Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Gun ControlLegislature voting on bill to allow concealed guns on campus

Students, administrators air concerns over HB240

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2013 12:19 am | Updated: 8:54 am, Thu Feb 21, 2013.
A bill that would lift campus gun bans passed the House Judiciary Committee on Friday with a party-line vote.
House Bill 240, sponsored by Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, would remove the Board of Regents’ power to ban guns on campus. Anyone with a concealed weapons permit would be able to carry a concealed weapon on campus. Everyone else could openly carry a weapon.
Supporters said the bill would restore forsaken Second Amendment rights. Opponents worry more guns would lead to more gun violence.
“Our concern is that HB-240 says that all students and all members of the public should be allowed to carry guns on their hips or their coats anywhere on campus,” said Kevin McRae, associate commissioner of higher education.
“This includes in class or into football stadiums or into dormitories,” he added.
McRae expressed other concerns about armed students, including an increased risk of accidental shootings and suicides.
An accidental shooting occurred on the first day of class in fall 2011 at the University of Montana when a student shot his friend in the hand with a .20-gauge shotgun.
McRae described the incident as “an isolated circumstance that was in violation of current policy,” but he said he worries more accidents would happen if more students had guns on campus.
Shortly after the incident, Residence Life and the Office of Public Safety changed the procedure for storing guns on campus, although the change was unrelated to the shooting.
Prior to 2012, students could keep guns locked in storage facilities in the residence halls, but now guns have to be held at the Office of Public Safety and can be checked out for hunting or sport shooting. Students can also keep weapons in locked vehicles on campus as long as the guns are unloaded and out of sight.
Only campus police officers can carry weapons on campus. 
“We think (our policy) is a responsible balance,” said Peggy Kuhr, UM’s vice president for integrated communications.
“The University sees no need to change that policy, and the president is opposed to a change.”
University of Montana Chief of Police Gary Taylor said in the event of a shooting on campus, more students with guns would only create more confusion for police.
“When you’ve got multiple firearms and people waving them around, you don’t know who’s helping you and who’s against you,” Taylor said.
Mental health is another major concern.
Rep. Margie MacDonald, a Democrat from Billings and vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, voted against HB-240. She warned about the danger of increasing suicide rates in a state already leading the nation in that category.
MacDonald pointed out that mental illnesses often aren’t displayed until college when young people experience more independence and stress.
“You will have dozens, if not hundreds, of students who are dealing with serious mental health problems who are armed,” MacDonald said.
Since the start of fall semester, two students have committed suicide in student housing at UM.
Because the community grapples not only with suicide but also sexual assault, some women say guns would put their minds at ease.
“I feel safer with a gun,” said Emily Royer, a 26-year-old law student from Bozeman.
Royer said she doesn’t support allowing concealed weapons in banks or other restricted areas, but she feels differently about campus because some students call it home.  
“I do feel that people should be able to defend themselves where they live,” Royer said.
In Montana, the Board of Regents, the governing body of all Montana University System schools, decides whether weapons are allowed on campuses. No law allows or prohibits guns on campus.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said constitutional rights are the heart of HB-240.
“Although the Board of Regents is given full authority to manage the university system,” Marbut said, “they’re not given any power to take away people’s rights.”
UM political science professor James Lopach said the issue is not so clear-cut.
“The second amendment is not an absolute right,” Lopach said, adding that two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases allowed limitations on the right to bear arms in certain locations.
Lopach agreed that the Board of Regents’ decision to prevent students from carrying weapons on campus is, in fact, a limitation on the Second Amendment.
“But,” Lopach said, “the real question is, is it a constitutional limitation?”
Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi mandate campuses to allow concealed weapons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
However, 21 states prevent concealed weapons from being carried on campuses, including North Dakota, Wyoming and Texas.
The definition of a concealed weapon varies from state to state.
Marbut said Montana law defines a concealed weapon as one that is “wholly or partially covered by clothing or wearing apparel.” That means a gun in the glove box of a car or even a purse or backpack isn’t considered concealed and can be carried without any permit.
HB-240 is one bill in a slew of pro-gun legislation in the state Legislature this session. At least nine such bills have been introduced in the House. Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel has sponsored three of those bills.
Kerns’ HB-358 would allow concealed weapon permit holders to have weapons in banks, government buildings and anywhere alcohol is served — three places Montana allows only open-carry of weapons.
HB-304 would allow Montanans to decide whether they merit a concealed weapons permit. A person caught with a concealed weapon inside city limits, where permits are required, would not be in violation of the law as long as he or she would be eligible for a permit. It wouldn’t be necessary to actually obtain a permit in order to carry a concealed weapon.
Kerns’ HB-205 would also legalize the use of suppressors for hunting. Silencers are included in this category, along with devices that hide the flash of light from firing a gun. Opponents say this would make poaching easier.
Kerns’ three bills passed the House Judiciary Committee last week with party-line votes and move to the full House floor with HB-240. The House votes on HB-240 this week.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Young UM grad keeps busy in second House term

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 10:16 pm
Two turns of the election cycle are all that separate a wide-eyed first timer and a progressive, political powerhouse.
Bryce Bennett made headlines when he was first elected in 2010 for being both very young – he was 25 – and gay. He’s now wading through his second session in the Montana House of Representatives. When Bennett won his seat representing Missoula’s House District 92, he was the youngest lawmaker in the state. Three years later he’s lost that accolade, but gained experience without letting success go to his head.
“I feel good about the fact that somebody walking up to my desk and calling me ‘Representative’ still feels a little silly to me,” Bennett said.
The University of Montana graduate grew up in the small town of Hysham, Mont., located between Billings and Miles City, but graduated from high school in Missoula. He said his transition from freewheeling freshman to legislative leader – a role he’s been training for since he was a teenager – has brought increased responsibility.
“Last session I felt like I had more free time,” Bennett said. “I always kind of felt like I was on top of things. Now, from the point I walk into the Capitol in the morning to the time I leave at night, I am constantly busy.” 
Bennett, 28, now chairs the House Democratic Caucus and is State Administration committee vice chair. As caucus chair, he helps communicate the House Democrats’ philosophy to the media, constituents and other legislators. As a committee vice chair, Bennett presents his party’s case in committee meetings and informs other Democrats of the details of bills that are produced or altered by the committee.
It’s not just free time that he misses from his first session in the House. Bennett said he laments not having as much time to keep in close contact with his constituents. 
“I don’t want people to be sitting at home thinking that I’m setting their concerns on the back boiler,” Bennett said.
The second-term legislator said his priorities this session are keeping voting rights strong and “bringing some transparency to politics in a post-Citizens United world.”
“We need to know who’s spending money in our elections, and how much and where,” Bennett added.
When he was elected in 2010, Bennett was Montana’s first openly gay man in the state Legislature. As the prominence of his youth fades, he hopes this distinction will, too.
“We're getting to the point where there are not going to be a lot of firsts anymore. You're not going to be the first gay, or lesbian or transgender person; you're just going to be another person” who got involved, Bennett said. 
He said some people feel Montana has a social and political climate that does not allow gay politicians or issues to be taken seriously. But he urged other members of the LGBT community to enter local politics.
“I think our state is moving forward,” he said, pointing to other successful LGBT politicians, including Missoula’s Democratic Councilwoman Caitlin Copple and Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena.
At UM, Bennett said he was involved with the Lambda Alliance and the College Democrats and was an ASUM senator. In fact, he said extracurricular activities were the highlight of his education.
“I showed up to class and did the work,” Bennett said. “But I don’t know if there are any professors who could pick me out of a line-up.”
When the Legislature isn’t in session, Bennett works as the political director of Forward Montana, an organization he helped found in 2004, while a freshman at UM.
“We were really tired of hearing the conventional wisdom that young people don’t vote; young people don’t care,” Bennett said. “So we put together Forward Montana as a response to that.” 
Matt Singer, a Forward Montana co-founder, said the organization has grown exponentially since that time, when his living room was its home base.
Forward Montana now has a paid staff and a mass of volunteers known around campus as the pink bunnies who relentlessly prompted students to register to vote upon coming or going from the University Center last fall.
Having worked with Bennett intermittently for eight years, Singer described him as “an incredibly hard worker and good listener.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

MT Death PenaltyBipartisan group sends 100 Montanans to Helena in support of bill abolishing death penalty

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2013 10:56 pm | Updated: 11:30 pm, Mon Feb 11, 2013.

About 100 citizen lobbyists descended on Helena Friday to advocate for a bill that would end the death penalty in Montana.
Many advocates of House Bill 370, including at least 20 from the Missoula and Bitterroot areas, arrived on busses provided by the Montana Abolition Coalition – the group responsible for the bill.

“The death penalty is a system that is broken beyond repair,” said Jennifer Kirby, the Coalition’s coordinator.
“It wastes states’ resources, risks executing an innocent person and puts murder victims’ families through the agony of trial and appeals,” Kirby added.
Kirby said the lobbying effort was a great success, with participants arriving from distant towns such as Whitefish, Absarokee, Dillon and Poplar.
“All corners of the state came to the capital to tell their legislators how broken the death penalty system is,” Kirby said.
The House Judiciary committee is scheduled to vote on HB-370 on Thursday.
Steve Doglakos, the Coalition’s director of conservative outreach, said he thinks the committee will likely approve the bill, which would send it to the floor of the House.
“We’ve got some good prospects with some swing voters on that committee and we’re very hopeful,” Doglakos said. He did not specify which members he considers likely supporters.
HB-370 is spearheaded by a bipartisan team of four legislators including Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, who is vice chair of the House Judiciary committee.
Rep. Doug Kary, R-Billings, is the primary sponsor. Sen. Matthew Rosendale, R-Glendive, and Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, are also sponsors.
“They may not agree on the reasons, but they all agree that it’s time for it to go,” Kirby said of the group.
She added that five states have abolished the death penalty in the last five years, bringing the total to 17 states and the District of Columbia that do not have a death penalty.
The Coalition, which is based in Helena but also has organizers in Missoula and Billings, has proposed bills that would end the death penalty in every legislative session since 2007.
In 1999, the year after the group formed, the Coalition brought forth a successful bill that eliminated the death penalty for minors.
In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, the United States Supreme Court put a stop to the death penalty because of concerns that the sentence was not being applied equally in all cases. The decision was reversed in 1976.
Since then, Kirby said Montana has given the death sentence to 13 people. Three of the 13 have been executed – the most recent in 2006. Six had their sentences changed or overturned, two committed suicide in prison and two more remain on death row.

Friday, February 8, 2013

UM grad fights for children, students in Legislature

In 2007, Jenifer Gursky was volunteering with children in Cambodia when she realized she didn't have the skills she needed to deal with the poverty issues that confronted her. So she applied to the University of Montana from a computer kiosk in Phnom Penh.
Last month, Rep. Gursky, a Democrat representing northwestern Missoula’s House District 98, saw her first bill pass the House. House Bill 131 aims to help children lead a better life by requiring doctors, teachers and other professionals report suspected abuse.
“I have become incredibly driven for working on behalf of the public,” Gursky said of her new job. “There is no higher calling than to work for people.”
She added in an email that she is still learning how to fulfill her duty as a voice of her peers “with dignity, grace, patience, and humility.” 
After studying vocal performance in Wyoming, Gursky returned home to Polson to become a youth pastor. She joined Youth With a Mission and the group sent her to Amsterdam to work with victims of human trafficking in the Red Light District and study for similar work in Cambodia.
“I wasn’t really interested in politics initially,” Gursky said. “But I was really interested in how policy affects our lives.”
She didn’t wait for graduation to dive deeper into politics. She began her political career at UM, preceding Zach Brown as president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana. 
Brown said Gursky was a dedicated mentor as he began his term, even while she was in the heat of her campaign for the House last fall.
He said Gursky’s powerful leadership as president paved the way for ASUM to deal more professionally with administrators, politicians and the Board of Regents. 
Gursky graduated last May with a degree in political science emphasizing international relations and a minor in international development studies – just three weeks before winning the Democratic primary for HD-98. 
When it comes to getting involved, Gursky, 32, advises students to be bold.
“Don’t dip your toe in, just jump,” she said. “Any campaign that you can help in, any way that you can get connected in your community. Politics is really a hands-on sport.” 
But it’s not a sport for everyone, which Brown has learned. He said a career in politics used to interest him, but his current post has made him reconsider. The job didn’t have that effect on Gursky.
“She’s got the personality for it and she’s really good at what she does,” Brown said of his predecessor. “And she likes it and that’s amazing.” 
Though politics may suit her, Brown said Gursky is not a typical politician. 
“I really trust that she genuinely has students’ interests in mind,” Brown said. “You can't always know that kind of thing with politicians.”
Another of her projects, known as the Smart Buildings Initiative, is a collaboration with Brown and other student leaders that she started working on last spring. 
Brown said the bill would encourage retrofitting state-owned buildings to improve their energy efficiency. The buildings’ owners, such as universities, for example, would get to keep the money they save on energy costs and use it for future projects to improve other buildings.
The concept is popular, Brown said, but so complex that it has taken a year to iron out the details. They’ve just finished drafting the bill and Brown said a House committee should review it before the end of the month.
Gursky also plans to introduce bills dealing with human trafficking in Montana, adoption laws and landlord-tenant issues, among others.
After moving to Helena for the legislative session, Gursky said she misses Missoula’s sense of community, as well as some local restaurants and breweries. 
“I’m not really a big going-out person, but I would kill for a good Cold Smoke,” Gursky said. “They don’t sell it in Helena and it’s killing me.” 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

2013 LegislatureBullock visited campus Friday to advocate tuition freeze and JOBS bill

Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 1:30 am | Updated: 12:55 am, Tue Feb 5, 2013.

Gov. Steve Bullock and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian agreed Friday to freeze tuition if the legislative stars align.
During a visit to the University of Montana, Bullock and Christian promised to stop increasing tuition costs for all Montana University System schools if the Legislature passes House Bill 2. HB-2, also known as the General Appropriations and Revenue Estimate Act, would provide $34 million to cover a tuition freeze.

The agreement is not binding, but ASUM Legislative Lobbyist Asa Hohman described the pact as “a ceremonial way of saying they’re both committed to (the tuition freeze).”
This week, HB-2 is making its way through various subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee.
While Bullock said he thinks the freeze is likely, he encouraged students to participate in the process by contacting their legislators.
“It’s important for you to add the exclamation point,” Bullock said in his speech to students at the University Center Theater.
Bullock said HB-2 would also provide $2 million for dual-credit programs for high school students attending two-year colleges, $2 million for educational services for veterans and $5 million for universal enrollment, which would allow enrolled students to take courses at any MUS school.
He added that 40 percent of Montanans possess some form of higher education degree, and he hopes to see that number increase to 60 percent. Bullock said the dual credit program is one way to accomplish that goal.
Earlier in the afternoon, the governor toured Missoula College to promote its expansion and House Bill 14. HB-14, or the Jobs and Opportunity by Building Schools bill, would raise $29 million in bonds for the project. 
“You all do an incredible job in shaping these kids,” Bullock said to a group of Missoula College professors he met on the tour. “But we have an obligation to provide you with adequate facilities.”
However, Bullock did not take a position on the controversial issue of the location of the potential Missoula College expansion.
“Teaching students who are paying tuition in a trailer is unacceptable,” Bullock said, referring to the eight trailers used as classrooms at the college. Applause met this comment.
The former College of Technology became affiliated with UM in 1994 and was re-named Missoula College in May 2012. The facilities originally intended to accommodate only 700 students now serve almost 3,000.
Hohman, the ASUM lobbyist, was once among those students.
After graduating high school with a 1.75 GPA, Hohman, 26, said he took several years off from school before enrolling at Missoula College and finding success. He made the Dean’s List his first semester and has since been an active student.
“I really had the support I needed there to find my academic stride,” Hohman said.
Anyone can leave a voice message for a legislator by calling 406-444-4800. To leave a message for the governor, call 406-444-3111. 

House Republican leads charge to toughen voter registration laws, sever late registration

Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 1:15 am | Updated: 12:36 am, Tue Feb 5, 2013.

A state bill asking legislators to end same-day voter registration passed the House of Representatives Friday and heads to the Senate.

House Bill 30, sponsored by Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, would require voters to register by 5 p.m. the Friday before an election. Late registration is currently available until the polls close Election Day.
Washburn said the change would ease the workload of county employees tasked with running an election and assisting late registrants on the same day.
“It’s an insane process to expect them to try and do both,” Washburn said. Just like how everybody will wait to do their grocery shopping until the day before the Super Bowl and then it’s a mad house.”
The House must vote on a bill twice before it moves to the Senate. For this type of bill to pass, the legislation requires a simple majority. Washburn said both votes in the House followed party lines, with Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats opposing it. 
“It’ll be the same in the Senate, too,” Washburn predicted.
The Senate consists of 29 Republicans and 21 Democrats. The conservative majority is even greater in the House, with 61 Republicans and 39 Democrats.
Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, has been an outspoken opponent of HB-30, which he said echoes a national trend of legislation aiming to suppress voter rights.
“I honestly believe it’s one of the worst bills we will see this session because it strikes at the core of our democracy,” Bennett said. “We need to ask the people who are pushing these bills who it is that doesn’t deserve the right to vote.”
Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, expressed a similar sentiment in an interview last week.
“I think we have to be careful any time we’re making it more difficult to vote,” Bullock said.
However, he did not say whether he would continue former Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s precedent of vetoing Republican-sponsored bills.
“I’m frankly hopeful that if the bills they put on my desk are about improving education and creating jobs, then there won’t be a need to veto,” Bullock said.

Monday, February 4, 2013

This is my first story in the Montana Kaimin, as it appears on montanakaimin.com. I will continue to post my Kaimin stories here, on my home page.

Missoula College bill crawling through state committees

Controversial House Bill 14 would raise $29 million dollars in bonds for Missoula College
    Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 1:15 pm | Updated: 6:06 pm, Tue Jan 29, 2013.

After months of debate in Missoula, state legislators are reviewing a bill that could finally determine the location and funding of the proposed Missoula College. 
ASUM President Zachary Brown and vice president Bryn Hagfors spent part of winter break in the Capitol talking to legislators about the college.

“In Helena, it seems like Missoula College is all there is to talk about,” Hagfors said. “There’s a ton of buzz going on about it.”
Much of that buzz is from House Bill 14, which would raise $29 million in bonds to help build the $47 million college. Hagfors attended a subcommittee meeting on the bill Monday morning.  
“It has a very strong chance of passing out of subcommittee,” Hagfors said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
If the subcommittee approves the bill, it will move to the full House Appropriations Committee. If it passes the full committee, it would require a two-thirds majority vote to pass the Senate and House because bonding requires the state to take on debt.
The subcommittee will likely vote on the bill later this week.
While Hagfors said he hopes the bill will pass, not all Missoulians support HB-14. The group Advocates For Missoula’s Future has been a vocal critic of the plan to build the college on part of the UM golf course.
“We do not want to appear as obstructionists,” said Sally Peterson, an AFMF volunteer who is pursuing a doctorate in community college leadership and administration. “We want a Missoula College, just a different location.”
Peterson said if HB-14 passes, the location discussion will be over because the funding will be available to start building on the golf course.
Instead, Peterson thinks the west campus at Fort Missoula should be expanded and the entire Missoula College should be unified at that location. She said this plan would give the college room to grow, keep the golf course open for recreational use and avoid over-crowding the university district.
Peterson also said she believes the west campus would be a better site for the college to increase the number of programs offered.
“A two-year college doesn’t have to be just culinary arts and health,” Peterson said, adding that community colleges function better independently.
Hagfors contends that it would be better to keep the college close to the main campus because Missoula College students pay the same fees as four-year students, so they should have equal access to services like recreational facilities, advising and ASUM.
While others debate the location, Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, said he is more concerned with finding a way to fund the college without taking on debt through bonding. He said a new Missoula College is necessary, but he wants to pay for it by establishing a state savings account for this type of project.
“We’ll build the things that we need to build,” Edmunds said, “But we shouldn’t borrow money to do it.”