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Montana Editorial Roundup

January 10, 2019

Billings Gazette, Jan. 9, on Montana DUI law needing update to curb repeat offenders:

The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office has been filing more than 100 felony DUI cases a year. That total is even more compelling when considering that a driver’s first three DUI convictions are misdemeanors under Montana law. Unfortunately, The Gazette often carries reports of repeat offenders who have five or more DUI convictions.

All DUI offenders put the public at risk, but repeat offenders pose the greatest risks because they drive drunk habitually.

A comprehensive update of Montana’s DUI law introduced in the 2019 Legislature proposes to make the consequences of felony DUI clear and commensurate with the enormous risk to public safety if these repeat offenders get behind the wheel.

In Senate Bill 65, introduced by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, at the request of the Montana Attorney General’s Office, the penalty range for fourth offense DUI would stay the same: 13 months to two years in prison with a requirement for the offender to complete the six-month WATcH DUI treatment program at Warm Springs or Glendive facilities as part of the sentence.

SB65 would make the penalties more severe for fifth and subsequent DUI’s. The penalty range would be 5-25 years. On a fifth offense, the offender would have to serve at least three years. On subsequent offenses, the offender would have to serve at least five years.

“I wholeheartedly support the DOJ DUI bill,” Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito told The Gazette recently. “While Montana has made significant improvement in all areas of DUIs for years, DOJ’s efforts are admirable. From simplification of the DUI code, elimination of conviction lookback, and more significant possible penalties for repeat felony DUI offenders, it is a comprehensive approach for what is still a significant problem.”

Twito has been especially concerned that a 2017 law actually reduced the possible penalties that had been imposed for fifth and subsequent DUI offenses by narrowing the definition of how the Persistent Felony Offender statute can be used. The new law excluded DUI, so the worst repeat DUI offenders could not be sentenced to more than 2 years.

Reversing the effect of that 2017 law is a top priority in 2019 for the Montana County Attorneys Association.

The 74-page SB65 would make numerous other changes, including:

— When sentencing on second and third DUI offenses, judges would be required to order offender participation in monitoring programs (such as 24/7 Sobriety) and installation of an ignition interlock device on the offender’s vehicles.

— Nearly one in five people arrested for DUI refuse the breath test they are required to take as a condition of having a Montana driver’s license. To ensure that accurate evidence can be obtained, SB65 would allow law enforcement officers to get a search warrant from a judge to take a blood sample when a suspect refuses a breath test on first-time DUI arrests. Search warrants already can be obtained when drivers with previous convictions refuse a breath test.

SB65 has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Regier chairs. Sens. Margie MacDonald and Jen Gross of Billings serve on the committee, along with Sen. John Esp of Big Timber. We call on these area lawmakers to support the DUI law changes that will make our roads safer for everyone.

According to preliminary information from the Montana Highway Patrol, alcohol is suspected of being a factor in 63 traffic fatalities in 2018, and other drugs are suspected in 23 traffic deaths.

Curbing DUI will save lives in Montana.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2LYI8mT


Montana Standard, Jan. 7, on needing collaboration, progress from Legislature:

Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed an ambitious and comprehensive budget plan for the Legislature to begin considering next week.

He is insisting on a meaningful rainy-day fund — a reserve of $300 million. In previous sessions, Republicans have pushed back on that, saying the state doesn’t need such a big cushion.

Several other things in the budget will doubtless cause friction. Bullock proposes an increase in the tax on tobacco, a renewal of Medicaid expansion, and an undeniably needed $290 million infrastructure package that contains a couple of items some that have been flash points with Republicans in the past — funding for the Romney Hall renovation at Montana State University and new construction for the Montana Historical Society.

Beyond that, he seeks to expand and continue the state’s investment in early education; freeze college tuition; and invest in financial aid for students, including returning adult learners.

The key debates will surround Medicaid expansion and infrastructure.

In 2015, a group of Republicans in the Legislature worked with Democrats to expand Medicaid. The proposal has resulted in Montana’s rate of uninsured dropping from 20 percent down to about 7 percent. Nearly 100,000 Montanans - nearly 10 percent of the population, including many veterans — have become insured under the program.

Uncompensated health care costs have dropped by nearly 50 percent since the expansion passage, throwing a lifeline to many rural and smaller hospitals in the state.

Some Republicans are saying we just can’t afford that kind of progress - that the price tag is simply too high.

Bullock argues that expansion has actually paid big dividends, infusing $500 million in new dollars into the state’s economy.

There are many ways to look at this, we understand. We appreciate the concern of those who say the price of such coverage is not sustainable in Montana. But we believe the price of rolling expansion back ultimately would be much steeper. We fully expect that a coalition similar to that of 2015 will extend expansion. There is certainly a chance that new work rules may go into effect, and while those are well-intentioned, to protect taxpayers from getting soaked by those who simply want coverage without working, such rules have led to bigger government and more expense in states like Arkansas. Some have asserted that the bureaucratic apparatus of job-rule verification in the state greatly outstripped the rule’s benefits, and caused confusion and disruption.

We are neither convinced that the current system is unsustainable or that it is being widely abused by those who don’t wish to work - particularly since the state’s unemployment rate is even lower than the nation’s.

In fact we believe expansion has greatly helped small businesses in Montana who are unable to offer their employees company insurance plans.

Bullock points out that the expansion has saved the state money as well as expanding the economy, because of the higher federal share of the cost under the program. He says that if expansion is allowed to sunset in Montana, federal funds will simply transfer to other states. His office asserts that 7 of 10 people on Medicaid are working and 8 of 10 live in working families. In fact, the governor is proposing additional money to help with job services for Medicaid recipients so that even more of them can find work.

We know that words will be sharp on both sides of the aisle, but we hope that leadership, in the main, can avoid the kind of acrimony and lack of collaboration that marked the 2017 session.

One encouraging sign, we believe, is the support by many key Republicans of a measure to remove supermajority requirements to move bills in the House of Representatives.

If Democrats and Republicans can truly work together in the coming session, we will see significant progress on issues like health care, education and infrastructure — something that the state has desperately needed for a long time.

We encourage Montanans to keep in close touch with their elected representatives in the Legislature during the session and to make known their preference for progress and collaboration, not gridlock and acrimony.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2FkZGt1


Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Jan. 6, on investigating sex crimes needing to become priority:

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox deserves full support from state lawmakers for his plan to make sexual assault investigation procedures uniform with full access to investigative information by victims. And he should get the funding he needs to make it happen.

It’s hard to know exactly, because victims can be reluctant to speak about their ordeal, but sexual assault is believed to be the most underreported of all crimes. By some estimates as few as one in 10 are reported. The reluctance comes from prosecutors unwillingness to prosecute cases that are complex and difficult to prove. It also stems from knowledge that victim-blaming is a common defense in rape charge defenses.

Under Fox’s proposal, hospitals and clinics where rape evidence is collected would be required to send them to the state crime lab where they all will be tested. Victims would also be able to keep track of the evidence online at any stage of the process. And under Fox’s plan, defense lawyers would no longer be allowed use victim-blaming as a primary defense.

Fox, a Republican, put some of his proposals in place informally after some 1,400 rape kits were discovered that had never been tested for foreign DNA. The kits were uncovered in 2015 and some dated back as far as 20 years. That’s an unforgivable lapse in law-enforcement protocol and clear evidence of a system that is broken and does not give the attention to sexual assault it deserves. The proposed legislation would make the procedural changes permanent in state law.

The overarching issue will be bipartisan. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has also squared off with the problem by proposing funding for an additional forensic scientist in the state crime lab. Bullock said an 88 percent increase in case load over the last five years — largely fueled by time-consuming sexual assault cases — is preventing the lab from completing its work in a timely manner.

Sexual assault tends to languish in the shadows of our social dialogue. But anyone who has been a victim or has a loved one who has been knows how serious the impacts of this insidious crime can be.

It’s time these cases are given the priority they are due. Fox’s legislation would be a big step in that direction.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2CbKDNX

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