Montana Editorial Roundup

Posted October 12

The Missoulian, Oct. 9, on victims' rights:

Their stories are heartrending. They are the victims of violent crime whose attackers got away with a mere slap on the wrist, or drastically reduced charges, or a single night in jail before posting bail. Instead of receiving justice, these victims feel unheard, unvalued and left out of the criminal justice process. The system failed them.

But Marsy's Law, which will appear on Montana voters' ballots as Constitutional Initiative 116, would not fix those failures. On the contrary, it has the potential to wreak havoc on Montana's criminal justice system and create even more trouble.

Montana law already entitles most victims to most of the 18 rights listed in CI-116, and most county prosecutors are obliged to involve victims to the fullest extent possible. Therefore, the initiative is not necessarily intended to provide victims with new rights, but to elevate existing rights to the constitutional level - which requires a constitutional amendment.

The rather lengthy (more than 800 words) addition to Montana's Constitution proposed by CI-116 defines "crime" as a "felony, misdemeanor, or delinquency under state law" and "victim" as "a person who suffers direct or threatened physical, psychological, or financial harm as a result of the commission or attempted commission of a crime." Yet for all its attempts at specificity, the language is still both too broad and too vague, making the possible legal ramifications difficult to predict.

But who exactly is entitled to such recourse, within what time frame and in what form would be left entirely up to a judge's discretion. Every court and prosecutor's office in Montana would be facing an exponentially larger workload, especially given that Marsy's Law would extend these rights to the victims of nonviolent misdemeanors as well, although again, it is impossible to gauge just how much more of a workload that would be.

It is also concerning that the financial costs of this proposal are likewise unknown; indeed, a note attached to the ballot reads: "Fiscal impacts are expected for the Office of the Public Defender, Judicial Branch, Department of Corrections and local governments from passage of CI-116, but those costs could not be accurately determined at this time."

It is a significant undertaking to amend Montana's Constitution. Our Constitution is the result of painstaking deliberation over a number of years. Any changes made to it should be made with equal care and deliberation.

However, there is no improving the language proposed by CI-116. Should Montana encounter problems with the amendment right away or down the road, the smallest change would require further constitutional amendments.

Montana is not the only state weighing whether to make this substantial change to its constitution. Marsy's Law, or variations of it, is also on the ballot in a handful of other states this election year.

The law is named for Marsalee "Marsy" Nicholas, who was a college student in California in 1983 when she was stalked and murdered by an ex-boyfriend. To compound the tragedy, her mother and brother were confronted by the suspected killer a week later at a store. They had no idea the man had posted bail.

That brother, Henry Nicholas, is a successful billionaire who is funding the national effort to pass Marsy's Law in every state, with the eventual goal of amending the U.S. Constitution.

A version of the law was passed in California in 2008 and in Illinois in 2014. This election year, other versions are on the ballot in Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada, South Dakota, North Dakota - and Montana.

According to Ballotpedia, as of Oct. 4 the group Marsy's Law for Montana has raised more than $2.4 million, with 94 percent of that coming from Henry Nicholas. There is no organized opposition, although the Missoulian editorial board has spoken with state legislators, county prosecutors and others who oppose this initiative in the strongest possible terms.

They are in agreement that Montana's criminal justice system is far from perfect, and that some improvements may be warranted concerning victims' rights. But that's no reason to completely throw out Montana's statutory protections for victims. Far better to exert our efforts toward improving those rights through the legislative process, to ensure that they are as exact as necessary and as effective as possible, so that fewer victims slip through the cracks.

Marsy's Law proposes to paint Montana's Constitution with too broad a brush. In any case, it has selected the wrong canvas entirely, and Montana voters should reject it.



The Great Falls Tribune, Oct. 8, on funding brain research in Montana:

By 2050, the number of Americans with Alzheimer's disease is expected to triple, straining federal and state budgets.

Brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and stroke already cost Montanans dearly both in money and anguish, and costs alone are expected to soar in the coming decades. Now Montanans can do something about this growing menace.

We endorse Initiative 181, a proposal for the state of Montana to spend $200 million on brain research over a decade.

This proposal is similar to one in California that has boosted medical research in the Golden State.

The Montana version would make grants available to such facilities as McLaughlin Research Institute in Great Falls, the Montana university system, Shodair Hospital in Helena, and other hospitals around the state, as well as possible research start-ups.

This could help Great Falls, where scientists at McLaughlin have studied such brain diseases as Alzheimer's and mad cow. But federal grants for such facilities have faltered, according to George Carlson, a scientist leaving McLaughlin to conduct research in San Francisco.

"Now the federal government's not supporting it," Carlson said. "It's harder to get funding." Pharmaceutical companies also are cautious about spending on research given demands of stockholders.

The editorial board believes the current model for scientific medical research isn't working well.

What if a local police officer had to apply for a grant before he was approved to go out on patrol, or if a firefighter or a teacher had to do the same? Forcing research scientists to do the same doesn't necessarily encourage people to enter this field.

This new fund could help.

"I think the opportunity for return to the state is huge," said state Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls. And half of royalties generated by a breakthrough made possible by these state grants would go back to the state of Montana.

Buttrey added the state Legislature still would have to approve any of the $20 million in annual spending authorized by the initiative.

"If this passes, we will have to make this decision every two years," he said.

Creating a $20 million fund not only will boost brain research but will bring bright scientists to Montana and create more good-paying jobs around the state. New research centers could pop up around Montana. More research could take place not directly paid for by the state grants.

Plus, this money generated by floating bonds will be spent in Montana.

Initiative 181 has engendered some criticism from labor unions concerned it could divert state money needed elsewhere, and from the Montana Taxpayers Association.

"Bonding should be reserved for infrastructure-type projects where you end up with an asset," said Bob Story, executive director of the taxpayer group. "Do you really want to borrow money to run programs?" Story thinks the grant money should "get in line" and compete against other programs at the Legislature. He also expressed some concern about how an independent board would dispense the grants.

Even so, Story would be surprised if the proposal doesn't pass, and we think this may be a creative way both to spark economic development in Montana and address a pressing need for more research into deadly diseases.

We urge a yes vote for I-181.



The Billings Gazette, Oct. 6, on child care in Montana:

Child care is the single largest monthly expense for many working parents in Montana. With the labor market tightening in the Billings area, quality child care is a growing concern for parents and employers.

The average cost of licensed daycare for a 4-year-old whose parents work full time is $7,900 a year, according to a report released last month by the Montana Budget and Policy Center. For infants, the annual cost is about $9,000.

For a single mother working full time for minimum wage, the cost of care for one child would be 47 percent of her total income. Quality child care is simply unaffordable for low-paid workers, and for many middle income workers, especially if they have two or more children.

Montana, like other states, uses federal funds to provide daycare scholarships to children of low-wage workers. However, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center's estimate, Montana's Best Beginnings Scholarship Program served only 14 percent of eligible children in 2014.

"There are lots of barriers," said Heather O'Loughlin of the Helena-based policy center. For example:

-Applications and documentation requirements are burdensome.

-Employers are required to fill out forms.

-Scholarships pay less than what child care providers usually charge, and the providers may require parents to pay the difference — in addition to the monthly copay they must make to qualify to receive the scholarship.

-If families have income even slightly over 150 percent of poverty ($30,240 a year for a family of three), they don't qualify for any child care scholarship.

Those who can't afford licensed child care, may not be able to work. If they don't have a relative or friend to be a safe, reliable caregiver, parents may use lower quality babysitting arrangements.

Parents need to work to support their families. About 20 percent of Montana families with children under age 5 live in poverty. The report estimates that 7,500 Montana families cannot afford child care on their own yet cannot qualify for assistance through Best Beginnings.

"For a two-parent family with median earnings ($74,340), the average cost of full-time care for two children is over $1,300 a month," the policy center reported. For such a family in Montana, monthly child care expenses exceed monthly costs for housing, food, transportation or college tuition.

Nationwide, the number of children receiving government-funded child care scholarships and federal spending on child care sunk to a 12-year low in 2014, according to CLASP, a Washington, D.C., anti-poverty organization. In 2014, the latest year for which CLASP had information, Montana spent just under $25 million on child care, about $1 million less than in 2013. About $4 million of that total was state money, the rest was federal.

The 2015 Legislature didn't fund the 2 percent increase in state child care spending requested in Gov. Steve Bullock's budget, O'Loughlin noted. But lawmakers agreed to appropriate $2.4 million in one-time money for the biennium for Stars to Quality, a voluntary rating program that offers financial incentives for child care providers to improve their service.

While spending on care is trending down, costs to implement new requirements of the federal child care program are estimated to run into hundreds of millions nationwide. Congress created those requirements in 2014, but isn't fully funding them, according to CLASP.

Simplify enrollment

At the state level, the governor and the Department of Public Health and Human Services need to make the process of obtaining child care scholarship easier for working parents and employers.

If federal rule or law changes are needed, Montana's congressional delegation must work with state leaders. The implementation costs attributed to the new federal child care law are counter-productive. There must be ways to channel more money to care, rather than imposing unfunded implementation mandates on states.

Nearly 60 percent of Montana families have two parents in the workforce, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center. U.S. employers lose an estimated $4 billion annually because of employees missing work to care for their children. Having access to reliable, high-quality child care, reduces the need for parents to take time off work. Safe, developmentally appropriate child care activities help prepare kids for success in school and life.

Child care doesn't make front page news often, but should be on the agenda for state and federal policymakers.



Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Oct. 9, on medical marijuana:

In 2004, Montanans expressed their collective will when they voted to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. In 2011, in an act of legislative overreach, lawmakers voted to deny the will of the people by enacting restrictions on marijuana providers that put them out of business. And that is leaving those who need medical marijuana with few legal ways to get the drug.

Initiative 182, on the November ballot, would correct that wrong. And voters should approve the measure.

Legislators in 2011 approved Senate Bill 423, which restricted marijuana providers to three clients, a number that could not sustain most providers. Initiative 182 would lift that restriction. It also calls for unannounced annual inspections of providers and for licensing providers who would pay fees that will fund the administration of the program. Further, I-182 repeals SB 423's requirement that physicians who wrote marijuana prescriptions for more than 25 patients be investigated and adds post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of illnesses for which marijuana may be prescribed.

When the medical marijuana initiative passed in 2004, it lacked a lot of needed specificity concerning what the drug could be used for and how growers were to be regulated. As a result, the number of people with marijuana prescriptions and the growers who supplied them grew rapidly out of control.

But instead of fixing the law with reasonable limits on what the drug could be used for and providing licensing requirements for providers, conservative lawmakers essentially repealed the initiative by imposing onerous restrictions on doctors and marijuana providers.

I-182 nullifies what legislators did and fixes what needed fixing in the original medical marijuana initiative.

One doesn't have to look far to find people with a legitimate need for medical marijuana. It is used to treat multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders, nausea from cancer chemotherapy and Crohn's Disease, among many others.

Some 64 percent of Montanans said they wanted the drug to be legal for those treatments in 2004. I-182 will respect that decision and repeal legislators' efforts to undercut it.

Vote yes for I-182 in November.



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