Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Perfect Storm

If you’ve been paying attention at all to the state’s current budget crisis, you already know that legislative Republicans have been doing their damnedest to deny any responsibility for fixing the mess, let alone acknowledging they created it in the first place.  As far as they’re concerned, it’s up to the governor to balance the budget with brutal spending cuts, and they refuse to recognize, or admit, that those cuts could do serious damage to essential government programs.

Earlier this week the Republican House leadership attempted to rationalize this remarkable callousness in a Missoulian guest column claiming that “Montana has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” It was a valiant effort, I suppose, but what it produced was a perfect storm of shoddy reasoning, mangled facts and selective memory. This gets a little tedious, but bear with me.

According to these Republican luminaries, the “root cause of Montana’s budget challenges” is that the state is “simply spending too much money,” and by way of evidence, they cite the fact that since 2012, general fund revenue is up 14 percent while spending is up by 32 percent. Now if we are trying to figure out if we have a “spending problem” or a “revenue problem,” by itself this comparison is of no earthly use. The numbers no more support a claim that we are spending too much than that we are not raising enough revenue to meet our needs. 

And there’s another problem here: it’s always possible to cherry pick starting and ending dates for a comparison like this that tend to prove whatever point you are trying to make, and in fact, that’s what these guys did in this instance. Look at the top chart below, which shows General Fund revenue and expenditures since 2002.* In 2012 taxes exceeded expenditure, and this year, 2017, it was the other way around. Pick two years like that, and necessarily (it’s just arithmetic) expenditures are going to grow faster than revenue. But what the top chart also shows is that in the long run, expenditures and revenue track each other pretty closely. And how could it be otherwise? We are required by the constitution to balance the budget, which means, in the end, that we cannot spend more that we take in.

If a transitory imbalance between spending and revenue can’t really tell us where our “problem” lies, what can? Well, to me it seems reasonable to say we have a spending problem if we’re spending more than we need to or can afford, given the productivity of the state’s economy and the income it‘s capable of generating. And we have a revenue problem if the revenue we are collecting falls behind what we can afford and is needed to fund essential programs.

Republican leaders seem to kind-of get that, when they claim that revenue growth has been adequate because it has outstripped both inflation and the growth of population combined. But that combination is not a good measure of the level of economic activity, income, or what we can afford; those are best measured by gross state product, which is basically the total value of everything - goods and services - that we produce in the state and ultimately, the source of our material well being. Look at the second chart: since 2002, the growth of state spending and revenue has fallen significantly behind the growth of gross state product. There is no indication here that we have spent beyond our means; on the contrary, we could afford to do more, and we certainly can afford to do what we are doing now. 

The House leaders also claim that 14 percent growth in revenue since 2012 must be enough because  after all, “Most Montana families have not seen their income grow by 14 percent since 2012.” Where they got this factoid is anyone’s guess,** but it really doesn’t matter: the comparison of total tax collections to individual family incomes is meaningless. What is instructive is the fact that while total tax collections were rising by 14 percent, total personal income earned by Montanans rose by 19 percent.

The House leadership tries to explain the glaring disconnect between a high performing economy and sluggish revenue growth by invoking what they call the “long term trend of trading high-paying natural resource jobs for lower-paying service and tourism jobs.” We might imagine that that shift has reduced average earnings and depressed tax collections, except for the fact that average earnings have risen, not fallen, and income tax collections have risen, not fallen, with respect to personal income.***

In the end, of course, all this Republican nonsense about a “spending problem” is intended to rid them of any responsibility for going back to Helena and working on a reasonable solution to the current budget crisis. As they see it, if the problem is spending, the solution is cuts. And if it’s cuts we need, well then the governor has the power to make them and ought to get on with the job. All he has to do is fire some of those useless, unneeded state government employees, never mind the fact that the number of state employee positions funded has fallen since 2011. Look:

The real irony in all this Republican whining about a “spending problem” is that if we have one, it is the product of budgets created by Republican controlled legislatures ever since Steve Bullock moved into the governor’s office.**** If we are spending money on things we don’t need or can’t afford, or if there are too many people on the public payroll (and I don’t think any of that is the case) then the Republicans have only themselves to blame. But instead of blaming themselves they’re dumping the whole mess on Steve Bullock’s desk and shouting over their shoulders as they walk out of the room, “Here, governor, fix this because we sure as hell won’t!”

* All three charts in this post are from a report prepared by the Legislative Fiscal Division at the Montana Legislature.

** It may be right, of course. Given the growth of income inequality, it is true that a majority of Montana families experience below average growth in income. A disproportionate share of all income growth is captured by a relatively small segment of the population.

*** The impact on average earnings of the shift away from natural resource employment is really pretty small (shameless plug: see Post Cowboy Economics, by Tom Power and yours truly) and the Republican writers can only bizarrely defend their claim that the shift has crimped tax collections by citing budget director Dan Villa’s observation that “Timber mills paid property taxes. Hospitals do not.” Of course that has nothing to do with wages: hospitals pay lower property taxes because they are largely tax exempt. And in 2016, hospital pay per job was 143 percent of average pay per job across all industries, making them a pretty poor example of “lower-paying service and tourism jobs.”

****Please note: The budget passed by the 2017 legislature contains more spending than the governor asked at the start of the session. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Lean Times

No less a news outlet than the Washington Times is reporting today that House Speaker Austin Knudsen, whose economic ideology fits that of the Times to a tee, is defending almost $100 million in looming budget cuts because they are “doing what they are supposed to: Reducing the size of state government in lean economic times.”

Well, that’s not really quite right. What those cuts are supposed to do is balance the state’s budget at a time when we are collecting less tax revenue than we expected.  The Montana constitution says that the budget must be balanced, and as long as the Republican majority obstinately refuses to increase any tax at all, the only way to do that during “lean economic times” is to cut spending.*

Of course for the Republicans, if a collateral effect of balancing the budget is to reduce the size of state government, they’re all in. What the hell: in their world, reducing the size of state government is always a good idea, even if it means reducing spending and the provision of vital government services at the moment they’re most needed, i.e. during lean economic times. It’s a notion that flies in the face of the common sense observation that government spending ought to be counter-cyclical; it should grow faster that the economy during downturns, and slower than the economy during booms.

It’s provisions of Senate Bill 261 from the 2017 session that are creating the mess we are currently contending with. In the long run, the bill establishes a reserve fund that will stabilize the budget by allowing a modest decoupling of spending and taxes; when that happens, it will be a good thing. We won’t be forced to reduce  the size of government during lean economic times.

But the way SB 261’s written, spending in the immediate future - over the next biennium  - is very sensitive to the amount of revenue we collected last fiscal year.  I’ll spare you the grizzly details; but suffice it to say that the cuts that are triggered will severely impact agencies serving the elderly and the disabled, the university system, and the schools. That may gratify the Speaker by reducing the size of state government, but it’s really not what we want to be doing.

*During the 2017 session there were bills to increase taxes on tobacco products, alcohol, the profits that corporations doing business in Montana hide in tax havens and very high individual incomes. Needless to say, not one of those bills passed.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sticking with the Paris Accords

In the wake of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, a bunch of governors, mayors and business executives have announced their intention to stick with the Paris commitments. There has also been active organization in support of the agreement among state legislators (you can read the details at the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators website); in Montana, a group of us sent the letter below to Governor Bullock, urging him to join in the effort.

Dear Governor Bullock:

As legislators who are profoundly concerned about the threat of climate change, we applaud your recent statements regarding the danger to the people of Montana posed by President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords. Like you, we recognize that climate change can only be arrested through international collective action that includes the committed participation of the United States. In withdrawing from the Paris accords, the President has abandoned that commitment, and, sadly, American global leadership in general. While it is true that the remaining signatories have pledged to forge ahead, we believe that the accords have been seriously destabilized, and the potential consequences of that destabilization, for Montana and indeed the whole world, are extraordinarily serious.

But all is not lost. Numerous governors, state legislatures, mayors and businesses have stated their intention to honor the United States’ Paris commitments despite the President’s decision to withdraw them. We believe that these actions are essential to sustaining the Paris agreements until the Federal government is once again able to conduct itself in a responsible manner, and we believe that Montana should join in that effort.

Specifically, we believe that Montana, under your direction, should commit itself to firm, quantitative, and verifiable reductions in statewide greenhouse gas emissions.

We recognize that technically, economically and politically such a commitment will be very challenging, but we are confident that it is within the resources of your office to initiate the analysis and planning required to put emissions reduction efforts in place, and we stand ready to work with you as we move forward. We believe that the efforts of Governor Schweitzer’s Climate Change Advisory Commission in 2008 and of the Department of Environmental Quality in 2014 (in response to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan) provide useful models of how to proceed as well as an important existing cache of information regarding emissions reduction strategies.

Regardless of how they are undertaken, we believe that the following are the minimum necessary steps for developing and implementing an emissions reductions plan:

1.     Development of an emissions inventory and monitoring system capable of verifying that target reductions are being met.
2.     Identification of effective strategies for reducing emissions. Many of these - particularly those associated with electrical generation, such as improved efficiency, replacement of fossil fuels with renewables, carbon capture and storage, and so forth - are already well known. Others, especially those related to the transportation and industrial sectors, less so.
3.     Determination of the cost of various strategies and of the least cost combination of strategies capable of producing targeted emissions reductions.
4.     Analysis of the policy measures and, in particular, the legislation required to implement the least costly combination of strategies. This analysis should include market-based policies such as carbon taxes, offsets and bubbles, cap and trade, interstate and intraregional emissions trading, and the like.
5.     Because capping emissions will inevitably lead to a transformation in the way energy is produced and transportation is managed, an assessment of the impacts of the policy on adversely affected communities, industries, occupations and income groups is essential, as well as the identification of measures needed to ameliorate those impacts.

We understand that mandating and achieving meaningful reductions in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions is going to be no easy feat. We understand as well the compelling logic of doing nothing, avoiding the costs of action, and benefiting from the efforts of others. But that logic, compelling as it might be, is myopic. If it applies in Montana, it applies with equal force in California and Hawaii and China and France, and ultimately leads to paralysis. To see beyond that wrongheaded logic requires vision, creativity, and the courage to risk self-sacrifice. In a word, it requires leadership. In our view, to the grave peril of the nation and the world, President Trump does not understand and refuses to exercise the leadership required of him. And so we ask you to step forward, and pledge to support you in this effort.

Rep. Kim Abbott
Rep. Laurie Bishop
Sen. Dick Barrett
Rep. Bryce Bennett
Rep. Zach Brown
Rep. Willis Curdy
Rep. Amanda Curtis

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell
Rep. Janet Ellis
Sen. Tom Facey
Rep. Dave Fern
Rep. John Fleming
Rep. Mofle Funk
Sen. Jen Gross
Rep. Jim Hamilton

Rep. Ellie Boldman Hill
Rep. Denise Hayman
Sen. Margie MacDonald
Sen. Sue Malek
Rep. Shane Morigeau
Rep. Andrea Olsen
Sen. Mike Phillips
Sen. JP Pomnichowski
Rep. Marilyn Ryan
Sen. Diane Sands
Rep. Kathy Swanson
Sen. Cynthia Wolken
Rep. Tom Woods
City Commissioner Andres Hallway, Helena
City Commissioner Rob Farris-Olsen, Helena
Mayor Bob Kelly, Great Falls
Mayor Carson Taylor, Bozeman
County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, Missoula
County Commissioner Nicole Rowley, Missoula
County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, Missoula 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Swiss Cheese

Not for the first time, Fred Thomas is about to make my head explode.

In a YPR interview with Chuck Johnson yesterday, Thomas* suggested that in order to wind up the current legislative session, he (and his caucus, one presumes) need to strike a deal with Governor Steve Bullock. The way it’s supposed to work, the Republicans will throw their support behind an infrastructure bonding bill - which Bullock really wants -  if the Governor will back a bunch of selective tax cuts – which the Republicans really want. Of course it’s not just Republican legislators who like these tax cuts. The beneficiaries – international corporations who shield their Montana profits from taxation, high income venture capitalists, telecommunications companies, high rollers who promise to build data centers, companies that are required (oh, the outrage of it!) to install pollution control equipment – also think they are pretty peachy.

What I don’t get is how Thomas can keep a straight face when he proposes a deal like this and then claim, in the same breath, to be fiscally responsible. What we’re gonna do, apparently, is swallow hard and borrow a bunch of money, and then take a big bite out of the future revenue stream we need to pay the money back! How does that compute? And if we are going to be building infrastructure with the money we borrow, why in God’s green earth shouldn’t all these folks agitating for tax breaks help pay for it?

Thomas, bred-in-the-bone supply-sider that he is, will no doubt tell you that these tax cuts will more than pay for themselves! That's because if we offer a tidy "incentive" to these footloose outfits, they swear they'll come to Montana. And if we don't, they’ll go somewhere else. The way Thomas puts it, we need to make Montana “competitive” so they’ll set up shop here. And we know that because they tell us so, over and over again.

When, if ever, will we learn that these guys dangle the same bag of gold in front of the noses of every state legislature in the country? When, if ever, will we learn than when the race to the bottom is finished, we’ll end up with a tax system with more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese, and nothing to show for it?

When, if ever, will we learn that if these guys do end up in Montana, they’ll be demanding not just infrastructure, but police and fire protection and an educated work force and freedom from environmental regulation and subsidized air fares and even more tax cuts?

When, if ever, will we realize that we are dealing with people that are telling us, in so many words, that they are willing to do business in Montana only if they don’t have to pay the same taxes the rest of us poor schmucks do?

When, if ever, will we realize that good tax policy means defending the interests of all the people and businesses that are already here and committed to Montana, who get up every day, send their kids to school, go to work and pay their taxes without complaint and without looking for a handout?

* For those of you not familiar with Treasure State politics, Thomas is the Republican majority leader in the Montana Senate. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Opportunity Knocks

On Monday, when we took up Sen. Jennifer Fielder’s bill creating a constitutional right to fish, hunt and trap, I had that familiar, sinking feeling that the Montana Senate had once again given up on logic for the day.*

The idea is lunatic enough as it is – after all, fishing, hunting and trapping are simply pastimes enjoyed by a minority of the population and in that sense no more worthy of constitutional protection than canoeing or skiing or drinking beer or crocheting or … well, you get the idea.  But then Sen. Fred Thomas doubled down on this foolishness by rising to his feet, voice trembling with righteous indignation, to insist that we had to pass this bill because our “rights are under attack.” I don’t know, but it seems to me that if the bill creates rights that we don’t currently have, it’s hard to see how they’re already under attack.** 

What Fielder and her pals were doing here was protecting their own interests by claiming a right that doesn’t really exist. They want access to public lands, resources and wildlife for their own benefit, and they resent the fact that, particularly in the case of trapping, there are other Montanans who dispute how those lands should be used and how that wildlife should be treated. What better way is there to prevail in that kind of dispute than to claim some imaginary right to do whatever you want, and attack your opponents for suppressing that right?

But Fielder was in something of a quandary when she proposed to create a right and in the same breath assert she already had it. She tried to get out of the mess by claiming that all she was doing was “clarifying” what the voters intended when they added the hunting and fishing provision to the Montana constitution in 2004. You can read that provision (Article IX,Section 7) for yourself, but since all it says is that the opportunity to harvest fish and game is to be forever preserved, you’ll probably be hard pressed to conclude that – oops! – what we really meant was that there’s a right to trap.

Sen. Jed Hinkle, by the way, made a big deal out of that opportunity language. Why, he claimed, we don’t even know what the term means. It can’t be found in a legal dictionary! So when we protected the opportunity to hunt and fish, Hinkle figures, we must have really meant the right to hunt and fish and trap. This linguistic legerdemain might have been a little more plausible if, in his closing comments, Hinkle hadn’t shot himself in the foot by noting that with this bill we had – wait for it – a “great opportunity” to define that most obscure of words: opportunity!

Fielder’s bill to amend the Constitution got out of the Senate with 30 votes aye (all Republican) and 20 votes no (18 Democrats and 2 Republicans).**  It takes the aye votes of 100 legislators to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, so the bill needs 70 votes in the House to move forward, and that probably ain’t going to happen. But you might just give your representative a little nudge to make sure it doesn’t. Opportunity knocks.

*You can listen to the whole sorry debate here.

**Technically, the bill doesn’t actually create a right to fish, hunt and trap. Rather, it asks the voters to put that right into the Montana constitution.

***You can check out how your senator voted here.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Mindless Syllogism

It seems like every time I’ve turned on the television recently, or clicked on an on-line link, I’ve been subjected to House Speaker Austin Knudsen’s repeated video entreaties to call Sen. Tester and insist that he confirm Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Unless you’ve been in a coma or unplugged from the internet, you too have probably seen the Knudsen video. But in case you haven’t, here it is:

Now, admittedly – and this is particularly true in the era of Donald Trump – when it comes to political advertising, tweeting and the like, we can’t expect much in the way of logic or respect for the facts. But I figure that if Knudsen is going to beat us on the head with the same message over and over again, which presumably means he thinks he’s got something worthwhile to say, he’s fair game for a little critical deconstruction. Here then, verbatim, is Knudsen’s pitch:

I’m Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen. I know what it’s like to fight against Washington’s War on the West.  That’s why we need Judge Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. A judge who will interpret the law, not make the law.

The Senate must confirm the President’s nominee. Senator Daines is supporting Judge Gorsuch, but Senator Tester, what’s he waiting for? Call Senator Tester and tell him it’s time to confirm Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Nobody, not even Knudsen himself, could possibly regard this statement, taken at face value, as anything other than absurd. Whether or not we need Judge Gorsuch is an open question, but surely the answer to it doesn’t depend on what Austin Knudsen does or doesn’t know. If Knudsen had stayed home in Culbertson tending to his law practice and had never become familiar with “Washington’s War on the West,” would we not need Judge Gorsuch? Is that what he's telling us?

Well of course not. He’s offering us this ridiculous non-sequitur because as lame as it is, it’s better that the mindless syllogism it’s attempting to cover for. That, apparently, goes something like this.

There is some undefined thing called Washington’s War on the West which is inimical to our (read Tester’s constituents’) interests.

There are laws that would protect these interests from Washington's assault if they were properly upheld.

These laws will be upheld if the Supreme Court is populated by justices who “interpret the law, not make the law.”

Judge Gorsuch will be such a justice.

Ergo, Sen. Tester should support the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch.

While the logic in this line of reasoning makes sense, the problem is with the premises, all of which lie somewhere between being at best arguable and at worst figments of Knudsen’s fevered imagination. So really, it's best not to lay out the argument at all. Just stick to the illogical soundbites.

When it comes to Knudsen’s question – what is Sen. Tester waiting for? – the answer is really pretty simple. As Knudsen says, senators “must confirm the President’s nominee.” Presumably, in doing that, we would like them to know who they are dealing with. Tester recognizes that there is a lot more involved in confirming Gorsuch than discovering his views on the War on the West, whatever that may be. There’s corporate involvement in elections, clean air and clean water, women’s health care, and the sovereignty of tribal nations, for example. Here’s a link to Tester talking about his meeting with Gorsuch on those very issues.

So, Speaker Knudsen, what’s delaying Sen. Tester is the need to act with due diligence, and we should all be glad that’s true. It’s something you might recommend to Sen. Daines, who apparently wouldn’t recognize it if it slapped him upside the head. He certainly didn’t think it was necessary as long as the nomination came from Donald Trump, and when Barak Obama nominated Merrick Garland, he refused to even consider it.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Brutal Disgrace

Seven years ago, when the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Baxter, it freed  Montana physicians from the fear of criminal conviction for providing aid in dying to the terminally ill. Dying patients could request a life ending medication that would allow them to end suffering, to avoid the loss of autonomy that the treatment of terminal illness often brings in its wake, and to have a small measure of control over when and where and with whom to spend their final hours. The court said that in acceding to these requests from adult, terminally ill and mentally competent patients, doctors were clearly acting with their patients’ consent, and accordingly would have an affirmative defense if they were ever charged with a crime.

If that all sounds a bit legalistic, read the decision, because the court also made clear that in providing aid in dying, doctors would be acting in harmony with the rights of the terminally ill, established in law, to be autonomous, to make decisions about their own treatment, and to refuse treatment - even food or water - to hasten their own deaths. Providing aid in dying would recognize these rights and be an act of compassion and respect.

But now Rep.Brad Tschida wants to make it an act of murder.

House Bill 536, which Tschida brought to the House Judiciary Committee last Friday, is brutal in its simplicity and intent. Under the bill, physicians who respond to a request from their patients for aid in dying will no longer be protected. No matter how heartfelt the request, no matter how badly the patient is suffering, no matter how immanent death is, no matter how clear-headedly the patient is acting – no matter any of this, a doctor who honors a request for aid in dying can be charged with murder. The clear desires of the dying patient will be to no avail.

If there is anything more outrageous than this bill itself, it is the hearing it was accorded in the House Judiciary Committee. Because bills like this have been heard in the past, much of the testimony was familiar. Proponents claimed, as they have done over and over again, that providing aid in dying is susceptible to all sorts of terrible abuses, while producing not the slightest shred of evidence that these abuses have ever occurred anywhere, let alone in Montana. Opponents pled for their autonomy and liberty to be respected and told stories of how spouses, or children, or parents died at home, peacefully, and surrounded by family.

All that was to be expected. But what was not to be expected was the careless and callous way in which the hearing was conducted. Faced with a bill of significant social, legal and moral consequence, the committee chairman, Rep. Alan Doane, would allow only half an hour of testimony - fifteen minutes per side. After that time was up, he cut off testimony from opponents who had traveled across the state to testify. When members of the committee tried to elicit testimony from the opponents, he refused to recognize further committee questions.

 I have been in a lot of hearings on a lot of bills, but I have never seen a chairman act as abusively and recklessly as Doane did in the hearing on this bill. His performance was a gross disservice to the public, to his colleagues in the House, and to the duty to govern with intelligence and compassion. You can watch video of this entire sorry episode here.

HB 536 is ugly legislation, and its hearing was an utter disgrace. It is unworthy of the Montana legislature and the people of this state.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Very, Very Unfair

There was a lot of head shaking going on in the Senate Energy Committee recently at the very thought of taxing pollution control and carbon sequestration equipment. How could it possibly be right to impose the business equipment tax on that stuff? After all, companies only install it because the government forces them to, and having it around certainly doesn’t help them make money and stay in business. As Donald Trump would put it, "Very, very unfair!" Right?

Well no, not really. In the interests of both efficiency and fairness, we usually expect any firm that wants to stay in business to cover its costs.  That includes the environmental costs it imposes on the public, which are just as real and economic as wages, utility bills, rent, bank charges, raw material purchases and other costs incurred in markets. How we get firms to internalize (that is, actually pay for) environmental costs varies from case to case. Sometimes we actually price pollution (think carbon tax), but more often we simply cap pollution levels or require the use of pollution control equipment.

So having mandated pollution control equipment on hand does help firms stay in business and make money because it reduces the environmental damage they would be financially responsible for if they didn’t have it. If they complain that pollution control equipment is not a valuable and productive asset, these companies are implicitly claiming that were it not for government, they would have the right to wreak havoc on the environment with no financial consequences.

And if they claim that being made financially responsible for the environmental damage they might do will drive them out of business, so be it. That simply means that whatever they’re producing isn’t worth what it costs to produce it. By the cold logic of the market, they are just too inefficient to keep the doors open.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Unconditional Nonsense

I’ve been getting a small flood of constituent emails in the past couple of days, all of which read as follows:

Dear Senator Richard Barrett:

As your constituent, I respectfully urge you to support House Bill 262 when it comes up for a vote.

This important legislation would allow any law-abiding individual who can legally possess a firearm to carry a handgun for self-defense in Montana without having to obtain a permit to do so.  This bill recognizes a law-abiding adult's unconditional Right to Keep and Bear Arms for self-defense in the manner he or she chooses.

Again, as your constituent, I urge you to support House Bill 262.

Now I’m always happy to hear from constituents, and I’m willing to consider, however briefly, whether or not it’s a good idea to let people walk around carrying a concealed handgun without a permit.  But can we please, please dispense with the absurd claim that anyone has an “unconditional Right to Keep and Bear Arms for self defense in the manner he or she chooses.”

Other than in the febrile imagination of the NRA or the Montana Shooting Sports Association, no such unconditional right exists. It’s not in the Montana Constitution, the common law, the Bible, the Quran or anywhere else. It’s not even in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly said does not prohibit government from conditioning gun rights, by limiting who can have guns, what kind of guns they can have, and where they can take them.

Now I get the rhetoric here. When you want something but can’t make a compelling case for why you should have it, it’s always a good idea to claim it’s yours by right. After all, who wants to take anyone’s rights away? But before you make the claim, you really ought to check and make sure the “right” that’s being taken was ever there in the first place.

It’s not unusual to get a bunch of identically worded emails, but it obviously means that some organization or other has convinced its members to fire off some canned text. That’s okay, if not terribly effective. I don’t know who’s behind this particular email, although it isn’t hard to guess. To whoever it is, I’d say this: please have a little respect for your members. Don’t set them up to fail by having them express opinions that are patently – unconditionally - ludicrous. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Schooled by a Schoolgirl

Last week, when I presented a bill to the Judiciary Committee providing for primary enforcement of the state's seat belt law, Isabelle Earl, who's 15, showed up to testify.

It's important to know something about the hearing room, the august former Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol. The committee sits on elevated benches. The floor is carpeted. There are murals on the ceiling and ornate brass lamps on the wall. In short, a solemn setting which is bound to faze a bit just about anybody who shows up to testify.

But Isabelle did just fine. She spoke in a clear eyed, articulate  and moving way about her cousin, Lauryn Goldhawn, who died earlier this year when the car she was riding in, unrestrained, crashed outside of Fairfield. She pleaded with the committee to pass the bill in the hope that other kids like Lauryn wouldn't lose their lives. She did a great job.

But when it came time for questions from the committee, Sen. Nels Swandal, a former district court judge, had a question for Isabelle. To start with, he didn't remember her name, so he asked for the "young lady in pink" to come to the microphone. And then he asked her, tendentiously, why she thought government should require citizens to do something that's in their own best interests. He didn't insist or expect her to answer the question, in essence instructing her to run along and think about it some more. It was a gratuitous performance and a violation of the unwritten rules of decorum legislators are supposed to follow in dealing with the public.

But Isabelle took it in stride. She did go back and think about Sen. Swandal's question and she came up with an answer. Here it is:

Dear Senator Swandal,

On Thursday, January 12th, I made the decision to testify in front of you and your committee members on behalf of Senate Bill 9. I was extremely nervous to speak in front of people with such power and knowledge, but I did it because I thought that if my voice was heard, it might make a difference and people’s lives may be saved. I understand you Tabled this bill, but what I have to say in response to your question is still important.
After the proponents and opponents spoke, you called me back up to the podium. You asked me, “Why do we need to pass a law to make you do something that is our own best interest?”
I see that you have just started your second term as a Senator, so I am sure you remember your Oath of Office. You swore to support and uphold the Constitution of the United States as well as the State of Montana. In Article 2 Section 3 of Montana’s Constitution, it states:All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life's basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways. In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.”
The phrase “corresponding responsibilities” means that people's decisions affect people other than just themselves. We need laws to prevent chaos. If everybody acted on their own wants and wishes, their actions would undoubtedly infringe upon others’ rights. For example, everyone understands littering is not in our best interest, yet we created laws against this act because it infringes upon other’s rights to a clean and healthful environment. There are many other laws that reinforce our best interest, because even though social responsibility may seem intuitively obvious to some, laws are necessary to clarify it for others. (i.e. shoplifting, trespassing, rape, murder, etc.)
It ultimately is up to our Legislature to pass laws to protect the people of Montana. Wearing a seatbelt is important to protecting the safety of Montanans as was clearly defined by the overwhelming statistics shared by several of the many proponents who spoke in favor of SB9. If you are in an accident, and not wearing your seatbelt, you can endanger the safety of the passengers in your car, anyone in a vehicle around you, the responding emergency crews and healthcare workers. The decision to buckle up is not a decision to be taken lightly.
The point of this law is not to strip someone of their rights, as was claimed by the mere three opponents to this bill. First of all, wearing your seat belt is already the law. In its current capacity, however, we have restricted police officer’s ability to enforce it effectively. People have “lost the right” to NOT wear their seatbelt a long time ago. I believe the opponents forgot this during their testimony, especially when Mr. French admitted to only wearing his seatbelt a portion of his three hour drive to Helena that day.
The fact that this law did not pass completely shocked me. You heard overwhelming testimony from a multitude of experts in their respective fields and on this subject, with minimal meaningful opposition, yet, your committee overwhelmingly made the decision to Table.  Not only does a primary seatbelt law save lives, it saves our state and its taxpayers’ money. (Utah’s statistics prove this to be true, as stated in one of SB9’s proponent’s testimony.) Also, as the representative from the trucking industry stated, we are infringing upon their ability to do business in Montana, because of their increased insurance costs. Therefore, they are incentivized to avoid doing business in our state.
Senator Swandal, just the fact that lives could be saved without financial costs should be convincing enough to pass this law. I’ve lost someone close to me, and I know you understand how hard that can be. This law can help prevent families from these types of tragedies. SB9 (Lauryn’s Law) is what this state needs. Please reconsider and take this bill off the table.

Isabelle Earl
The young lady in the pink.