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By Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce
UM Legislative News Service University of Montana School of Journalism 

Montana House Bill 2 combines $10 billion of state, federal funding


March 27, 2019

HELENA - The Montana House of Representatives has passed House Bill 2, which combines about $10 billion of state and federal funding for state agencies for the next two years. The bill passed with a vote of 54-45 last week and now moves to the Senate.

House Minority Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, along with every other House Democrat, voted against the bill.

Schreiner said he's opposed to the cuts to full-time positions in the state health and human services department and not appropriating the roughly $30 million for public preschools.

"I think we are close, but we are not there. We had an opportunity today to solve some of these problems, to lead with solutions, and we didn't do that," Schreiner said.

The bill does include about $14 million for a higher-ed tuition freeze, but only $2 million for need-based aid for higher education, not the $5 million requested by Gov. Steve Bullock.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said the House Appropriations Committee had to make tough decisions following big cuts made to the budget during the 2017 regular and special sessions. But, she says she was proud of their work.

"It was an unusual situation that we walked into. It was very, very different from what we normally see. We were down as we started this budget. We made the decision not to raise taxes and we are structurally balanced," Ballance said.

Most amendments to the bill, like providing additional funding the state public defender's office, failed to pass the House.

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee will hear public testimony on the bill this week.

Bill Aims to Prohibit Union Coercion

The Montana Senate has narrowly passed a bill that would make coercion to join a union or prejudice against nonmembers of a union considered unfair labor practices.

House Majority Leader, Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, is carrying House Bill 323. It's based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in which the court ruled that employees who are not members of a union, but benefit from a union's collective bargaining, cannot be required to pay fees to the union.

It cleared the Senate last week 27-22 and passed the House in February 55-42.

When HB 323 was debated on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said it has a simple goal.

"All this bill does is say if you don't want to be part of a union due to religious reasons, you don't have to be," Thomas said.

The bill was amended after its initial hearing in a House committee. Originally, it included stricter regulations for when a union can register new members, but that language was stripped from the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, also spoke on the Senate floor and said he disagrees with the Janus decision altogether.

"The last time I checked, there wasn't anyone who's not paying dues and isn't a member of a union giving back the (pay) increases they have been given. They haven't given back the health benefits that they've been given. They are deriving benefits from collective bargaining," Sesso said.

When the bill was heard in a House committee, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, Eric Feaver, testified to say the public employees union is already in compliance with the Janus decision and that this bill is unnecessary.

HB 323 will move next to the governor's desk and wait to be either signed into law or vetoed.

Bill Would Require Schools to Screen for Dyslexia

Sen. Cary Smith has a personal connection to a bill he is sponsoring in the Montana Legislature that would address how public schools screen for dyslexia.

"I thought that we've know about it for a long time, so obviously we've got great programs going to teach kids with dyslexia how to read, but it didn't turn out that way for us with my granddaughter," Smith said.

Smith, R-Billings, presented Senate Bill 140 to the House Education Committee last Wednesday. The bill, which passed the Senate 50-0 in February, would require Montana's school districts to screen for dyslexia, a learning disability, between Kindergarten and second grade.

Smith said schools have not done enough to help dyslexic children, and that early intervention is critical to a student's success. Superintendent of Public Instruction, Elsie Arntzen, spoke in support of the bill.

Esme Bartuska, a 9-year-old dyslexic student from Missoula, told lawmakers she has not felt supported in school.

"I felt that I was being told everyday that I am not smart enough, that I do not try hard enough, and that I do not work fast enough," Bartuska said.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, one in five students has a language-based learning disability, and dyslexia is the most common.

The bill has 110 cosigners from both sides of the aisle. No one opposed the bill.

Lawmakers Consider Safe Harbor For Pregnant Women Seeking Addiction Treatment

In 2017, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported that approximately 100 babies every year experience drug withdrawal in Montana.

Now, in an effort to lower that number, lawmakers are considering a bill to help pregnant women with addictions.

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, is carrying Senate Bill 289, which would provide a safe harbor from prosecution for pregnant women who seek addiction treatment.

"If by coming in for healthcare you are admitting to a felony, that's a real disincentive for people to get healthcare," Sands said.

The bill passed the Senate 50-0 and has moved to the House. It builds on another bill, which was tabled earlier this session, from Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula.

Dudik's House Bill 309 would have created the same safe harbor as SB 289, but also would have created a grant program through DPHHS to help local health providers create drug treatment programs for pregnant women. That bill likely won't move forward.

Sands says the Montana Healthcare Foundation already has a similar grant program to assist hospitals in implementing best practices for addicted moms and babies in neonatal units.

Benefis Health System in Great Falls received one of these $150,000 grants from the foundation. A representative for Benefis, Jessie Luther, supported the bill at its hearing in the House Human Services Committee last Monday.

"Mother and baby do statistically better if they're able to receive safe harbor and start receiving treatment early," Luther said.

According to the healthcare foundation's website, Benefis is using the grant to implement screening, brief intervention, and referral to care into its routine treatment of pregnant women. It will also partner with communities and tribes to encourage other health providers to implement similar models.

The Montana Medical Association, the Montana Primary Care Association, the Association of Montana Public Health Officials and Billings Clinic support the measure. No one spoke in opposition.


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