After a meeting with local legislators planned to last until 7:30 p.m. Thursday ran closer to 8, Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss asked for — and received — a round of applause from the roomful of people for the lawmakers able to attend.
“This has been a great, great conversation,” Tuss said.
Bear Paw and the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce cosponsored the meeting, which started at 6 p.m. in the Hill County Electric Hospitality Room.
The meeting was at the halfway point of the Legislature, on the first day of its recess to allow general bills passed in one chamber be transmitted to the other.
Sens. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, and Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, and Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, were able to make the Havre meeting.
When it looked like questions from the audience were going to continue, Hill County Commission Chair Mike Wendland suggested the lawmakers be able to go home for the night — they were available Thursday and can be reached while in Helena as well, he said.
“I appreciate you coming here for this listening session,” he said.
Variety of topics raised
The legislators talked about what they had seen in the session so far and received a list of questions and comments from the audience, which filled the space at the Hill County Electric facility.
Those topics included questions and comments about proposals to change laws on charter schools and to start education savings accounts, and numerous bills proposed on gun rights.
A question of constitutionality
A Havre attorney asked Hansen to explain what he characterized as legislators selectively citing the constitution.
Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Jim Limbaugh asked about what he could expect from a bill that would prohibit public universities and colleges in Montana from preventing guns from being on campus.
That bill passed the House — with Hansen voting for it, Rep. Clarena Brockie, D-Harlem, against and Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Chinook, excused — and has been transmitted to the Senate.
Hansen said college students are adults and, if they want, have the right to bear arms guaranteed in the U.S. and Montana constitutions. That could be because they want their hunting rifles to go hunting on the weekend or go target shooting, or for self-protection.
“If they want to protect themselves on campus, I think they have the right, and I supported the bill,” she said.
Later, attorney Brian Lilletvedt pointed out that while the Montana Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, it also specifically states that “nothing herein contained shall be held to permit the carrying of concealed weapons.
“That’s our Constitution, so when (do you talk about that) when you have your Second Amendment arguments … ,” he asked. “When it supports an issue that the legislators want, then they wrap it in the terms of the Constitution, but when it’s not, then the Constitution just gets tossed out the window. I’d like the honesty from the legislators, when they stand up and debate these bills, to address those kinds of issues.”
He asked if Hansen also wants the drinking age moved back to 18.
“Why don’t they have that right, since the students then are adults?” he asked.
Lilletvedt said that legislators were not standing up for individual rights and telling federal agents to get out of the state when they raided medical marijuana facilities, which were approved by the state voters in 2004 and established by the Legislature in 2005.
“But, by god, when it comes to a gun issue we don’t like, then we’re going to tell the feds what to do,” he said. “To me it’s the biggest bunch of hypocrisy that exists.”
Hansen: Press sensationalism
Hansen said the press is mischaracterizing the actions of the Legislature by only writing about issues like gun control or corner crossing-property rights issues.
When bills that impact everyday living are discussed, she said, the reporters turn off their cameras and recorders and go get a pop to drink.
“The only time, the only time, they have got up to actually turn those stinking cameras on and turn those stinking recorders on was when there was an issue like that so that there would be headlines and something for you to yell at us about,” she said. “It is unbelievable, it is unbelievable, the stuff that we sit down there and do for the good of Montana every day that gets nothing, that gets no attention, and you have no idea we’re even doing it.
“Now, you take that into consideration when you are making those charges, because we are not going down there and doing nothing,” Hansen added.
“Then address the issue of the constitution,” Lilletvedt responded.
Guns in Montana
Some in the audience praised Hansen for her support of increased gun rights, but many comments were critical.
Hansen said the issue of the right to bear arms is guaranteed.
“The fundamental right to keep and bear arms is fundamental,” she said.
“But we want it well-regulated,” Hill County Democratic Party Chair and former state Rep. John Musgrove said, with Lilletvedt repeating his comment about the Montana Constitution.
Hansen said the Montana Constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to carry concealed weapons — it leaves that to be regulated by the Legislature.
“There is no fundamental right anywhere to smoke pot … ,” she said. “This is a fundamental right to keep and bear arms. It will always be that way.”
Jergeson said the only bill on gun rights so far in the Senate was a proposal to allow weapons in the Capital. The Senate defeated that bill, which passed in 2011 but was vetoed, he said.
He said he always has supported Second Amendment rights and has in the past earned the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, but “guns in banks and bars and schools is too far.”
He told of a state senator in 1997 “who, frankly, was unhinged.”
That senator threatened the majority leader of his own party and had to be pulled from that majority leader and escorted from the building.
“It just takes one, right?” Jergeson asked.
If that senator had been carrying a weapon, his majority leader would be dead, Jergeson said.
After he told that story, he added, “Somebody got up and said, ‘Well, if the other senators had guns they could shoot him.’ Thank you, I do not want to be caught in that crossfire. We don’t need senators packing guns to protect each other from each other.”
Charter schools and savings accounts
Another lengthy discussion — which kept coming up during the nearly two-hour session — was about bills changing charter school regulations and setting tax credits for private school expenses and Hansen’s bill creating a savings account for parents to use for alternative schooling.
A number of local school district employees attended the meeting, and spoke against the measures.
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Andy Carlson said the charter school idea — the legislation proposes allowing charter schools which would not have to follow teacher certification requirements or state education standards — died in the House but has resurfaced in the Senate.
Whether money is shifted from the school budgets to create charter schools or is taken to put into a savings account, it will impact local school budgets, he said.
If two students leave North Star High School in Rudyard to go to a charter school in Havre, that would mean a cut of $50,000 in North Star’s state assistance, he said.
“All I ask is, if we’re doing this, we talk about real Montana communities, real Montana schools,” Carlson said.
Windy Boy said something needs to change. In his district, and while he was a tribal council member at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, there are problems, he said.
Students drop out of one school and transfer to another, and the problems causing them to drop out — including problems with their home life — are not addressed and go to the new school with them.
Problems including school funding cuts due to the federal sequestration, which goes into effect today, will continue and increase, he said.
“We’ve got to think outside the box,” Windy Boy said, adding, “If we don’t come up with a solution, we’re going to be in the same place 10, 20 years from now.”
But others at the meeting, including Jergeson, said cutting funding to public schools is not the solution, adding that increasing funding, not cutting it, seems to be a better idea.
Others said that charter schools seem contrary to the idea of helping children with problems — charter schools tend to offer more opportunity to more creative or outstanding students.
Hansen said the funding question is being changed, with amendments proposed that should alleviate concerns.
She said that OPI under the leadership of Denise Juneau is opposed to charter schools and other school choice proposals.
“That is a pretty clear indication that certainly they’re not going to be a lot of help in working on a bill like that,” she said, adding that she took a draft of her education savings account bill to OPI in December and asked them to give comments and input, “and they didn’t.”
State Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dennis Parman said this morning that Hansen did meet with him and the office’s chief of staff in December, asking for input on several bills.
“To infer that this dialogue was a request for information would not be an accurate representation of what we believe took place,” he said. “I stand by my statement, that when OPI is asked for information, we provide it.”