled long before Congress got tangled up in health care reform negotiations, and C) political fundraising is a necessary part of politics.

"Max's number one priority is crafting a health care bill that lowers costs, improves quality and can pass the U.S. Senate," said Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf. "He is keeping his eye on the ball and staying focused on the task at hand to help the thousands of Montanans who are being crushed by the high cost of health care."

Reform advocates say the fact that Baucus has taken more money from the health and insurance sectors than any other Democrat in Congress — more than $3 million from the health and insurance sectors from 2003 to 2008 — should disqualify him from leading reform efforts in the Senate.

Fenderson said it's inappropriate for Baucus to hold an upscale fundraiser with lobbyists from the health care sector at a time when his committee is in the process of drafting a national health care reform bill.

"We don't get the money from the corporations to bring forward our position, so this is the way we have to do it," Fenderson said.

Here’s a link to the “action alert” for the Camp Baucus protest.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Tester drops major forest bill.

Jon Tester on Friday released his much anticipated "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act"bill at RY Timber in Townsend, Mont. The measure calls for about 667,000 acres of new Wilderness designation, as well as 100,000 acres of mandated logging on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai National Forests. It also designates new recreation areas for mountain biking, off-road-vehicle riding, snomobiling, etc.

I’ll have more on the bill later, including detailed reactions from around the Montana conservation community, but for now here are links to the text of the bill, the map, and below is the full video of today’s press conference. I had to break the video into three parts due to YouTube’s 10 minute video restriction.

UPDATE: Here's the audio from Tester's meeting with reporters following the announcement. Warning, the quality isn't great.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tester to unveil major forest bill tomorrow, critics already riled up

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester will finally release the text of a much anticipated forest bill at RY Timber in Townsend at 1 p.m. Friday.

The bill—dubbed the “Montana Conservation, Restoration, and Stewardship Pilot Project Act of 2009” in earlier drafts—is expected to include proposals for hundreds of thousands of acres of new Wilderness areas in the state. That has Wilderness enthusiasts excited since they haven’t seen a new Wilderness in more than 25 years.

But some conservation groups and Wilderness advocates are already crying foul after they were locked-out of the negotiations leading up to the bill.

Michael Garrity, director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, told the Associated Press that he believes Tester isn't making good on a promise to run a transparent office.

"I'm frustrated that I haven't been more involved," he said. "I think that they need to talk to all sides rather than a select few."

Tester’s office has refused to give any information about the bill up to this point.

Matthew Koehler of the WildWest Institute was quoted as saying:

"The senator's office flat out refuses to give out any more information unless you are a selected mill owner or selected environmental group... They are solving it by excluding anyone who disagrees with them."

Last week “Wild” Bill Schneider of chastised Tester for all of the secrecy surrounding the impending legislation:

“Wilderness and forest management are huge issues for most Montanans, and I’m delighted to see Senator Tester finally start to think about fulfilling his campaign promise to protect Montana’s roadless lands, but this secretive, exclusive process of developing this major legislation is embarrassing.

As I write this, a privileged few from major green groups and the wood products industry are basically drafting this legislation, and our junior Senator considers the rest of us have-nots, telling constituents--and the media--to wait for the press conference. Instead of carefully keeping his thumb on it, Tester should be facilitating a public process on what direction the legislation should take.”

Tester’s spokesman, Aaron Murphy, told the Associated Press:

"When there's a bill, it will be available for everyone to see at the same time. It will be the beginning of the process, not the end," Murphy said. "Jon has been hearing from and working with Montanans of all stripes for years about these issues."

An early draft of the bill releases four Congressionally mandated Wilderness Study Areas. These are areas that are under consideration for possible Wilderness designation and receive the same protections as Wilderness. Under the draft version of the bill, the Lost Creek Scenic Area, the Big Hole National Recreation Area, the West Pioneers Recreation Management Area and the Yaak Special Management Area will be released from that special designation and opened to timber harvesting, off-road vehicle use and grazing.

That’s got one prominent Tester support red hot.

Paul Richards, who ducked out of the 2006 U.S. Senate primary race just days before the election and urged his supporters to back Tester, says Tester broke the agreement they made in May 2006. According to Richards' campaign Web site, Tester agreed to a handful of terms—Richards calls them promises—in order to secure Richards’ endorsement in the neck-and-neck race between Tester and then-State Auditor John Morrison. At the time the agreement was hatched, a Lee Newspapers poll had Tester trailing Morrison 42 percent to 41 percent, with Richards garnering 2 percent.

Richards says that if the bill that comes out tomorrow releases those study areas, then Tester will have broken a key promise to “work to protect all of Montanan’s remaining roadless wildlands.”

"Not only does the Tester Logging Bill fail to honor that commitment, it does the exact opposite. The Tester Logging Bill is a well-orchestrated and well-funded assault upon Montana’s roadless public wildlands. "

You can download the full text of Richards' statement here.

Tester’s spokesman, Murphy, responded to Richards’ accusation by simply saying:

“This is a bill for all Montanans. Jon wasn’t hired to write legislation for just one person.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Montana one of two states to avoid making budget cuts, a great resource for state-by-state analysis of trends, policies, economics, etc., has a troubling article on it's Web site about how plunging revenues are hitting states hard.

According to Stephen C. Fehr’s report, 13 states are now facing revenue shortfalls after adopting their budgets.

In recent days, officials in Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma and Virginia have reported that declines in sales, income and business tax receipts will knock their budgets out of balance. Georgia and Utah officials are awaiting new revenue estimates any day, but say they could be dealing with budget gaps.

So far Montana has avoided the budget knife since the Legislature adjourned on April 28. What happens if revenues fall below budget estimates?

May and June are the last two months of the 2009 fiscal year for most states, so officials will have to cover those new gaps as well as the shortfalls they are already projecting for the 2010 fiscal year that began July 1. Governors can do that through executive orders or legislatures can take action when they next meet. The solution usually is some combination of spending cuts, tax increases or dipping into reserves.

I'm not ignoring you!

I haven't forgotten about or ignored The Lowdown, it's just that I'm trying to catch up after being off on Friday and out of town for a few days.

Speaking of which, did you guys check out the Folk Fest in Butte? Awesome. Again. Personally I thought Magic Slim and the Teardrops rocked, and 16-year-old Sierra Hull's mandolin playing absolutely blew me away. Anybody have a favorite performance? Tell us about it in the comments.

There was some pretty wild weather in Butte on Sunday. The photo above is of the Anselmo Headframe west of the "Original Headframe" stage shortly after a powerful thunderstorm rolled through. Some people even sat through the rain until lightning and strong winds put a temporary halt to the on-stage tunes. But as soon as the rain stopped and sun popped back out the crowds returned. You gotta love Butte.

Stay tuned for a story in Thursday's Tribune Outdoors section on how the pine bark beetle infestation is impacting ski areas. Preview: thinning dead trees will make for some great glade skiing at Great Divide in Helena. I'm also working on editing a short Internet video to go along with that piece.

I've got at least three other stories piling up on my desk. Once I've made some headway on those I'll have more time to think about returning to the blog in earnest. You might be surprised to learn that the blog amounts to extra work for me. The news that appears in the dead tree version of the Trib always takes precedence over The Lowdown. But keep checking back because I promise to keep it up.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"Baucus 13" settle "disruption of Congress" charges

The 13 health-care activists who were arrested in May for protesting the exclusion of single-payer health care from two Senate Finance Committee roundtable discussions on health care reform have settled their cases in court.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus ordered capitol police to remove eight protesters (pictured left) at a May 5 Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., and five more protesters were arrested May 12 for committing a similar act of civil disobedience.

Each of the so-called "Baucus 13" was charged with "disruption of Congress" for interrupting the hearings and demanding that Baucus include single-payer universal healthcare in the Senate's discussion of health care reform options.

Under the terms of last week's settlements, all charges will be dismissed if the protesters stay out of legal trouble for six to 12 months. Some of the protesters were also ordered to perform 40 hours of community service, according Donna Smith of the California Nurses Association.

Single-payer advocates who participated in a closed-door meeting with Baucus in June told reporters after the meeting that Baucus said he would try to intervene to have the charges dropped against the 13 protesters.

Smith said she did not know if Baucus followed through on that promise.

"We know as of the very first status hearing on June 22 that there had been no such intervention," Smith said. "We do not know from June 22 to June 29 whether or not Sen. Baucus sent a letter to prosecutors."

Baucus' office refused to comment on whether he attempted to intervene on the protester's behalf because as member of the legislative branch, Baucus doesn't comment on legal matters involving the judicial branch.

"Senator Baucus is focused on passing meaningful health care reform, and he looks forward to continuing to work with individuals and groups from across the state to get this done," said Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Anti-abortion groups split on “personhood” amendment

Right to Life of Montana, the Montana Family Foundation and the Montana Catholic Conference will not support the campaign to get a so-called “personhood” amendment on the 2010 ballot.

Officials for all three groups told me that they want to ban abortion, but that the strategy put forth by the pro-“personhood” crowd could have disastrous consequences for their cause.

The Montana ProLife Coalition, headed by Kalispell physician Annie Bukacek, launched the “personhood” campaign on Wednesday. Their goal is to change the Montana Constitution by adding a section to Article II that would read something like this:

"With respect to the fundamental and inalienable right to life, the word 'person' as used in sections 4, 15, 16 and 17 of this article, applies to all human beings, irrespective of age, health, function, physical and/or mental dependency or method of reproduction, from the beginning of the biological development of that human being."

The primary motivation behind the proposed amendment is the hope that if it becomes law that it would trigger a direct legal challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.

Bukacek said as much at Wednesday’s press conference at the capitol:

“The root of legalization of abortion is the denial of personhood. Justice Blackmun who wrote the majority decision in Roe v. Wade himself said that if the personhood of the unborn was established, then their right to life is guaranteed specifically by the 14th Amendment. That is why we say the personhood of the unborn is pivotal to overturning Roe v. Wade and why Montana ProLife Coalition chooses personhood as our primary legal strategy to end abortion.”

Most Montana anti-abortion groups don’t support that strategy. Some anti-abortion legal scholars and officials for the three aforementioned pro-life groups say a “personhood” amendment could have several unintended consequences for their movement.

Moe Wosepka, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference, had this to say:

“…this could very possibly strengthen Roe v. Wade, which would weaken pro-life efforts. We don’t want to take that chance.”

This from Gregg Trude, executive director of Right to Life of Montana:

“The people at Montana ProLife Coalition, bless their hearts, they are trying to do this process and they don’t understand the ramifications behind what could happen if it got through, and it’s very frustrating.”

So what are those ramifications?

James Bopp Jr., an attorney for National Right to Life who has argued abortion cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, laid them out in a 2007 memo:

“…now is not the time to pass state constitutional amendments or bills banning abortion because (1) such provisions will be quickly struck down by a federal district court, (2) that decision will be affirmed by an appellate court, (3) the Supreme Court will not grant review of the decision, and (4) the pro-abortion attorneys who brought the legal challenge will collect statutory attorneys fees from the state that enacted the provision in the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Montana ProLife Coalition board member and former state legislator Rick Jore says Bopp’s concerns are hogwash. In an interview for my story in Sunday’s Tribune, Jore said:

“Our concern is that for too long, because we’ve simply shied away from direct challenge of the premise of our opponents, that we’ve compromised ourselves by saying we’re going to save some babies but abort the rest,” Jore said. “In my view, by taking that position, we’ve too often compromised our credibility. It has compromised our underlying premise, which is that all unborn from the time of conception are human beings that deserve the protection of law.”

Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network, characterized Montana ProLife Coalition this way:

“What’s interesting about the group that’s pushing and sponsoring this proposed constitutional amendment is that it really is the fringe of the anti-choice crowd. It’s people who looked at Right to Life Montana and said, they’re not active enough, not doing enough, not quite extreme enough.”

You can read the full story in Sunday’s Tribune.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Anti-abortion group launches new constitutional amendment campaign in Montana

A new anti-abortion group called Montana ProLife Coalition launched a campaign today to change the state’s constitution to define a person as “all human beings, irrespective of age, health, function, physical and/or mental dependency or method of reproduction, from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.”

Former Rep. Rick Jore, C-Ronan, authored the three ballot initiative proposals that the group submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office for consideration. They hope to gather the necessary number of signatures to get the proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2010 ballot.

The idea behind “personhood” initiatives is to try to exploit a perceived weakness in Justice Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion in the landmark 1973 Roe V. Wade decision. Supporters of the measure hope that the passage of such an initiative would present a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Kalispell physician Annie Bukacek, president of the Montana ProLife Coalition, made that point at today’s press conference:

“The root of legalization of abortion is the denial of personhood. Justice Blackmun, who wrote the majority decision in Roe v. Wade, himself said that if the personhood of the unborn was established, then their right to life is guaranteed specifically by the 14th Amendment.”

These kinds of amendments have divided the anti-abortion community. Some prominent anti-abortion groups contend that setting up a challenge to Roe v. Wade, and then losing, could have costly consequences":

"The [U.S. Supreme] Court (if it does review the case) is likely to switch to a more absolutist equal protection rationale for the abortion right, and all current regulations on abortion would be subject to, and likely struck down under, this new rationale. This would have a devastating effect on current protections for the unborn," said an analysis by James Bopp Jr. and Richard E. Coleson.

In 2008 the Montana Catholic Conference refused to support a Montana personhood ballot initiative (that effort fell about 20,000 signatures short of making the ballot).

Moe Wosepka, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference, said at the time that the bishops struggled with the decision not to support the measure, but decided that in the end, the language of the proposed amendment was too broad. (sorry, no links to the 2008 GF Trib story).

"It defines person without any exceptions and it affects several different parts of our state statutes," Wosepka said. "Since it affects such a wide range of laws with very little definition, I just don't think it would ever stand up (in court)."

Allyson Hagen, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Montana said the personhood initiative is “an attempt to attack our constitutional right to privacy and eliminate access to abortion care for women.”

“Whether or not they get on the ballot, I think that the vast majority of Montanans are going to oppose an extreme initiative like this one.

I think Montanans believe very strongly in the right to privacy, and the decisions regarding pregnancy should be between a woman and her doctor, not with the Legislature or the government.”

The 2008 initiative fell more than 18,000 signatures short of qualifying for the ballot. Asked if Montana ProLife Coalition would turn to paid signature gatherers for this year's campaign, Bukacek and Jore said "no." It's worth noting that Trevis Butcher, treasurer and cheif spokesman for Montanans in Action and veteran of Montana initiative campaigns, sits on the Montana ProLife Coalition Board.

You can read my full report in tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune.