As Helena lurches to a halt, Kim Dudik goes 13 for 19

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The big news out of Helena today is that Montana’s State House has voted down an $80 million dollar infrastructure bill, again. The proposal to fund roads, schools, and water systems asks for less money than some county school districts bonded out this year, but this morning it failed by two votes on its second trip to the floor. Take that, roads, schools, and water systems! The forces of fiscal responsibility are screwing their hats down tight against this expenditure, which amounts to $8 for every person in Montana. The conservative wing killed it in 2015, too.

If the infrastructure bill dies again, it will join such lost causes of the 2017 session as Daniel Zolnikov’s attempt to legalize drinking beer while driving or Keith Regier’s (R-Kalispell) bill to prohibit Montana courts from applying Sharia law. The legislature also failed to lift burdensome regulations on the keeping of domestic foxes. It seems like those assholes can’t pass anything, but then along comes Rep. Kim Dudik. The Democrat from Missoula went 13 for 19 sponsoring bills this session—most of them related to criminal justice or child and family services.

Those happen to be her areas of professional expertise. While various of her colleagues were fighting for the Second Amendment rights of fetuses and whatnot, Dudik drew on her experience as an attorney to make subtle but significant improvements to the Code of Montana. That might be the kind of citizen governance Montana’s framers envisioned when they constructed a legislature that met for 90 days every other year. Or they just wanted the state to stay out of the way of the mining companies. Regardless, Rep. Dudik got more done, in terms of sponsored legislation, than anyone else in Helena this spring. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Life of Montana abortion bills likely to end at conception

A person

The Montana legislature made national headlines last week, but not the good kind like you want. Representative Derek Skees of Lakeside sponsored HB 595, which would amend the state constitution to redefine “person” as “all members of the species Homo sapiens at any stage of development, including the stage of fertilization or conception.” Zygotes? People. Fertilized eggs that do not implant in the uterus as a result of IUD birth control? People. Ectopic pregnancies? People. Skees’s bill would criminalize not just abortion but a whole raft of women’s health services that most people consider morally neutral, if not inherently good. It’s a bold declaration of support for the lives of the pre-born, but does it do enough to make post-born lives miserable?

Enter Sen. Albert Olszewski (R-Kalispell). His bill would require doctors to take every measure possible to preserve the lives of fetuses beyond 24 weeks of development, including caesarian section and resuscitation after abortion or miscarriage. Doctors who don’t would be subject to criminal prosecution. Imagine, for a moment, the joy a woman would feel after procuring a legal abortion, only to watch her obstetrician resuscitate the fetus and present her with her new child. Don’t worry, though; that situation will never happen, because no obstetrician in her right mind would see a pregnant woman knowing that it would expose her to criminal investigation should anything go wrong.

Also, neither of these bills has a snowball’s chance of becoming law. Nor does Sen. Keith Regier’s (R-Kalispell) proposal to ban abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy. Even if they make it out of the legislature, Gov. Steve Bullock will veto these bills faster than you can say Roe v. Wade. In this way, they take on a pleasing symmetry. These laws that insist life begins at conception are unlikely to move beyond the concept stage themselves. As pure theories, they are free to be as draconian and unenforceable as the most virulent activist could hope. It’s kind of like the way their authors—middle-aged men from the Flathead, to a one—can rail against abortion without any fear of getting pregnant themselves. You can read all about their strange performances in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. Probably, we’re going to get some letters. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Montana considers poor tax—er, cigarette tax

Cool teens

Did you know that smoking correlates directly to income? Thirty-four percent of Americans making between $6,000 and $12,000 a year smoke, compared to only 13% of those making $120,000 or more. The rate of tobacco use is also five times higher among people with GEDs than it is among college graduates. It’s almost like smoking is perfect for shift work, where you get 15-minute breaks every two hours to stand around with your coworkers. Or it’s like cigarettes are a treat, an indulgence for people whose pleasures are otherwise strictly limited. Whatever the reason, you see a lot more people smoking at the bus stop than you do standing around outside the opera.

I mention this phenomenon because the Montana legislature is thinking about raising taxes on tobacco products. Senate Bill 354, sponsored by Mary Caferro (D–Helena), would more than double the state tax on cigarettes, from $1.50 a pack to $3.20. It would also raise taxes on cigars and smokeless tobacco, plus introduce a tax on the liquid used in e-cigarettes. Caferro has described her proposal as “a tax you never have to pay,” which captures the popular attitude toward taxing cigarettes. It’s a great way for the government to get money without any of us having to pay it. And if you’re not one of us, it’s your fault, because you shouldn’t be smoking anyway.

Both of these arguments are probably true. Smoking sucks. Everyone knows it gives you cancer, and in the meantime it annoys people around you. But it is also true that poor people do it more than rich people. Maybe it’s because nicotine is addictive and their lives are hard, or maybe it’s because they’re lazy and dumb. But why people with less money smoke doesn’t matter so much as the simple fact that they do. When we propose a cigarette tax, we are operatively proposing a poor tax.

Maybe that’s a measure we’re willing to take. But let’s not pretend that it’s some high-minded project to get people to stop smoking. The legislature is looking for revenue and found it in poor people’s pockets.  From a political standpoint, the appeal of a cigarette tax is that most people don’t smoke. In a state famously averse to taxation of all kinds, SB 354 is a way to raise revenue without asking 78% of the population to pay anything for it. All you have to do is make life a little harder for people with less money and less education.

When you put it that way, cigarette taxes don’t sound like such a hot deal after all. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Bill before Montana legislature would make breaking lease a felony

Montana Sen. Roger Webb (R-Billings)

In the last few weeks, the Montana legislature has heard a series of bills designed to strengthen the position of landlords. Roger Webb (R-Billings) introduced Senate Bill 239, which would charge with criminal theft tenants who vacate rental properties before their leases are up, as though they had stolen cash in the amount of the remaining months’ rent. Webb’s Senate Bill 255 would make state courts responsible for collecting judgments against tenants for unpaid rent—a duty which currently falls to the landlords themselves, as in other civil matters. Both of these bills introduce the possibility of going to prison for not paying rent.

Webb’s wife, Rep. Peggy Webb (R-Billings), has introduced her own bill to charge with criminal trespass tenants who do not vacate rental properties at the landlord’s request. Its wording is vague, but it seems to withdraw the longstanding right of renters to remain in their homes until eviction proceedings are resolved. Taken together, these bills give landlords authority comparable to that of state courts.

It may shock you to learn that the Webbs own rental property themselves. During an informal poll of the state house, approximately one quarter of their fellow representatives did, too. Nobody asked how many rent their homes, but one suspects the number is small. The kind of people who become state legislators are more likely to be landlords than tenants. And if you’ve ever talked to a landlord, you know they see tenants as a horde of conscienceless freeloaders bent on exploiting the landowning classes. All this is to say that the legislature has a warped perspective on the landlord/tenant relationship, and it makes sense that they would overestimate the degree to which it is unfair to people like, well, them.

But is this the kind of injustice government should right? The conflict between landlord and tenant is, for the most part, a conflict between people who own multiple homes and people who own none. By definition, society is working pretty well for landlords already. Must we add the force of law to the force of economics? You can read such pinko reasoning in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We won’t be back tomorrow with Friday links, because I’ll be driving all day. Likewise Monday, but Combat! blog will return Tuesday, clothed in righteous fire. Or my truck will explode. Only time will tell.

MT senate might deny hunting licenses to deadbeat dads

Two full-grown males who won’t see their kids this weekend

Did you know that 37% of Montana families who are supposed to get legally mandated child support actually don’t? Arrears exceeded $147 million in 2013, and the state only collected 12% of it. Imagine if one third of defendants were ignoring any other kind of court order. It would be a crisis. But like smoking weed outside of Flippers or running over a bicyclist with your car, not paying child support is one of those things you can get away with. But if Sen. Mike Lang (R-Malta) gets his way, Montana will soon begin denying hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses to deadbeat dads.

That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but apparently it makes a difference. During a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sarah Swanson-Partridge of Glasgow said her former husband went seven years without making his court-mandated child support payments. After a state agency threatened to withhold his trapping and fishing licenses, however, he paid off the overdue child support in one year. In addition to being too depressing to contemplate for more than a few seconds, this anecdote suggests Sen. Lang might be onto a low-cost solution for a sprawling enforcement problem.

But what if not letting deadbeat dads shoot elk actually hurt the families they don’t support? That was the objection raised by Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls.) Her statement merits quotation in full:

A number of people in this state that are in poverty, and lack of payment is not always because they don’t want to—sometimes it’s because they can’t. I’m really concerned if we strip away a person’s ability to provide sustenance through wild meat that is obtained by a great number of families through fishing, hunting and trapping in this state, I’m really concerned that we’re not helping families.

We were fools not to consider the many non-custodial parents who pay their back child support in the form of wild game. Either that or Sen. Fielder is contorting her brain to come up with a rationalization for her core principle, “all hunting all the time.” You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

While you’re at it, check out local anti-Muslim bigot activist Linda Sauer’s letter to the editor objecting to last week’s column about sharia law. “This bill might not have been necessary if Missoula hadn’t decided to play the phony ‘we’re all so caring and loving here’ card,” she writes, “so a few people could pat themselves on the back for their good deeds and wait for the resettlement money to roll in.” Such contempt for caring and loving is a rare treat, but you can find it again a few letters down, when Ed Kugler complains that leftists “want your rights the way you want them, but those that don’t agree with you, well that’s where your ‘love everyone’ comes to an end.” I’m so sick of these lovemongers undermining the patriotic work of blocking refugees and praying in school. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!