Money talks 

Lobbying reports put a face on 2013 Legislature

The town of Bainville in eastern Montana has grown too fast. Not even a decade ago, the public school had 67 students in grades K-12. Now that number's at 158 and rising steadily. New subdivisions are going up in the area. Rent has skyrocketed. According to the 2010 census, Bainville's population just a few years ago was 208.

"There's more like 600 in town right now," says Bainville Public Schools Superintendent Renee Rasmussen. "We can't get sewer. We're taking a second floor that was never finished and finishing that this summer because we don't have enough classrooms. Next year, for the first time in the history of the school, we'll be splitting a class into two groups ... Eight or nine years ago, there were two grades per classroom."

Look at a map and Bainville's growth starts to make sense. It's about 26 miles west of Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom. The location also explains how a school with fewer than 200 students and an unfinished second story spent $52,659 lobbying the 2013 Montana Legislature—almost doubling its lobbying expenses from 2011 and cracking the top 20 organizations who spent big in Helena this spring.

According to records released by the Commissioner of Political Practices office last week, lobbyists dropped nearly $6.1 million influencing state lawmakers on behalf of nonprofits, unions, corporations and trade associations this session. The heavy-hitters ranged from PPL Montana to MEA-MFT to the Montana Association of Realtors—all familiar names among those who consistently break the $100,000 lobbying mark. Compassion and Choices hit the highest total by spending $160,356 lobbying on two aid-in-dying-related measures: House Bill 505, the physician imprisonment proposal the group opposed, and Senate Bill 220, the guidelines for physician-assisted death it felt would better protect state doctors.

"Most of the money, a huge chunk of it, was spent on a public education campaign, with newspaper and radio ads," says Emily Bentley, Montana campaign manager for Compassion and Choices. "Part of that was because we knew from polling that 72 percent of Montanans were opposed to the physician imprisonment act. The bulk of our money definitely went more towards the bad bill, House Bill 505."

Compassion and Choices ranked fourth in lobbyist spending in 2011, with a reported amount of $133,336.

The nonprofit's ad campaign opposing HB 505 this spring totaled more than $33,000, and, according to Bentley, generated significant interest in Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and the Libby area. The issue also prompted Eric Kress, a Missoula doctor, to testify as the first Montana physician to publicly admit he's provided life-ending medication to terminally ill patients. HB 505, sponsored by Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, passed the House in February, then failed on second reading in the Senate. It may have gotten farther than SB 220, which died before ever leaving committee, but Bentley still feels Compassion and Choices' investment this session paid off.

click to enlarge The 2013 Montana Legislature saw nearly $6.1 million in lobbying activity, highlighting a score of key issues facing the state now. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • The 2013 Montana Legislature saw nearly $6.1 million in lobbying activity, highlighting a score of key issues facing the state now.

"We're calling it a win, for sure," she says. "Senate Bill 220 was a good bill, and Sen. Dick Barrett is a wonderful supporter for Compassion and Choices. But we don't need Senate Bill 220 for doctors to provide aid in dying. We only want it so doctors feel more comfortable providing aid in dying."

Lobbying totals for 2013 inform a number of other key moments from the past few months. The Montana Brewers Association reported $7,100 in expenses lobbying against several measures, namely House Bill 616, which sought to revise the licensing laws for craft breweries. Battles over abortion-related issues, such as Rep. Jerry Bennett's successful parental consent measure, contributed to heavy spending by groups like the Montana Family Foundation ($50,663) and the Montana Human Rights Network ($14,391). Both of those organizations also went to war lobbying on either side of Senate Bill 107, the proposal that removed a portion of law deeming gay sex a deviant act.

For Bainville, lobbying has become simply another extension of an oil boom that respects no borders. The public school largely focused its spending efforts in the legislature on bills addressing the amount of oil and natural gas revenues retained by rural school districts. A trio of measures—HBs 176, 177 and 228all sought to increase those amounts or exempt from allocation limits schools like Bainville's that are experiencing rapid growth in the student population. All died in committee by early April.

But increasing the money coming into Bainville from rampant oil development wasn't the only issue on Rasmussen's mind this session. She says she paid particular attention to discussions regarding housing laws. The average starting salary for a Bainville teacher is currently $28,140; Rasmussen says the going rental rate for a house right now is $2,300 a month, or $800 for an RV pad.

"What does a school district have to do if we're going to have teachers? We have to build houses," Rasmussen says. "Not what we wanted to do, but we didn't have any choice. We own 10 homes."

Even if Bainville builds them, there's no guarantee new staff will come for such low wages. Truck drivers make up to $100,000 a year in the patch, making school bus drivers a valuable commodity. The Bainville School District's budget—roughly $1.1 million last year—has increased by just over $100,000 since 2007.

Rasmussen's equally concerned about a financial side effect of the boom that increasing oil revenues won't fix. She recently had a senior working a convenience store job for $23 an hour"if she worked the nightshift, $26." So far Bainville's been able to convince students to stay in school and not abandon education for a hefty paycheck. But it's not easy.

"The reality is, the money is fabulous, they can live at home and not have horrendous expenses," Rasmussen says. "How do you tell a kid, 'Go to college and acquire $50,000, $40,000, $30,000 of debt'?"

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