Citizen involvement in legislative process inspiring

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The idea behind a bill may derive from a state agency, an interest group, a legislator or a constituent.

HB 590, “Revised criminal Procedure Laws to Sexual Offenders” is a bill I am sponsoring, brought to my attention by a constituent and will proceed to the Senate this week. The aim of the bill is to lessen the potential stress inflicted upon child sexual victims through court procedures by allowing victims to opt out of pretrial conferences. Language was added by a helpful county attorney to provide the defense with an exemption for a pretrial conference with the child if a compelling reason is brought forth to the judge. If the bill passes the Senate and is signed by the governor, all credit goes to the constituent and here’s why. I granted permission for the citizen advocate to have access to the bill writer. The three of us convened one late afternoon several weeks back and discussed the intention of the bill. From there on, the bill went through its production process. As we approached the date of our first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, she worked members of the committee, including handouts with a synopsis of the bill and reasons for the request, she networked with a statewide group of advocates which resulted in a flood of emails to committee members. She also contacted the Attorney General’s office, the County Attorney’s Associations and crime victims groups. Ten minutes before the hearing we all met for the first time and organized a strategy amongst those testifying. The sponsor always makes introductory and closing remarks. We also had prepared amendments for the bill, providing the exception language for defense.

The bill came out with a unanimous vote for passage from the committee and went on to full House with a 97-2 vote. You can watch most hearings (and archived hearings), on the Legislative website. The daily House and Senate floor sessions are also streamed live starting at 1 p.m. It is inspiring to see good governance in action with grass roots citizen involvement.

As you read this, the House may have voted on a Medicaid bill. Many hours of negotiations have occurred between to sponsors of the two bills, staff members and the governor’s office. In February, the Montana Healthcare Foundation commissioned a Montana Medicaid Renewal study by the Center for Health Policy at George Washington University. The study was updated on March 10. The short document is a worthwhile read (access it by searching the aforementioned title). According to the report, work and paperwork requirements need to be very carefully crafted and targeted to assure compliance and NOT result in additional numbers of uninsured in the state. The funding formula and votes are there for passage within the House. A bill both Republicans and Democrats can live with is hopefully within grasp.

The House Tax Committee has reviewed two budget estimates from the Legislative Fiscal Division and the Governor’s Office. Last week the revenue estimates were lowered by both offices by 37 million dollars. From the beginning (December 2018), the governor’s budget estimate was $24 million less than LFD. This is compounded by a minimum ending fund balance from Appropriations of about $208 million. The combination of an overly optimistic revenue projection and minimal fund balance can lead to triggers resulting in mandatory cuts. The worst case scenario would be the need for a special session to fix the budget. My preference is a lower estimate and higher ending fund balance. It probably will go in the other direction.

Democrat Dave Fern represents House District 5 in the Montana Legislature.

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