News & Updates
Let’s Spend Some Money
Today is March 16th. It also marks the 55th day of the 2017 Legislative Session. So we’re well over half-way to the finish line.
As is always the case, the heaviest bills come toward the end of the session, and the heaviest of them all is House Bill 2, better known as our State budget. Since the start of the session, the House Appropriations Committee has been meeting daily, crafting a balanced budget that they believe is workable, given the tight revenue side of the equation. Today is the Great Unveiling. The House of Representatives will meet, as they do every two years, in a marathon session that will begin at 8:00 a.m. and could go well into the night. If they don’t finish today, they will continue tomorrow.
In addition to being physically taxing, the debate on the budget is also mentally taxing. Republicans and Democrats will both meet in caucus to get their marching orders from their leadership. For the Republicans, their orders go something like this: We’re in the majority, we’ll responsible for actually passing the budget, and we’re spending what we can afford. Please vote “no” on any amendment that adds money to the budget. For the Democrats, it’s a little different. They’re in the minority, so the budget as currently drafted, doesn’t contain very many of their spending priorities. Their side will introduce amendment after amendment, and their leadership will ask them to vote “yes” on as much of it as they can.
When they walk into the chamber this morning, the first thing the freshmen will notice is that it’s undergone a transformation. Long tables will be placed below the rostrum and along the east wall, and these tables will be filled with legislative accounting staff and banks of computers. Shortly after 8:00 a.m., the games being. They start work with Section A, “General Government,” and proceed section by section until every section of the bill has been opened, debated and closed. After Section A comes Section B, “Health and Human Services,” then Section C, “Natural Resources,” and so on.
Historically, the largest segment of the budget is education at roughly 50%, followed by Health and Human Services at roughly 20%, and Corrections or Prisons at roughly 7 to 10%. The hardest part of the debate, for me, was always the theatrics. This is the last chance for House Democrats to make a statement on the budget, so they will propose amendment after amendment after amendment, every amendment accompanied by several speeches about how the public will be harmed if spending is not increased.
In the past, different constituencies, such as teachers or people with disabilities have been herded into the House gallery to view the debate and apply extra pressure just before the vote. As I said, there’s lots of theatrics. The Democrats will vote “yes” for everything because there’s no pressure. It’s the Republicans’ job to pass a balanced budget, so they have to sit in their seats, endure the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and just keep voting “no.”
Finally, either late tonight or sometime tomorrow, they’ll take the final vote, then send the bill to the Senate where the process begins all over again. Today would be a good day to send your Representative a note of encouragement. They’re making some hard decisions, and they’re doing it on your behalf.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
Some days at the legislature would best be described by Yogi Berra as “déjà vu all over again.” Such was the case yesterday in House Judiciary as we debated Senate Bill 282, a bill that would ban the abortion of viable children. This bill passed the Senate on a straight party-line vote, 32 Republicans voting “yes,” 18 Democrats voting “no.”
With advances in neonatal care, the commonly-accepted point of viability occurs when a fetus reaches 24 weeks gestation. This was not the case when Roe v. Wade was decided, but advances in technology have been dropping the age of viability by about one week per decade. While we believe abortion is abhorrent at any age, it should be readily apparent, even to the most ardent abortion supporters, that killing a viable fetus is beyond the pale. It should be, but it’s not.
And the usual suspects stood before the committee and made virtually the same arguments that they made the day before on the Montana Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The ACLU said the bill was outside the bounds of legal precedent and would be struck down. Planned Parenthood said the decision should be left to a woman and her “doctor.” And the lobbyist from NARAL continued to argue for abortion on demand for everyone, at any age, for any reason, anywhere, at any time, no questions asked.
In my opinion, the thought that a woman can get an objective set of options from an abortionist is laughable. There’s an old saying: When the only tool in your tool belt is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. To an abortionist, the solution to every pregnancy is abortion. It’s sad, but the more I see these people defy simple logic, the more convinced I become that that’s their true position. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Olszewski, who also happens to be an orthopedic surgeon, described late-term abortion and told the committee that delivering a viable fetus after 23 weeks, either vaginally or by C-section, is orders of magnitude safer for the mother than performing an abortion. He was backed up by testimony from an obstetrician and a neonatologist.
When the Planned Parenthood lobbyist was called to the stand to give an example of when an abortion would be safer for the mother than a live birth after 23 weeks, she refused to answer the question. This proves it’s not about the mother, and it’s definitely not about the child. It’s about protecting the billion-dollar abortion industry.
During my testimony, I pointed to Section 41-1-103 of the Montana Code, which says, “A child conceived, but not yet born, is to be deemed an existing person as far as may be necessary for its interest and in the event of its subsequent birth.” This law, first enacted in 1895, and re-enacted several times since then, confers rights on an unborn child from the moment of conception. I concluded by asking the committee if we’ve become so hardened as a society that we now believe it’s reasonable to kill a viable child simply because it’s inconvenient. I hope the answer is “no,” and I pray that they pass the bill.
School Choice on Trial
In some cases when the gavel falls signaling the end of a legislative session, it also means the work has just begun on a bill that the legislature passed. Such is the case with Senate Bill 410 from the 2015 legislative session.
You may recall Senate Bill 410 was the first school choice bill ever enacted in Montana. It allows tax credits for donations made to scholarship-granting organizations, who, in turn, provide scholarships for students to attend the school of their choice, including private, religious schools. These types of programs work well in other states at reducing the dropout rate by allowing students to find a school that fits their particular needs. After the bill became law without the governor’s signature, the Department of Revenue denied participation by religious schools, saying that would violate Montana’s Constitution. Attorney General Tim Fox said the Department’s stance was indefensible and if they got sued, they were on their own. The legislature was even polled and asked if they intended to include religious schools, and they said, “yes.”
At that point, the Department of Revenue refused to back down and lawsuits were filed in both State and Federal court. It appears the educational establishment and the teachers’ union may have been too smart by half. They honestly believe these types of programs were barred by the Montana Constitution. Their hope was to get this law nullified and, thereby, deliver a death blow to any future school choice efforts in our state. The problem is they chose the wrong bill. This law has already been litigated in a similar case out of Arizona, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where our side won.
This case is currently before the District Court in Kalispell, and in a preliminary ruling last April, the court granted our side’s motion for an injunction that stopped the Department from enforcing its rule, which was good, but the real story was the wording of the decision. We won what could only be described as a “resounding victory.” The judge even went beyond the evidence presented to him and pointed to other evidence that shows that the law is Constitutional. As expected, the Department appealed, and that set the stage for a full trial that took place earlier this week. Of course, nothing is for certain and judges are hard to predict, but from our perspective, the hearing went well. The judge asked very pointed questions that at times left the Department of Revenue’s lawyers standing there with that “deer-in-the-headlights” look. The attorney for our side has litigated these types of cases for decades, including the Supreme Court case that I mentioned earlier. He calmly answered every one of the judge’s questions, and in the end, we left feeling hopeful.
Every time school choice is tried in a new state, the education establishment and the teachers’ union fight to stop it. It’s not about the kids, it’s about money and power, and they’re willing to give up neither. The good news is that lawsuits have been filed in 46 states to stop school choice, and we now HAVE school choice in all 46 of those states. Montana will soon become the 47th, because every child deserves to find their perfect educational fit.
I Pledge Allegiance to the World?
Today the House Judiciary Committee will hear Senate Bill 97 by Senator Keith Regier from Kalispell. The bill, although simple in construct, is highly controversial and passed both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate floor on party-line votes. Nearly all Republicans voted “yes” and all Democrats voted “no.” In essence, the bill would prohibit the application of foreign law in state courts when those laws violate a fundamental right guaranteed by either the Montana or United States Constitution. Seems simple enough: Why would a court apply any law from any source that violates Constitutional rights? It defies logic. But this is where logic collides head-on with political correctness.
The issue first came to a head back in 2003 when then Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee and the first woman appointed to the Court, was making a speech to the Southern Center for International Studies. In that speech, she said American courts need to pay more attention to international legal decisions to help create a more favorable impression abroad. She specifically cited the case of Lawrence v. Texas where the court relied partially on European court decisions to overturn a longstanding Texas anti-sodomy law. She then went on to say, “I suspect that over time, we will rely increasingly, or take notice at least increasingly, on international and foreign courts in examining domestic issues.” She concluded by saying that doing so may not only enrich our own country’s decisions but may create that all-important “good impression.”
Justice Ginsberg, when asked to comment on Justice O’Connor’s remarks, said, “I will seek wisdom wherever I can find it.” Justice Stephen Breyer went even further. He said he and Justice O’Connor and others see how the world really is growing together through commerce, through globalization, through the spread of domestic institutions, through immigration to America. It’s becoming more and more one world of many different kinds of people, and how they’re going to live together across the world will be the challenge, and whether our Constitution and how it fits into the governing documents of other nations, I think, will be a challenge for the next generations.
Do you see the flaw in that line of reasoning? Justices O’Connor, Ginsberg, Breyer and others are far too willing to cast our Constitution and our national sovereignty aside for their globalist utopian dreams. If the courts increasingly rely on foreign law, then you and I lose our voice. We have no way to effect foreign law, yet for all intents and purposes, we become subservient to it. Is this what we want? Do we want the laws of China or the Middle East or, heaven forbid, the bureaucratic nightmare of the European union or the United Nations to trump our Constitution?
We applaud Senator Regier for bringing this bill forward, and we encourage Governor Bullock to sign it. National sovereignty equals national freedom. And I, for one, don’t want to be treated as a de facto citizen of another nation.
Israel in Montana?
As lobbyists, we spend long hours in the Capitol speaking on bills and acting as a resource to legislators unfamiliar with our issues. In essence, we’re paid to be experts on a narrow range of subjects. At the Montana Family Foundation, our subjects include life, marriage and family, religious freedom and school choice.
Sometimes, however, we catch wind of a hearing that has nothing to do with our normal range of issues, but has to do with a subject that simply interests us. At that point, we take off our lobbyist hat and appear before the committee to testify on behalf of ourselves as regular citizens. Case in point: Recently, House Bill 501 was heard in the House Stated Ministration Committee. The bill, sponsored by Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, would bar the State Board of Investments from investing any public dollars in companies that boycott the nation of Israel. Great idea, I thought. Israel is a staunch ally of the United States. It’s the only true democracy in the Middle East, and it’s surrounded by nations who have sworn to wipe it off the face of the earth. My wife and I travel to Israel regularly, so I thought I might be able to offer the committee some perspective.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world and even here in the United States. In the past two weeks, Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized in Philadelphia and St. Louis, and companies boycotting the nation of Israel only add fuel to the fire. It’s an international movement called BDS, which stands for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” and it’s alive and well in the United States and on U.S. college campuses. According to the main BDS website, it’s a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. It’s really anti-Semitism with a politically correct face. And as I told the committee, when you hurt Israel, you actually hurt the Palestinian Arabs with full Israeli citizenship that make up 20% of Israel’s population. These are mainly Muslims, but it also includes Druze and Christians. Palestinian Arabs are members of the Israeli Parliament, and have been, since 1949. They’re in the upper echelons of Israel’s government, and they serve as officers and soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force. Yes, believe it or not, Muslims serve in the Israeli Army.
Those countries and companies that support BDS claim to want Israel to negotiate a permanent settlement agreement with the Palestinians, something Israel wants to do, but as is so often the case, the devil’s in the details. First and foremost, who is Israel supposed to negotiate with? The Palestinians are made up of competing factions, many of whom hate each other and would never allow the other faction to negotiate for them. From 2005 to 2007, Fata and Hamas fought a civil war that resulted in thousands of Palestinian deaths and the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Until the Palestinians resolve their internal conflicts, there’s really no one for Israel to negotiate with.
In the meantime, I told the committee, Israel continues to be our closest ally and trading partner in the Middle East. We should do everything in our power to help them, not hurt them. In my opinion, House Bill 501 is a very small step, but a step in the right direction. The bill passed out of committee on a straight party-line vote, then passed the House on a nearly party-line vote with all Democrats voting “no.” Next stop: The Montana Senate. And it will be my privilege to testify again.