Friday, March 22, 2013

Did the House Republican Majority Leader send a “kill list” to the Senate?

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of a rumor swirling this week that House Majority Leader Gordon Vance, R-Bozeman, prepared a “kill list” that he sent over to Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman.

According to the rumor, after transmittal Vance prepared a list of bills which passed in the House that he wanted Republican committee chairs to kill in the Senate.

Sources who claimed to have seen the purported kill list said it was one-page long and was made of up Republican and Democrat bills, including some measures that passed the full House by wide bi-partisan margins.

In an interview Wednesday Vance denied the existence of such a list.

“What I did do was have conversations with fellow legislators,” Vance said Wednesday when asked about the list. “Did I have more than one conversation, probably over beers, with friends of mine in the other house, sure I did.”

Vance said there was “nothing formal” and that he acted as an individual member of the House, not as the Republican House Majority Leader.

But Vance’s initial explanation conflicted with what Wittich told me later that day.

In an interview Wednesday afternoon Wittich said he received a printed list from “House leadership” that asked Senate leaders to “take a close look” at certain bills. Wittich said there approximately 25 bills on the list that covered a wide-variety of issues. Wittich said he probably still had the list but was not able to produce it for me at the time.

Wittich said it’s not uncommon for leaders from one house to ask caucus members in the other house to “pay close attention” to certain measures.

“A lot of times you don’t understand the importance of a bill when it fist comes across your desk,” Wittich said.

Wittich said he passed the list on to Republican committee chairs.

Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee, said he received a note from Wittich early last week asking him to “take no action” on a HB245, a bill by Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, that authorizes counties to dedicate park land.

“I had never seen this before,” Buttrey said of the Wittich’s note. “My understanding was it came over from House leadership so I went over and asked House folks why they had trouble with the bill, but nobody seemed to know.”

Sen. Jon Sonju, chairman of the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee acknowledged that he also received a list but directed comments to Wittich.

“I can tell you that we are not holding on to any bills in my committee,” Sonju said.

Wittich said after he reviewed many of the bills on the list he wasn’t sure why the House leaders had concerns about those specific measures. Wittich said also said he didn’t know why Vance would deny preparing the list.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘this is something that needs more careful review,’” Wittich said. “It’s hard to process hundreds of bills.”

When I followed up with Vance today he said his comments to me on Wednesday were a “specific answer to a specific question.” Vance said in general both caucuses create lists all the time.

“If you want to get general about it, we absolutely create all kinds of lists,” Vance said. “When thousands of bills are floating it’s hard to do it any other way.”

Vance said the existence of a “kill list” – as it was described to me by Republicans in the House and Senate who had knowledge of it – was “an unfounded rumor.”

“There are all kinds of things flying around, none of which are true,” Vance said.

Bills stacking up in the Senate

Bills that passed in the House and in Senate committees are stacking up on Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann’s desk.

In some cases the bills that passed the House aren’t being assigned to Senate committees. In other cases bills that passed Senate committees aren’t being scheduled for 2nd reading.

Of the 30 bills awaiting second reading in the Senate, a third passed in committee more than a week ago. All of those bills  passed unanimously or with bi-partisan support.

The word in the Capitol is that Democrats may raise the issue on the Senate floor today.

But it isn’t just Democrat bills getting hung up in the process.

As of the start of the week Essmann had held-off on assigning to committees more than 20 bills sponsored by House Republicans.

Many of those passed the Republican-controlled House by large margins – and about half were transmitted weeks ago – yet Essmann held-off on assigning them committees where they could be scheduled for hearings. The sponsors of many of those bills also happened to be Republicans who voted against HB315, Republican Rep. Austin Knudsen’s charter school bill that unexpectedly died on 3rd reading in the House last month.

Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad , is one of the Republican lawmakers who had bills on Essmann’s desk.

“It certainly appears from the feedback of the Senate leadership and a quick review of the bills that are presently pocket vetoed that the House vote on the charter school bill is the causal link,” Cook said.

The charter school bill was a priority for conservative Republicans in the House and Senate, and as Mike Dennison of Lee Newspapers recently pointed out, was backed by wealthy special interest groups including the Montana Family Foundation and Bozeman technology mogul Greg  Gianforte, former CEO of RightNow Technologies.

Gianforte is also a major Republican donor to Republican campaigns and causes.

Rep. Christy Clark, R-Choteau, was one of the Republicans who switched her vote on third reading to help kill HB315 on the House floor. Clark said Wednesday that she met with Essmann earlier this week to ask him why HB464, a measure that revises the state’s prevailing wage laws that passed the House 89-9, had not been referred to a committee.

“He said specifically that he wanted to express his disappointment in my vote on the charter school bill,” Clark said. “He was clear that he wanted to visit with me before he scheduled the bill.”

Republicans Roger Hagan, of Great Falls, and Steve Gibson, of East Helena – also “no” votes on the charter school bill – said they, too, met with Essmann individually to inquire about bills that weren’t being referred to committees.

Hagan and Gibson declined to comment on the specifics of their conversations with Essmann, but both men said Essmann expressed a desire to visit with them before scheduling their bills.

Essmann said Wednesday that he held the bills in order to encourage Republican sponsors who voted against the charter school bill to talk to him about their votes. Essmann said the practice of holding on to a bill in order to encourage a conversation “is something that has gone on forever.”

“I was curious what was going on with those votes on that charter school bill,” Essmann said. “It seemed curious.”

Essmann said he was concerned about the appearance of coordination between some House Republicans and Democrats and public education lobbyists who opposed the charter school bill. He pointed to a Jan. 27  letter Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, wrote that was signed by six Republicans and six Democrats from the House and Senate and four public school lobbyists.

The letter was sent to the Districting and Apportionment Commission and urged the commission to assign a Senate district to Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. The commission’s plan left Jones without a Senate district he could run in in 2014. Essmann said the redistricting commission made a change to their plan that “threatens Republican control of the Montana Legislature.”

Jones is the architect of the major school funding bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support after a lengthy floor debate that pitted Democrats and moderate Republicans against conservatives in Republican leadership. Jones’ bill is now in the House where it is awaiting committee assignment.

Essmann said he didn’t know if there was coordination between the letter and the votes on the charter school bill.

“That’s why I wanted to have the conversations,” Essmann said.

Essmann said once House lawmakers spoke to him about the issue he assigned their bills to committee. He said not all of the people who voted against charter schools have come to talk to him.

“I don’t believe in retribution, I believe in conversation,” Essmann said.

Stay tuned for more. I’ll write later about the rumored “kill list” that a Republican leader in the House purportedly sent to the Senate.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Controversy surrounds plan to release free-roaming bison…in Germany

NPR has the story about a German prince who is on the verge of fulfilling a decades-old dream to release wisents – also known as European bison – into the wilds of Western Europe.

Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, a 78-year-old logging magnate, plans to release a bull, five cows and two calves into a 30,000-acre forest he owns in North Rhine-Westphalia.

But the prince and the wisent’s supporters are running resistance that might sound familiar to many Montanans:

"We were skeptical because we weren't given enough information," says Helmut Dreisbach, a cattle farmer and vice chairman of the Farmers' Association of Siegen-Wittgenstein. "How will the animals react? Will they stay in a particular area or will they move onto working farmland?"

At the Montana Legislature lawmakers are grappling with similar concerns as wildlife groups, conservationists and Indian tribes seek to restore genetically-pure bison herds to the prairies American bison once called home.


Cattle ranchers are resisting the efforts and lawmakers are considering a host of bills aimed at restricting the translocation of bison. One bill even allows landowners to shoot bison that wander onto their property.

Sen. John Brenden, sponsor of the so-called “zero-tolerance” bison bill, doesn’t think there’s room on Montana’s landscape for the  native grazers:



“I don’t think we can have free-roaming bison in today’s modern society. That’s the bottom line,” Brenden said.

At one time tens of millions of bison roamed the Great Plains of North America. Today the American Prairie Reserve estimates there are fewer than 7,000 genetically pure, non-hybridized bison left. Returning free-roaming, genetically pure bison to the Great Plains is a dream of many, and the he group is working to create a 3 million-acre grassland reserve in northeastern Montana.

As Clayton B. Marlow, a professor of rangeland science and management at Montana State University, told NPR, reintroducing wild bison, whether in Montana or in Germany, presents a unique set of challenges:

"We can't release either population onto a landscape and rub our hands with satisfaction and walk away," he says.

Marlow said precautions have to be taken with the European bison to ensure they don't transmit diseases to local cattle or vice versa, a concern ranchers in Montana also have.

According to NPR, Prince Gustav is hoping for is a herd or two of 15 to 25 animals.

"If it doesn't work we will have to take them away, but it will work," he says. "If we leave them alone it will work."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Democrats will try to blast three bills aimed at protecting kids onto House floor

Democrats in the House will try to blast out of committee three bills aimed at protecting children.

The measures, by Rep. Ellie Boldman Hill, D-Missoula, and Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, died in their respective committees.

House Bill 236, by Hill, would have eliminated a license exemption for religious private adolescent treatment programs.

HB 527, also by Hill, would have defined “cyber-bullying” in state law and created a misdemeanor offense.

Both bills were tabled in the House Judiciary Committee on party-line votes with majority Republicans voting against the measures.

HB98, by Noonan, would have appropriated funds to increase participation in the school breakfast program.

HB236 has caused the most stir and even caught the attention of CNN’s primetime cable news program AC360°, which on Friday aired a six-minute segment on the issues surrounding the bill and the Legislature’s handling of it.

The bill stemmed from allegations of abuse at Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch in St. Ignatius. AC360° last August aired allegations from former Pinehaven students who accused the pastor and school leaders of abuse, including choking.

The House Judiciary Committee tabled the bill on Feb. 23 and it was believed dead until last week, when Hill asked legislative staff about the bill’s status as a revenue bill.

According to Todd Everts, the Legislature’s chief lawyer, HB236 should have been classified as a revenue bill because it would require the boarding schools covered under the measure to pay a licensing fee, which would generate revenue for the state.

“We just missed it in the review process,” Everts said Monday.

The bill’s reclassification as a revenue bill is important because the deadline for transmitting revenue bills from one house to the other is not until April 5. The deadline for general bill transmittal was Feb. 28. Since HB236 is now classified as a revenue bill, Democrats have until April 5 to blast it on to the floor and pass it with a full floor vote.

Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena, is one of the advocates for HB236 on the judiciary committee. Eck said even if the Democrats fail in bringing the bill to the floor today they will try again.

Follow @TribLowdown on twitter for the latest updates on this afternoon’s debate on the blast motions.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Wealth Inequality in America and the Montana Public Service Commission

A friend emailed me  this video last night. I suggest you you devote 6 minutes to watching it:

As the video stated, I always knew there was a wealth inequity in this country. But can it really be that staggering?

How does the wealth inequity in Montana compare to that of the rest of the nation? Who are the Montanans in the top 1 percent?

Should we have a right to know?

And what does all of this have to do with the Montana Public Service commission, as indicated in the title of this post?

The answer to that last question is the Republican Public Service Commission will  today consider repealing a rule that requires Montana’s regulated monopolies to disclose the salaries of their  highest-paid employees.

As my colleague Karl Puckett reports in today’s Great Falls Tribune:

Bob Lake, a Republican from Hamilton, is bringing the issue forward. It’s his position, he said, that a government agency should not be in the business of distributing what he says is private information.

“It’s an independent private company and it should not be the Public Service Commission’s job to go out there and make sure the rest of the world knows the top executives’ salaries,” Lake said. “That’s a privacy issue for those people.”

Mountain Water in Missoula sued the PSC over the rule in 2010 and it looks like the PSC is going to settle the lawsuit today by promising to keep executive pay secret from the public.

If the current disclosure rule is repealed Montanans would have the right to know how much the local kindergarten teacher or the janitors at the Capitol make, but they won’t have the right to know what  the top executives of our state-regulated utility monopolies are making.

As a member of the press and the public I argue we do deserve to know that information.

Just as we have a right to know what ALL state employees are earning, (no privacy concerns there) we should have the right to know how much state-regulated utility monopolies are paying their top executives. Those salaries come from the rates we pay as captive consumers who have no free market options when it comes to turning on the lights, turning up the thermostat or turning on the faucet.

Heck, even federal securities law requires publicly traded companies such as NorthWestern Energy to disclose their top executives’ salaries. 

(If you care to know, NorthWestern CEO Bob Rowe made $1.4 million in 2011, while the average Montana household took home $44,222, or about 3 percent what Rowe earned).

Due to the ongoing litigation, we don’t know how much current Mountain Water CEO John Kappes makes, but based on documents filed with the PSC, Arvid Hiller, the former president of the company,  made $714,171 in 2011 before the company was acquired by the Carlyle Group in December of that year. (The average Montana household took home about 6 percent of what Hiller earned in his final year as president of the Missoula water utility).

So why, exactly, shouldn't the public be able to know the salaries of the top executives of public utilities, whose revenues come from the rates the public is forced to pay for services that are illegal to buy from anyone but those monopolies that are protected from competition by law?

As a Montana utility consumer I cannot go on the free market and buy electricity from a wind farm along the Hi-Line. I have to buy my electricity from NorthWestern Energy, and if I live in Missoula I have to buy my water from Mountain Water. I suppose theoretically Missoulians could buy their water in bottles, but if they want it to flow from the tap they have to buy it from a publicly regulated utility.

Which brings me back to the video.

What is it these public utility corporations don’t want us to know? If their salaries are in line for the work they do, then why should they care? And why does the PSC think a publicly-regulated utility CEO’s right to privacy is more important than a teacher for the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind’s right to privacy? How exactly is the public served if the Public Service Commission repeals this rule?

These are all questions I’m sure will come up at today’s PSC hearing.

You can log on and watch live here