Things are off to a slow but steady start at the Montana Legislature, where lawmakers started hearing debate on bills that include doing away with the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children and pay raises for people who work with those who have developmental disabilities.
Getting rid of the countdown to charge sex crimes against children
Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, a Democrat from Helena, advocated for her bill that would get rid of the ticking clock for bringing criminal charges for sex crimes against children. Though the statute of limitations was increased from 10 to 20 years in the 2017 session, Dunwell and others said a case from Miles City that's received a huge amount of attention shows why the limits should be lifted entirely.
The Billings Gazette has extensively covered former Custer County High athletic trainer James "Doc" Jensen, who has admitted to molesting boys from the late 1970s to about 1998. Last year Jensen began contacting some of his victims, after the 20-year statute of limitations has expired. Kristen Newby, Jensen's daughter, gave powerful testimony in support of the legislation, saying she never wanted to see someone like her father be shielded by the legal system again.
There are several other related bills, including two carried by Rep. Shane Morigeau, a Democrat from Missoula. One of his bills, House Bill 202, would do away with the statute of limitations in civil cases. Morigeau's other bill, House Bill 137, would clarify students are not capable of consent in a school setting.
Services for people with developmental disabilities
Lawmakers also focused in on legislation that would help boost the network of community-based care for people with developmental disabilities in Montana. One of the first bills out of seven crafted by a legislative interim committee that worked between the 2017 and 2017 sessions would give a pay raise for direct-care workers. This would help care providers hire and retain people, which has been a big problem when sometimes fast food restaurants can pay more for less demanding work.
The pay raise bill is carried by Sen. Al Olszewski, a Republican from Kalispell. There was another pay raise passed in the 2017 session but it has been on hold because of budget cuts. The state health department said it will implement the increase, retroactive to July, this month. That's a $1 raise.
Workers' compensation for volunteer firefighters
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Yet again, lawmakers heard pleas from volunteer firefighters to help fund workers' compensation. Of the roughly 8,000 volunteer firefighters statewide, estimates show about 2,000 don't have workers' compensation because their departments can't afford it. A bill this session would tax wholesale fireworks 5 percent to raise money to do so. But those in the fireworks industry cried foul that they were being unfairly singled out. Requiring and providing workers compensation for volunteer firefighters, who are hard to recruit, has been something the Legislature has tried to do for several sessions.
What's coming up next week
COLSTRIP: On Jan. 21, Rep. Rodney Garcia of Billings will advocate for his bill that would have the state of Montana bond to buy the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip. Garcia's bill would let the state bond for up to $500 million to buy the plant. Garcia told The Billings Gazette people who live in his district on the South Side of Billings and work at Colstrip asked him to carry the bill.
“It’s a workable thing. It’s in the best interest for every Montanan, particularly Colstrip and every part of Montana benefits from Colstrip being there,” Garcia told the Gazette.
GUNS AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: A bill by Rep. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, would allow a judge issuing a temporary restraining order in a case of domestic violence to prohibit the offender from possessing or using a gun. It would also prohibit people convicted of domestic violence from having firearms. While federal laws prohibit those convicted of of some types of domestic violence to have guns, there are large loopholes. Some states have passed laws to close those gaps.
BULLYING: A bill from Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, would make bullying a crime and provide a misdemeanor penalty or a felony in the case of death or serious bodily injury.
PAY RAISES: Of particular interest to state employees, a bill to give them a 50-cent raise on Jan. 1, 2020 and another the following year — will be debated Jan. 22.
YOUTH SUICIDE PREVENTION: In the 2017 session, several bills were brought to address the high suicide rate in Montana among youth and adults. That continues this session with a bill that would establish a pilot program to screen students for mental health and depression.
DUI LAWS: A bill that would overhaul DUI laws in Montana, giving longer sentencing options for repeat offenders, will be heard Jan. 22.
REINSURANCE: A bill that addresses a complex issue called reinsurance will be heard Jan. 24. Reinsurance is, boiled down, insurance for health insurance companies that helps them pay for coverage for some of the sickest and most expense people to cover. Proponents say it helps ensure everyone can be covered and lowers premiums. It was shot down in the 2017 session through vetoes by Gov. Steve Bullock, who has since called for a study of the idea, saying it could benefit Montana.