Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Patients sue over Great Falls' medical marijuana ban

(UPDATE: This post now contains new info, links and a copy of the complaint.)

Three medical marijuana patients are suing the City of Great Falls over the city’s recent ban on medical marijuana caregivers.

According to a lawsuit (which you can download here) filed Tuesday in Cascade County District Court, Great Falls medical marijuana patients Algy Thain, David Sears and Kraig Jackson say the city commission’s June 1 decision to ban any land use for the purposes of medical marijuana unlawfully prohibits them from growing their own medical marijuana and causes “substantial hardship” by making it difficult to obtain the drug.

Under the state’s medical marijuana law patients can grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use and name a caregiver who can grow an additional six plants for the patient.

The plaintiffs argue that that the City of Great Falls is “attempting to interfere with the ability of qualifying patients to receive their legal medication.” The lawsuit seeks an injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing the new ordinance banning medical marijuana within its borders.

“The main argument is that the local city government is a vassal of the state and has a duty to enforce state laws, not federal,” said Carl Jensen, the Great Falls attorney representing the three plaintiffs in the case. “The (city commission) has overreached its authority, inhibiting my clients’ access to their medication.”

The ban is set to go into effect July 1.

A group called Montanans for Responsible Legislation said Tuesday’s lawsuit is the “first of many” to be filed in the state.

“Our most ill, the very people this law intends to protect, can no longer wait for equitable treatment and justice,” Douglas Chyatte, of Montanans for Responsible Legislation, said Wednesday.

According to the complaint, Thain and Sears suffer from HIV and Jackson suffers from joint degeneration that inhibits his mobility.

Great Falls City Attorney James Santoro was out of the state Wednesday and could not be reached for comment. City Manager Greg Doyon, who said city officials had not yet been served with the lawsuit, declined to comment.

The Montana Medical Marijuana Act, which voters overwhelmingly passed through a 2004 ballot initiative, has become one of the hottest issues facing lawmakers as hundreds of new patients sign up each month. The state has seen a fivefold increase in new medical marijuana cardholders in the past year. The number of registered patients now exceeds 17,000.

As a result of the boom in medical marijuana card holders, municipalities across the state have instituted bans or moratoriums on medical marijuana caregiver shops. Lawmakers are considering ways to reform the law in the next legislative session. State Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, has proposed an outright repeal of the law that allows chronically ill patients to use marijuana.

Groups on both sides of the issue agree that the current law is overly broad and needs to be modified, but Montanans for Responsible Legislation said patients should not be forced to forgo medical marijuana in the meantime.

“While it is not our intent to create an acrimonious or adversarial relationship with the elected officials of Great Falls, we realize many of our ill do not have the luxury of waiting for the wheels of the bureaucracy to churn slowly towards a solution,” Chyatte said.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Montana U.S. House candidates square off in first debate

UPDATE: Here's a preview of the story that will appear in tomorrow's Great Falls Tribune.

The top contenders for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat pulled few punches as they squared off in their first public debate.

If Saturday’s forum set the tone for the remainder of the campaign, then the 2010 election season could be one of most bitter House races in years.

From his opening remarks Democratic nominee Dennis McDonald came out swinging at GOP incumbent Denny Rehberg, criticizing Rehberg’s work ethic and accusing him of voting for policies that lead to the nation’s current financial crisis.

Rehberg, who is seeking his sixth term as Montana’s sole representative in the House, responded by that if McDonald is elected he would be “another ‘yes’ man” for liberal leaders in Washington D.C.

Mike Fellows, the long-shot Libertarian candidate who has run in each of the past four House elections, also participated in the debate, which was hosted by the Montana Newspaper Association. For his part, Fellows said neither party can be trusted to represent the American people.

“It doesn't matter who is charge in Washington, D.C.,” Fellows said. “We see the country continue to grow these deficits no matter if it is the Bush administration or the Obama administration.”

The verbal blows between the top two candidates came early and often throughout the 75 minute debate as Rehberg and McDonald took turns pacing the stage, defending their positions and jabbing at their opponent’s record. Fellows, who was positioned on stage between the Democrat and Republican, remained seated throughout the debate.

The discourse between McDonald and Rehberg took on a confrontational tone from the outset.

McDonald, a former California trial lawyer who has ranched in Montana since the early 1970s, went on the personal attack by criticizing Rehberg for subdividing his family’s ranch near Billings years ago.

“He’s not a rancher. He’s a land developer and a professional politician who spent 20 years eating out of the public trough,” McDonald said. “To turn things around, we need a congressman who doesn’t go to Washington, go to sleep in his office, and do nothing for Montana for the last 10 years. We need a congressman who has a different view, who works hard every day to make sure that Montanans have opportunities.”

Unwilling to let McDonald’s personal attack slide, Rehberg fired back.

“It’s hard not to get a little offended when somebody thinks they know your background and tries to give a little story that may sound cute,” Rehberg said.

Rehberg said one of the reasons he decided to run for Congress was because he had to sell-off parts of his family’s ranch, “just to pay the down payment on the estate tax.”

“You know what I am? I’m really good at managing an agricultural business. That’s the kind of person you want back in Washington, D.C. Not one that can tell cutesy stories but may not be anywhere close to the truth,” Rehberg said.

Wrapping up his opening statement, Rehberg said, “you need somebody who is tested and tried. You need somebody who is not a ‘yes’ man for (Democratic House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi, (Democratic Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid and (President) Barack Obama.”

Read more about Saturday's debate in tomorrow's Tribune. I'll try to post some more observations from this morning's debate Monday. Specifically, I was surprised at how often Democratic Sens. Jon Tester's and Max Baucus' names came up during a U.S. House debate.

But don't take my word for it:

You can download the full audio from the debate by right-clicking here (32 MB, Widows Media) and choosing "save link as," or you can simply click the play button on the media player below. The full running time is 1:16:06.

Take a listen and post your thoughts on the first U.S. House debate here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tester unveils new draft of forest jobs bill

Today Sen. Jon Tester unveiled the latest draft version of his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

You can download a copy of Tester's latest draft here.

In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Tester said his new discussion draft is the next step in a “long and complicated process.”

(Click the play button on the player below to hear the entire conference call. Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy introduces the conference call.)

The bill comes in response to a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee discussion draft that surfaced earlier this month. You can read the text of the committee’s draft here and here.

As originally proposed, Tester’s forest measure would add 660,000 acres of new wilderness in Montana while mandating logging on 100,000 acres on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai National Forests.

The ENRC draft, which was circulated among members of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership collaborate group approximately three weeks ago, removed those mandates.

The committee draft also stripped controversial language from the original bill that allowed military helicopter landings and the use of motorized vehicles for livestock and wildlife management within wilderness boundaries.

Tester said his latest draft would result in the “same outcome” laid out in his original proposal while including some of the ideas contained in the committee’s draft.

“It, too, is a discussion draft,” Tester acknowledged Thursday in a telephone call with reporters. “It very likely will not be the final version that the committee votes on.”

Tester said his staff is in daily negotiations with the committee staff in an attempt to hammer out a bill that can reach a vote before Congress wraps up work later this year.

However, Tester warned that if the final committee bill does not contain mandated logging levels aimed at sustaining the state’s dwindling wood products industry then it will be “dead on arrival.”

“I have said from the beginning that I will only support a bill that contains the four carefully balanced provisions that have resulted from years of folks working together, those being timber, wilderness, recreation and restoration,” Tester said. “The committee’s bill stripped out the timber and restoration certainties in my bill. All four components are critically important to this bill.”

Tester acknowledged that the Forest Service was critical of the mandated logging quotas contained in the original proposal.

Harris Sherman, Under Secretary of Natural Resources and the Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, testified at a committee hearing in December that the mandated logging levels outlined in Tester’s bill “are likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable.”

Tester said Thursday that the agency now supports the bill.

“We were able to work with the Forest Service and get them on board,” Tester said. “They support this bill.” (Tester quote begins at 11:37 in the recording above).

However, Joe Walsh, a spokesman in the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C. office declined to comment on the agency’s position on Tester’s latest proposal.

“We have not received a copy of the senator’s latest draft, but we will review it when we get a copy,” Walsh said. “Right now this is a work in progress between the senator and the committee.”

In a follow-up e-mail, Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said the agency is “fine with” the “sustainability of the mechanical treatment levels prescribed by the bill.”

“It’s our understanding that the Forest Service believes the work Jon is trying to achieve is ecologically sustainable (through mechanical treatment),” Murphy wrote.

Tester said members of the collaborative group that helped draft the original bill—which includes a handful of wilderness, conservation and timber groups—support his proposed changes to the measure.

“They’re enthusiastic,” Tester said. “They have the same information that you have in front of you and they’re fired up about it. They like it.”

But some environmental and conservation groups, many of whom have been critical of Tester’s bill from the start, remained miffed by his latest proposal.

“If the goal is protecting some wilderness in Montana and getting some restoration and fuel reduction work accomplished, then the Energy and Natural Resource Committee's draft, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction and superior to both Senator Tester's original bill and his new proposal,” said Matthew Koehler of the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign.

Koehler also testified at the energy and committee’s December 17 hearing.

“As we move forward, let's hope Senator Tester and the collaborators give the committee's draft significantly more consideration than just proclaiming it dead on arrival,” Koehler added.

George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, said Tester’s latest proposal attempts to re-write longstanding forest management policy, including the Wilderness Act, by allowing previously banned activities in federally designated wilderness areas.

“I would hope that the senator would honor the Wilderness Act and not even try to put that language back in that bill,” Nickas said.

Like Koehler, Nickas said if the bill is to have a chance of passing, then the committee draft would be better starting point for negotiations.

“I think it’s too bad if Sen. Tester is drawing a line in the sand by saying, ‘mandated logging or nothing.’ I think by doing that he’s saying ‘nothing.’” Nickas said. “Mandated logging is not where a lot of folks in the conservation community, nor do I think a lot of members of Congress, are willing to go.”

For his part, Tester said he’s committed to sticking to the goals of the partnership that helped create the forest jobs bill.

“I can tell you I’ve got plenty of fight left in me and so do thousands of Montanans who support this bill, but more importantly support the ideas and principles that this bill contains,” Tester said.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Looking back on Obama's campaign promise to hold companies accountable for environmental disasters

UPDATE: I'm having trouble with the audio player, so scroll to the bottom of this post and hit the pause button if you don't want to listen while you read.

Earlier today I was watching live webcam footage of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil gusher and was reminded of a conversation I had in 2008 with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

I interviewed Obama at a campaign event in Butte. We were maybe a mile from the edge of the Berkely Pit. I thought in light of the fact that he was making a campaign stop in the city that's home to one of the nation's largest environmental catastrophes, I'd ask him what he'd do to make sure that corporations would be held accountable for their messes in the future.

This was his response:

Adams: Butte’s home to one of the worst environmental in the country. We’ve (Montana) got the Libby asbestos mine, another example of resource extraction run amok. It's cost hundreds of people’s lives and millions of dollars to clean up. What would you do as president to make sure these companies are held accountable for their actions, and would you fight to properly fund federal agencies so that they can get these messes cleaned up, like the Superfund Program?

Obama: We’ve got to make the Superfund work. Look, I’ve got a lot of Superfund sites in Illinois. And this is a program that, because of special interest lobbying, resistance, the lack of a strong commitment of the EPA, has been withering on the vine. We’ve got to restore it and hold corporations accountable for the messes that they make.

They took these profits out of these communities, and the least they can do is restore some sort of environmental balance. This is something I’ve been fighting for, and this is something I will continue to fight for and actually implement when I’m President of the United States.

As the oil continues to gush out of the ocean floor, only time will tell if Obama will, or can, follow through on that campaign promise he made in Butte.

Here’s the full audio of the 2008 interview from the Mansfield-Metcalf Dinner in Butte, Montana.

Tester to unveil new forest bill draft details Thursday

I just received word that Sen. Jon Tester will hold a conference call with reporters tomorrow morning to share details of a new draft of his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

It’s not yet clear whether a full version of this latest draft will be available tomorrow or not. His staff person said the updated draft has been submitted to the Office of Legislative Counsel for review. She assured me that once legislative counsel is done dotting Is and crossing Ts the bill will be available to the public.

As soon as the latest draft is available I’ll post it here.

Earlier this month a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee “discussion draft” made headlines when some of the key supporters of Tester’s original bill came out in opposition to the committee’s suggested changes. (view the two-part draft here and here)

The discussion draft removed a key provision that called for the mandated logging of 100,000 acres of timber on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai National Forests. Members of the collaborative group that helped draft the original measure, including some of the environmental groups in the Beeverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, said they would not support a bill that does not contain logging mandates.

In a brief interview after my June 4 story ran in the Tribune, Tim Baker, legislative campaign director for the Montana Wilderness Association, said the committee’s draft was “inadequate.”

“We have to have a piece of legislation that has those mandates in there. Those are types of assurances our timber partners need and we are all committed to working together on this and sticking together on it,” Baker said. “If the final products doesn’t meet the needs of our timber partners, then we’re not supportive.”

Reporter Matthew Frank addressed that issue in more detail in last week’s Missoula Independent.

Be sure to check out Friday’s Tribune for a full story and the latest details on Sen. Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Check back here tomorrow for information about the press call and a copy of the latest draft, if available.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

McDonald, Rehberg win party nominations for U.S. House

rehberg photo mcdonald photo

No shocker here: GOP stalwart Denny Rehberg has easily won his party’s nomination for U.S. House.

The anti-incumbent sentiment affecting some of the statehouse races this election season skipped Rehberg, who now faces former Montana Democratic Party Chairman Dennis McDonald in the Nov. 2 general election. Mike Fellows, the perennial Libertarian candidate will also be on the ballot in November.

Rehberg fended off challenges from the left and the right in his first-ever GOP House primary. A.J. Otjen, the most liberal of the three Republican candidates, fared the worst Tuesday night, garnering a mere 6 percent of the vote as of 11:30 p.m. Mark French, the right-wing self-described “constitution candidate” pulled in 19 percent of the vote. Rehberg had 75 percent of the vote with 620 of 792 precincts reporting.

"I don't think that anybody missed the message that the electorate and Montanans, as well, are upset with the direction of the country," Rehberg said Tuesday night from Washington, D.C. "I just appreciate Montanans giving me a vote of confidence to carry the banner forward."

For his part, McDonald, the early favorite in the Democratic race for the nomination, fended off a late surge by 28-year-old Missoula attorney Tyler Gernant. Gernant made a big push in the final weeks, raising more money than McDonald in the final reporting period. He was also the favorite of Montana’s Democratic bloggers, but in the end McDonald captured about 39 percent of the vote. Gernant had 24 percent of the vote, and Great Falls paralegal Melinda Gopher had 20 percent. Sam Rankin, a Billings real estate broker who jumped into the race late, took about 17 percent of the vote.

As the Associated Press pointed out, McDonald wasted no time in attacking Rehberg late Tuesday night:

"He's a professional politician who's been asleep in his office for the last 10 years. He's offered no ideas, no solutions, no hope," McDonald said. "I'm just going to go out across Montana as I've been doing and tell the voters what I'm about. They already know that Rehberg has done absolutely nothing."

Now that the field is set Democrats will no doubt try to make political hay over Rehberg’s involvement in a late night Flathead Lake boat crash last summer that left Rehberg and two of his staff members seriously injured.

Republicans, meanwhile, are chomping at the bit to resume their attacks on McDonald for once representing organized crime figure-turned mob informant Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno back when McDonald was an attorney in California.

Unlike 2008, when Democratic nominee John Driscoll actually endorsed Rehberg before the election, expect the 2010 race for Montana’s U.S. House Seat to be a bloody, and muddy, battle.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Kavulla close to victory in GOP primary for PSC District 1

As of late Tuesday, Travis Kavulla, the 25-year-old GOP wunderkind and the youngest Public Service Commission candidate in recent memory, had a 10 percentage point lead over state Sen. Jerry Black in the Republican primary race for the PSC District 1 seat.

As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, Kavulla had 55 percent of the vote to Black’s 45 percent, with 79 of 198 precincts reporting.

The latest tally from the Secretary of State’s office can be found here.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press was reporting that Helena attorney Bill Gallagher and former Secretary of State Brad Johnson were in a dead heat in the District 5 PSC Republican primary with 63 of 147 precincts, or 43 percent, reporting.

Johnson, who suspended his campaign last week after being arrested for drunk driving, trailed his opponent with 7,377 votes to Gallagher’s 7,421 votes.

Kavulla, a writer and activist from Great Falls, out-fundraised Black, a two-term state senator from Shelby, nearly 2 to 1.

The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Democrat Don Ryan, a former state senator from Great Falls, in the Nov. 2 general election.

With 60 percent of the votes still waiting to be tallied late Tuesday, Kavulla was in high spirits and expecting to win the GOP nomination.

“Obviously we’re happy with the turnouts so far. We ran a really strong campaign and I think you’re seeing the fruits of that,” Kavulla said.

With Kavulla carrying a strong lead in Cascade County, Black all but conceded the election Tuesday night.

“I can’t make any prediction of how those remaining votes will come in, but it looks to me like Cascade County is the key and he’s carrying Cascade County very well. I think that’s where the swing voters are,” Black said. “The way he is carrying Cascade County he will probably win the election, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Officials in large counties such as Fergus and Richland were still counting ballots late Tuesday, but Kavulla led in Choteau, Daniels, Garfield, Judith Basin and Sheridan counties.

Black led in Blaine, Hill, McCone, Petroleum, Roosevelt, Toole, Valley and Wibaux Counties.

“I’m concerned that we have to wait for the Hi-Line counties to come in and Lewistown, but I think it’s going to be hard for my opponent to find the votes to close that gap,” Kavulla said late Tuesday night. “Of course, I could be eating those words tomorrow (Wednesday).”

Black congratulated Kavulla Tuesday on running a strong campaign.

“He worked very hard and that’s what it takes, but we’ll just have to wait until morning to see what happens,” Black said.

Some abortion foes urge supporter to NOT sign CI-102 petition at the polls

As I reported in today’s Tribune, voters heading to the polls today to cast their ballots in the primary election will be greeted by signature gatherers at many polling locations throughout Montana.

Supporters of various constitutional and statutory initiatives will be out in force trying to gather the required number of voter signatures to qualify their measures for the November ballot. The deadline for signature gathering is June 18.

One of the groups planning to take advantage of today's election to gather more signatures is the Montana Pro-Life Coalition, a group working to ban abortion.

"Polling places are public forums that provide a great opportunity to gather signatures and explain the pro-life position," Kalispell physician Annie Bukacek, of the Montana Pro-Life Coalition, said in a statement last week.

Bukacek, who declined an interview request for this story, is the sponsor of CI-102, an initiative aimed at outlawing abortion by defining a "person" as including all human beings "from the beginning of the biological development."

She participated in a similar ballot initiative in 2008.

In an e-mail to supporters, Bukacek warned CI-102 signature gathers and supporters to learn from the experiences of the last primary election.

"In 2008, many of those hired to oppose us were belligerent, some made false accusation to election judges and misinformed the police," Bukacek said. "We have taken precautions to improve the experience of pro-life signature gatherers by communicating with law enforcement beforehand."

But this time around it's not just pro-abortion rights groups that are opposing a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

I blogged about this division last year shortly after the Montana Pro-Life Coalition announced the CI-102 campaign.

Anti-abortion groups such as the Right to Life of Montana and the Montana Catholic Conference are urging their supporters to stay away from CI-102.

In a letter posted on Right to Life of Montana's website, executive director Gregg Trude called the proposed amendment "a serious tactical mistake" in the fight to end abortion:

"The Montana Personhood Amendment people have an agenda. They have not shown a good faith intention to develop a true coalition involving reasonable dialogue with other well-established Pro-Life groups. Consistently, they point to judicial tyranny and offer no realistic strategy of how they propose to end it."
"There are some people that have blinders on and they are not looking at the political ramifications behind it," Trude said in an interview Monday. "There are always people out there that don't care about the ramifications of this. They only care that they believe they are doing the right thing."

Chief among Trude's concerns is the fear that if CI- 102 becomes law it could lead to an affirmation of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion.

"I appreciate the intent for which they have tried to do this, but this just isn't the right time," Trude said. "If they get enough signatures, and it does pass, then it goes to the Montana Supreme Court and then goes up to the U.S. Supreme Court."

Where, Trude said, Justice Anthony Kennedy would probably side with the four liberal members on the panel and "concrete" the Roe v. Wade decision.

While some anti-abortion groups are opposed to CI-102, Allyson Hagen, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, said the division is really just a difference of strategy.

"These groups share the same goal of outlawing abortion and endangering the health of Montana women," Hagen said. "The consequences of amendments like this are far-reaching and dangerous. We ask that all Montanans who value the right to privacy and the health and safety of the women in their lives decline to sign the petition for CI-102."

To qualify an initiative or referendum for the November 2010 ballot, sponsors must obtain

signatures of 5 percent of the total number of qualified voters in the state, including 5 percent of the voters in each of 34 legislative house districts, for a total of 24,337 signatures.

To qualify a constitutional amendment for the ballot, signatures of 10 percent of the total number of qualified voters in the state, including 10 percent of the voters in each of 40 legislative house districts must be obtained for a total of 48,674 signatures.

UPDATE: I mistakenly reported that the Montana Family Foundation is also urging its supporters to stay away from the CI-102 initiative. While MFF executive director Jeff Laszloffy has told me in the past the his organization is not supporting CI-102, he pointed out in an e-mail to me this morning the following:

"With regards to the Montana Family Foundation that is incorrect. We've taken a completely neutral stance on 102 and have not contacted our constituents regarding the initiative at all."

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tester's forest bill, transparency, and the legislative process

In Friday’s Tribune I reported that the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has written a “discussion draft” of Sen. Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.” This particular draft contains significant changes to Tester’s original bill, but so far only a select few have seen it.

I’ve obtained a copy of the discussion draft. It’s in two parts. You can download it here and here.

I think it’s worth talking a bit about the process of reporting this story in order to shed some light on one of the issues at the heart of the debate over Sen. Tester’s forest bill: transparency in the legislative process.

When I learned about this latest discussion draft I called Sen. Tester’s office and asked his staff for a copy of it. Upon my initial inquiry I was lead to believe that Sen. Tester’s office wasn’t aware of the draft. After subsequent phone calls and e-mails I was told that I would have to contact the energy committee staff to get a copy of it.

I’ve since confirmed that reporters for other Montana newspapers have also asked Sen. Tester’s office for the draft, and they too were referred to the energy committee staff.

In reporting the story yesterday, Tester’s staffer would not confirm whether or not the committee draft existed, or whether or not the senator had seen it. But I learned later Thursday afternoon that at least some members of the collaborative group who helped draft the original bill had received a copy of the discussion draft from Tester’s staff sometime within the last two weeks.

Tony Colter, of Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge, told me he had talked with Tester’s staff about the discussion draft. Colter said the committee draft was unsupportable by Montana’s timber industry because it dropped language that mandated 100,000 acres of logging on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai National Forests.

Asked where Tester stood on the committee's revisions, Colter said:

“They’re in agreement with us, but you probably ought to talk to them,” Colter said.

Ed Regan, of RY Timber in Townsend, has also seen the draft.

“Yeah, I have seen it,” Regan said when I asked him about discussion draft. “It’s been about a week ago.”

When I asked Regan where he got the committee draft, he said:

“I think it came through Tester’s staff.”

But when I asked Tester’s staff about the discussion draft, no one would even acknowledge that it existed. I was told Sen. Tester was traveling most of the day and was unavailable for comment. I did get this statement from Sen. Tester late in the afternoon when he was between flights:

“This bill started with Montanans working together to craft a made-in-Montana solution to improve our forest management that was built on a commitment to create jobs through logging, recreation, and wilderness. There are a number of changes folks would like to see made to S. 1470 – some will be implemented, all will be considered. Make no mistake, if the timber mandates are not part of the deal, I'll pull the plug on the whole thing."

Tester did not directly respond to my question of whether or not there was a committee discussion draft or what his position on the draft was. Instead I was told by his staff to call the Senate energy committee press office, which I did. I didn’t hear back until the following day.

I received a call Friday from Bill Wicker, a spokesman for the Senate energy committee. Wicker said discussion drafts aren’t typically shared with the public and he said he couldn’t provide me a copy of the draft of Tester’s bill. He said a discussion draft is a “committee work product” that is produced by staff as they attempt to craft a compromise bill that can pass the full committee. He said some discussion drafts go through a dozen or more iterations, and they’re shared along the way with other members of the committee and with experts, which in this case included Forest Service staff. He said Tester was given the draft and that he likely shared the draft with other partners working on the legislation.

Wicker told me that this current version of the discussion draft is likely to change, and he said it doesn’t serve the legislative process well to release it to the public every step of the way.

“My legislative staff will very quickly remind me that we don’t negotiate in the press,” Wicker said. “If we start negotiating in the press we’d never pass a single bill.”

One lesson Montanans might take from this story is that the legislative process at the federal level is much different from the legislative process here in Montana. In Montana, nearly any document produced by a state employee, including the legislative staffers who draft bills, are public documents and available to anyone who asks at any point in the process. If a state employee produces a document on a state computer on state time, that document is a matter of public record. Period. The only exception is in cases where individual privacy is concerned. When it comes to drafting legislation, individual privacy is not an issue. Therefore, Montanans are used to a level of transparency that doesn’t exist at the federal level.

Part of the controversy stems from the fact that Sen. Tester has, since his days on the campaign trail, been lauded as a champion of openness and transparency in government. The Sunlight Foundation has repeatedly applauded his efforts to increase transparency and openness government. Shortly after taking office he made statewide national headlines for being the first senator to post his daily schedule online. Just last month he introduced the “Public Online Information Act” a bill that supporters say would “revolutionize how the public accesses government information.” In a 2008 guest editorial in the Missoulian announcing that he would have former Montana Supreme Court Justice John Sheehy conduct an “ethics audit,” on his first year in office, Tester said:

“Montanans deserve honesty, openness and transparency.”

and that…

“Openness and transparency are critically important to me.”

When rumors began to circulate early last year that Tester was working on a forest bill, I officially requested a copy of the draft on May 27, 2009. I received no response. I asked again on July 14 of that year for a copy of the draft. I was told then that I would have to wait until July 17 when Tester planned to announce the bill at a press event at RY Timber in Townsend.

But throughout the bill’s drafting process selected members of a collaborative group that included Sun Mountain Lumber, Montana Wilderness Association, RY Timber Inc., Montana Trout Unlimited, Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Inc., Roseburg Forest Products, National Wildlife Federation and Smurfit Stone Container were circulating the draft and working with Tester’s staff. The rest of the public, including the press, were told we had to wait to see it.

This discussion draft, like the original proposal, is currently being circulated by those same handful of supporters, while everyone else, including members of the Montana press, are left to find out details of the drafting process on their own.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that groups who were not included in the collaborative effort to craft the forest jobs were crying foul over Tester’s lack of transparency from the beginning, and some are up in arms about the appearance of secrecy surrounding the discussion draft now.