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Montana Editorial Roundup

May 1, 2019

Missoulian, April 28, on the legislative process in Montana:

At the end of the 2019 legislative session, Montanans can congratulate our lawmakers for a number of significant accomplishments. From continuing Medicaid expansion to enhancing public safety, legislators were able to reach agreement on many controversial issues of critical importance, and pass bills to keep Montana moving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the winding road legislators took to achieve some of these results also left more than a few Montanans feeling nauseous.

Every session sees its share of secretive discussions, vote-trading and deal-making, but this year’s session was undoubtedly one of the most convoluted in recent memory. A relatively few bills enjoyed a straight path from introduction to passage, while too many others were gutted, restored, tabled and then transferred from one committee to another before eventually dying or finding their way to the governor’s desk for signature.

In the process, legislators sometimes found themselves scrambling to understand what changes had been made to legislation just before they were called to vote on it. Transparency and public participation suffered as legislative meetings were held on short notice and votes cast without discussion. And the public’s trust in our legislative branch was shaken — not just once, but again and again.

Earlier this month the Montana Newspaper Association and Freedom of Information Hotline operator noted a troubling pattern of legislators meeting on official public business without giving proper notice, as outlined in a letter from Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who specializes in right-to-know laws. Legislative staff responded that the meetings were the unintended result of miscommunication, while Republican majority leadership argued that certain meetings were in fact exempt from public notice requirements. In any case, the public was deprived of its constitutional right to participate in open government.

Instead of seeking to do business in secret, lawmakers should always push to make all legislative business as open to the public as possible, and that means providing sufficient public notice even when it concerns matters they don’t view as important. It’s up to members of the public to decide what’s worth following, after all, not legislators.

Of course, Montanans are savvy enough to recognize that a certain amount of strategizing is necessary to build support between groups with different priorities. But when members of a particular committee form a quorum and direct legislative staff to draft amendments to specific legislation, that’s a different matter entirely.

Montanans also understand the difference between legislators meeting with a constituent privately to hear concerns about particular legislation, and legislators allowing powerful constituents to essentially write legislation without public discussion.

The latter appears to be what happened to several bills, including those aimed at improving oversight of private residential treatment programs for troubled teens. The Missoulian published a series of news stories detailing some of the serious problems that have gone on within these programs for years, with no meaningful consequences or corrective action. And legislators have attempted for years to close loopholes, only to see their proposed bill die quiet deaths with little discussion.

This session, that investigative series, and powerful public testimony from former students, helped bring enough attention to the issue to finally make some long overdue headway, and a bill was passed to transfer oversight from a board stacked with program owners to an independent agency with expertise in children’s safety, health and education.

Unfortunately, it was first stripped of important provisions after an individual legislator met in private with program owners and then amended the bill to better suit the owners’ wishes. Thus a requirement for programs to develop health and safety standards was deleted without public discussion. Earlier, the bill was also stripped of a requirement that program employees have training or qualifications for their job.

If program owners have some good reason for objecting to these common-sense requirements, they have yet to state them in a public hearing. Meanwhile, legislators never got to hear the other side of the argument for keeping those requirements.

Unfortunately, even duly noticed, publicly debated bills fell victim to legislative hostage-taking and vote-trading this session. A bill to fund the Montana Heritage Center, for example, was briefly derailed after Democratic leadership decided to tie their support for it to an unrelated bill. They sought to help maneuver the unrelated bill into a conference committee that would then make sweeping additions using language from a third bill that had garnered a wave of public opposition and ultimately failed on its third reading in the House.

If that sounds unnecessarily confusing, that’s because it is. If only they were willing, legislators could consider each bill in a more straightforward manner. Ideally, each bill should be weighed on its own merits, and legislators should vote accordingly — not because their vote for one matter hinges on a vote for another.

Of course, Montana’s legislative gears grind for about three months every two years in a way that is too often less than ideal. The old adage about never watching laws nor sausages being made remains relevant today for good reason.

But Montanans must resist the inertia to accept such maneuvering and recognize the ever-present threat to our right to know and participate in open government. It’s up to everyday residents and voters to pay close attention and let legislators know that such gamesmanship is unacceptable. Montanans expect better.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2XW7iXP

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Billings Gazette, April 28, on the passage of human trafficking legislation:

The laws of Montana will change next month to protect children and vulnerable adults from predators who would force them to sell their bodies to survive. The human trafficking legislation that Gov. Steve Bullock is expected to sign in coming weeks is one of the 2019 Legislature’s greatest public safety achievements.

The Yellowstone County delegation too seldom works together on local priority, but the anti-trafficking bills are a notable exception. Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, introduced Senate Bill 147 that make crucial changes in criminal law to punish the perpetrators of modern days slavery while protecting their victims. Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, carried SB147 in the House where it received overwhelming bipartisan support. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and deputy attorneys on his staff assisted in drafting this bill to take on a crime that is more pervasive in Billings than anywhere else in the state.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, carried House Bill 749, which will fund the first-ever Montana law enforcement investigators dedicated to stopping human trafficking — two officers in the state Criminal Investigation Bureau in the Department of Justice. Zolinkov’s bill requires all businesses offering massages to post the licenses of all persons working there as massage therapists and also authorizes Montana law enforcement officers to enter these businesses to check compliance with the license requirement. Those provisions are aimed at illicit massage parlors and spas where the menu includes sex acts. The women working at such brothels typically were forced into this type of work early in their lives, often as adolescents. Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, carried HB749 in the Senate.

The success of SB147 and HB749, depended on many lawmakers. Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point, worked with Zolnikov the anti-trafficking legislation he sponsored. Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, introduced a bill designed to allow law enforcement officers to trace the massage parlor owners who enrich themselves by exploiting other people. Karjala’s bill was tabled in committee, so there’s more work to be done in the next legislature.

It’s no coincidence that Billings lawmakers took the lead:

—Earlier this month, a Billings man was arrested on charges of prostituting two women at King Spa and A Spa in Billings.

—The FBI has reported that there are still 13 suspected illicit spas or massage parlors operating in Billings. The FBI has exactly one Montana agent dedicated to enforcing laws against human trafficking. Until the new state unit is operating, Special Agent Brandon Walter is the only officer in Montana working full time against trafficking.

Walter and Cady were among several speakers at the second annual Red Sand Project Thursday in Billings. Billings Zonta Club and the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force organized the event on the Montana State University Billings campus to raise awareness of trafficking.

Speakers included two women who survived sex trafficking and now work to help others escape. They emphasized that predators are able to find and enslave victims because of many factors.

The prevalence of pornography in the internet age warps perspectives on healthy, normal sex. For many people, porn is their sex education. The United States produces and downloads more child porn than any other country on earth. Children are abused for pornography.

Thirty years ago, women stood on downtown Billings street corners offering sex for money. The streetwalkers are no more but sex for hire continues through internet ads and in local massage parlors and spas, Walter told the crowd in MSUB’s Peaks to Plains Park Thursday. A trafficker may make $500 a day off one woman, and control her life so completely that he even dictates what she has for dinner.

The sex customers Walter had encounter in Billings investigations range from a 19-year-old living in his parents’ basement to a wealthy businessman with a home on a golf course.

Some of the sex workers at illicit Billings spas have been in the business so long that they aren’t considered young enough to work in larger cities, so they are brought to Billings, Walter said.

“Billings, Montana, has tolerated this type of activity,” Walter said.

“We need to get prostitution out of our vocabulary,” he said, explaining that every trafficking victim he’s met was forced to have sex for money at some time in her life. Sometimes the trafficker is a family member or a boyfriend. After months or years, selling her body is “normalized” for her.

“This is not what they chose,” Walter said. “They were forced.”

At Tumbleweed, Cady sees “rampant survival sex.” Adolescents and teens who don’t have a safe place to stay sell themselves for food and shelter.

Tumbleweed offers these vulnerable teens and preteens safety and services

Reno Charette, director of the MSUB Native American Achievement Center, works to empower Native women. She sees the connection between human trafficking and the terribly high number of Native women and girls who go missing in Montana.

Tumbleweed in Billings started a program three years ago to help youth and young adults who had been forced or coerced to sell their bodies for sex. The program has already worked with 89 young people who said they were trafficking victims. Most are Billings teens, according to Georgia Cady of Tumbleweed

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2XS0RFi

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Bozeman Daily Chronicle, April 26, on banning texting while driving in Montana:

Arizona became the 48th state in the union recently to enact a statewide ban on texting while driving. It joins 47 other states that have banned texting while driving and 17 others that have banned all hand-held device use. That leaves just two that have not at least banned texting while driving — Missouri and Montana.

Arizona enacted the law after years of trying. Conservative lawmakers resisted the measure arguing it overregulates behavior and contributes to the creation of a “nanny state.” The death of a police officer killed by a distracted driver — along with stories of others who have died in distracted driving accidents — finally carried the day.

Montana is often on the fringe of many state comparisons. This one is one of the most embarrassing. Even notoriously libertarian states like Alaska, Wyoming and Texas have banned texting while driving. And yet Montana has not.

There is overwhelming evidence that using a hand-held cellphone for calling or texting is dangerous — more dangerous than driving drunk. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,166 people died in distracted driving accidents in 2017 alone.

Most Montana cities have banned the practice — including Bozeman. But those ordinances are frequently ignored. On a drive around Bozeman on any given day, multiple drivers can be spotted with a phone to their ear. Responsible drivers who witness this behavior are left to wonder, what’s so important it can’t wait until you come to a stop?

A statewide ban on using hand-held devices while driving would help emphasize the message that doing so can be deadly. Using a hand-held cellphone for calling or texting while driving is a selfish act. Each driver who does so absolves her or his self with the idea that they are different, that they — unlike inferior drivers — will not be driven to dangerous distraction that will endanger others.

The Montana Legislature is about to adjourn, and it’s too late to enact a ban this year. But a law to ban all hand-held cellphone use while driving needs to be at the top of the to-do list for lawmakers when they meet in 2021.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2XRZyWU