Bitterroot Politics

You get what you vote for…

Bitterroot Politics - You get what you vote for…

It’s almost over

With the 2015 legislative session drawing to a close, the work of our Bitterroot Valley Representatives and Senators is just about over for a little while.

Most bills have run their course and are either headed for the governor’s desk or are dead. The budget hasn’t passed yet but is in a conference committee with the House and Senate wrangling over how little to fund important state services and whether to give state employees the agreed upon raise they negotiated last year.

In the coming week or two we’ll take a look at each legislator and how they voted on some key issues before the Legislature this session. We’ll also look at some of the lesser-known bills they dealt with.

When it came to important issues, the Bitterroot Valley contingent voted nearly identically. Pat Connell was the standout, voting differently than the rest of them. It will still be good to look back at the issues and whether the legislators voted to help those they represent or if they worked against Ravalli County’s interests.

If you have a specific bill you’d like to see discussed, feel free to mention it in the comments.


Whole lot of nothing

Do you ever sit back and think about what you’re paying for a whole lot of nothing? Because if you’re a taxpayer in Ravalli County, you’re paying a lot for not much.

In this instance, I’m referring to the county commission. Ask yourselves if you can name one thing the commission has done in the past six months. Can you? You might be able to name one, because they did make the news by giving MAPS Media Institute a special day. Other than that though, can you name anything?

Probably not. That’s because the commission really isn’t doing much with their terms.

They’re not working on making Ravalli County more attractive to businesses. They’re not improving roads. They’re not working to fix a diversion dam that has killed a young child and prompts state officials to shut down a portion of the river when water levels get too high.

Given that there aren’t too many subdivisions for them to rubber stamp these days, what exactly is it that they’re doing all day?

If you believe the commissioners’ calendar, they’re busy with “office management.” Of course, anyone familiar with the work of the commission knows that “office management” is code for “we’re not here.”

For all of this not working, you’re paying at least $62,000 per commissioner. That means for five commissioners to do virtually nothing, the taxpayers of Ravalli County are paying more than a quarter of a million dollars.

But hey, you get what you vote for.


Burrows wants closure

Earlier this week, the Ravalli Republic published a story about Ravalli County commissioners considering hiring a process server to track down Valerie Stamey to serve a lawsuit to collect fines levied against her last year.

In the story, Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said he wanted “closure” on the whole affair.

That’s not surprising considering he was one of the people who appointed Stamey without bothering to look into her background. He didn’t perform a background check on her. He didn’t talk to previous employers. He didn’t ask the Missoula School District why she was terminated from her job. And then, after it became apparent that she was not doing her job, he defended her saying she wasn’t getting the help she needed. It wasn’t until his seat was threatened that he started to back away from her. Of course he denied the appointment was political but everyone knew it was.

Now, a year after deciding to fine her for not doing her job and costing the county $120,000 (so far), he and the other commissioners are finally getting around to discussing whether they should even bother pursuing the lawsuit given the unlikeliness of getting any money out of her.

Maybe if they’d pursued it back when they knew where she was it wouldn’t have been an issue. Now they’re looking at just writing off all that money spent on her and her mistakes.

They’ll couch it in being responsible with county funds but really their delay shows that they are more interested in covering up for their own mistakes than taking care of county taxpayers’ money. If they don’t get the lawsuit served, there is no chance of ever recovering some of the money. Maybe a better alternative would be for the commissioners to take some of those “office management” days (days off) that are increasingly common on their calendar and spend it tracking down Stamey.


Constitution still not important to Manzella and Ballance

Just when you think things can’t get any weirder…

Wednesday was a big day at the Legislature. The Senate-approved Medicaid Expansion compromise bill (SB405) was tagged with a “Do Not Pass” label in committee on Tuesday. Wednesday, supporters of the bill objected to the designation calling it out of order since the Democrats had already stated the bill was one of their six “silver bullets” they intended to blast to the floor.

This sparked a rather lengthy rules debate in the House. The floor session paused twice for the rules committee to meet and then be overruled by majority vote on the floor. After all of this was done, it appeared that SB405 was set for debate on the floor.

That’s when the crazy happened.

In one last gasp at avoiding having to debate Medicaid Expansion on the floor, a GOP representative made a motion to Adjourn Sine Die. For those unfamiliar with the term, the motion was to adjourn FOR THE SESSION. As in, “we’re done, everyone go home…” That means no other bills would have passed until the next biennium, 2017.

In all, 40 members of the House voted to adjourn for the session. And the Bitterroot’s own Tea Party contingent, Nancy Ballance and Theresa Manzella were part of that 40. Rather than have an honest debate about the expansion of Medicaid in Montana, they voted to take their ball and go home.

The problem with that however is that the state Constitution requires the Legislature to pass a budget before it adjourns. The 2015 Legislature has not passed a budget yet. The House passed their budget but it has already been heavily amended in the Senate, meaning the House will need to do some work on it again when it comes back.

Had the motion to adjourn succeeded, the governor would have been forced to call a special session, costing the taxpayers even more money.

So the next time you hear Ballance or Manzella talk about how important the constitution is, know that they consider it less important than avoiding debate on a bill and playing political games with the healthcare of 70,000 people.


Local Government Study Commission

The local government study commission has been hosting community meetings over the past few weeks. They have so far been in Corvallis where they reportedly had a low turnout, as well as in Victor and Darby. 

Most people assume that the biggest change they’ll put before the voters is the move from 5 commissioners back to 3. The decade long experiment will likely come to an end as most Bitterrooters appear to prefer a 3-member commission to the current 5-member board.

There are plenty of other options to look at though that could have a substantial impact on county government. 

One option is to make some or even all county elected positions non-partisan. That would effectively elimnate parties in the county and force voters to spend a little more time learning about candidates. At least that would be the goal.

Another option is to look at whether to have commissioner seats voted on by district or continue to vote on them at large. 

The commission can look at these items and many more. They’ll make decisions and put them on the ballot for the voters to decide. The biggest thing the group needs right now is to hear from valley residents what they think is important to look at and put on the ballot.

The next meeting is Tuesday, April 7 in Hamilton at 7 p.m. They’ll be meeting in the County Commissioners Meeting Room at the County Administration Building. This is a community meeting so the public is invited to come and share their thoughts.

This is the best chance to make a real change in county government and hopefully people will participate as much as possible.


Government inefficiency

The sordid tale of Valerie Stamey just never seems to come to an end. This week the Montana Supreme Court ruled that she could not keep her employment records at MCPS secret and they were released to the public.

Shockingly, they revealed she was terminated for misusing school funds to pay for items for a private catering event and her husband’s concessions business. This should have disqualified her from consideration for county treasurer but when you’ve got buddies in high places I guess it doesn’t matter.

But now, she’s been gone for a while and if it weren’t for media reports about the court ruling, we may have forgotten about her. Apparently the commissioners had.

Suddenly, after the stories in local newspapers appeared, she’s back on the commission’s calendar. This time they’re talking about hiring a process server to serve Stamey with the lawsuit they decided to file against her OVER A YEAR AGO. 

For a party that rants and raves about government inefficiency, it sure doesn’t work efficiently when it comes to dealing with this black mark on the county. Their lack of efficency already cost the county. When Stamey’s house was forceclosed on, the lack of action by the commission meant the county lost out on any funds that would come from the eventual sale of that property. 

Now Stamey has had a year or more to hide and the odds of getting the lawsuit served are poor. Had they simply served her when she was still collecting her paychecks from the county, perhaps the county could have gotten some of the money back that she cost it. Instead, the lack of effort by the previous commission and the current one has ensured that we’ll just be out the hundreds of thousands of dollars she’s cost.

And in case you were wondering, this isn’t the first time this topic has been on the commission’s calendar. They discussed this a year or so ago as well. Apparently no action ever came of that and they’re going to talk about it again. Government inefficiency at its finest. The next time one of these commissioners talks about how inefficient governments are, know that they speak from experience. They’ve done everything they can to make sure this drags out as long as possible.


Oh Manzella, you’re not being discriminated against

It’s taken a few days to get my thoughts together after my head exploded hearing Rep. Theresa Manzella speak in favor of House Bill 615 which is the Montana GOP’s version of RFRA. The same bill that was passed in Indiana that has led to several large companies declaring their boycott of the state. It means millions in lost revenue as businesses cancel plans to hold events in the state. It’s been a black eye for Indiana and would have had a similar impact here.

In supporting the bill on the House floor, Manzella said that she’s been discriminated against as a Christian.

Based on her comments, the extent of her discrimination was someone calling her a “Jesus freak.” She didn’t point to times she’s been refused service for her beliefs. She was presumably allowed to marry the person of her choice despite her beliefs. She probably even had a cake at her wedding. She offered no examples of how she’s been discriminated against because of her religion.

Presumably she is referring to the idea that if she operated a businesses, she would be expected to serve people with beliefs different than her own. Of course I’m sure she would also deny services to divorced people, obese people, atheists, and those wearing mixed material clothing. (All things against Biblical law)

The fact is, Manzella doesn’t know what discrimination is. She’s likely never been treated the way the MT GOP has been treating the LGBT community. She’s likely never faced the fear of being assaulted (verbally or physically) just for being who she is. She’s living in her own bubble in the Bitterroot and needs a reality check. She should go sit with some of the LGBT members of the Legislature and get to know them and what they go through. Or pick up a dictionary and look up discrimination.


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Let’s see, the Bitterroot Valley is home to some pretty sad broadband internet. Speeds are slow and the footprint for service availability is small. That leaves many in the valley with the only option of paying for wireless service which is expensive and comes with data caps limiting the amount residents can use the internet before paying overage fees.

You would think that improving access to broadband internet in the Bitterroot would be a top priority for our legislators. Increasing access would give local businesses a tool to better compete in the world market. It would allow residents to work remotely for companies spread around the country and the world. It would allow students to take classes online and pursue college degrees.

Improving broadband internet just makes sense.

Unless you’re a Republican legislator apparently. Today, in the House Appropriations committee, our own Bitterroot legislators Nancy Ballance and Ron Ehli voted to table HB14. Tabling the bill effectively kills it at this point in the 2015 Legislature. That means we’re looking at another two years at least without giving Century Link or Charter motivation to improve service in Ravalli County.

I’ve spoken with Century Link over the past year about when we can expect increased speeds in the Bitterroot. The usual answer is they have plans but no timeline. Had this bill passed, it’s likely it would have spurred network upgrades at the least, if not expansion of services in the valley. Without the bill, we’ll undoubtedly continue to wait for internet speeds to improve. Internet is important in today’s economy. It touches everyone. Everyone except the people who could have made a difference.

When you have trouble watching Netflix or any other streaming video service, it’s Ballance and Ehli you can now thank.



You’re not getting what you pay for

Anyone taken a look at the Ravalli County Commissioners’ calendar lately? It won’t take you long to read it if you haven’t. We’re seeing an awful lot of “Office Management.”

For those that don’t know what that means… It’s commissioner code for, “We’re not doing anything so we probably won’t bother to come in.”

For this astounding amount of hard work, you, the taxpayer, are paying them more than $60,000/year plus full benefits.

If they truly have so little to do that they only need to schedule meetings one day a week, (or maybe 2) perhaps they should be helping out in other departments around the county.

Maybe they could go downstairs and help the motor vehicles department during busy hours so the line moves a little faster.

Maybe they could head over to the road department and help out there. They’ve already made a big deal about how they’re short on funds thanks to SRS funding cuts. I’m sure the road crews would love to see the commissioners out working to help make things better instead of sitting at home collecting their paychecks. They could be out driving plows to help clear the roads during a snow storm. They could be out patching the holes in the roads that were ignored over the summer while the commission sat by not letting the department head hire workers back.

Or maybe they could actually do the work they were elected to do. They could be working on policy to attract new business growth. They could be working to make things better in our county.

Instead we’re getting none of that. We get “office management.” We get an absentee county commission that complains about an intrusive federal government and its overspending then turns around and complains about not getting enough federal money. We get a group of commissioners content to not do anything while collecting their fat paychecks.

You get what you vote for which is why right now, you’re not getting what you pay for.


Who do they represent?

The more we watch the Legislature, the more you have to ask yourself, who do Bitterroot Valley legislators represent? It’s not the people in the Bitterroot. Not most of them anyway.

They continue to vote down expansion of Medicaid despite living in a county with nearly 22% of people not having insurance. When you look at the high number of retired people in Ravalli County covered by Medicare, you have to figure that a large portion of our workforce is currently uninsured. That means charity care at our local hospital is high…. which it is. So high in fact that the hospital board of directors passed a resolution in support of Medicaid expansion noting it would help their finances. Since the hospital is the largest employer in the county, you’d think they’d be a bit more open-minded about expanding Medicaid… but nope.

In floor debate yesterday, Democrats attempted many, many times to add amendments to the GOP’s budget bill, HB2. None of them passed. Almost all of them were voted down along strict party lines. You can’t tell me that not a single one of them were worth supporting. They voted down everything from early education to properly funding the office of the public defender. If you’re poor, you’re getting no love from the Legislature this time around.

And in Ravalli County, odds are you’re poor. We have an unemployment rate nearly twice the state average. (I’ll discuss this further in another post.) That means we’ve got a lot of people out of work. It doesn’t take much to realize that we’ve also got a lot of people underemployed as well.

The Republican budget as it stands right now guts services to poor people in an effort to extend tax breaks to businesses and rich people. And then there’s the fact that the governor has said he’ll veto it unless it’s changed.

So who are they representing? Are they doing what’s best for the people of the Bitterroot? I don’t see how they can claim that they are.