- Associated Press - Friday, December 18, 2015

The Independent Record, Dec. 9, on appointing a new lieutenant governor:

When one public official hires another public official for a prominent public position, it makes sense to conduct the process in public.

And we’re hoping that will happen as Gov. Steve Bullock selects a candidate to replace Lt. Gov. Angela McLean, who recently announced she is resigning to take a job at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Montana law says that if the lieutenant governor resigns, “the governor shall appoint a qualified person to serve in that office for the remainder of the term.”

The governor is not the only one affected by that appointment, however.

In Montana, the lieutenant governor is responsible for any duties delegated by the governor. The lieutenant governor’s responsibilities could include anything from helping to ensure the state’s laws and constitution are upheld to filling the gubernatorial vacancy if the governor becomes unable to serve.

This is not the first time Bullock has had to look for a new lieutenant governor, as he has already had two people fill the office since he took over as governor in 2013. He has also had the responsibility of filling other prominent political offices, including the U.S. Senate seat Max Baucus left in 2014.

With John Walsh’s appointment to the U.S. Senate, Bullock declined multiple attempts by several media outlets to discuss the process he would undertake in looking for a replacement for Baucus. The popular wisdom, which turned out to be correct in this case, was Bullock would take the opportunity to appoint Walsh, who was already in a tight race against Steve Daines for the seat.

By going through the appointment process behind closed doors, Bullock effectively shut the public out from what should have been an open process. What would be the harm in discussing qualifications that make a good appointee or opening up the search to all Montanans who felt they had the ability and desire to serve? Bullock has been widely criticized for putting a veil of secrecy over that hiring process, and we’re hoping he has learned from that experience.

Though it’s the governor’s right and responsibility to choose the next lieutenant governor, he must realize that his constituents have as much at stake as he does in this decision.

It’s one thing to select a running mate, but it’s quite another to select a person who in an emergency would be required to take the helm of the ship, so to speak.

We believe the public has a right to know the process Bullock is using in making this important decision, and he needs to be honest with us about what he’s looking for in a lieutenant governor and how he is vetting candidates.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/1OvNNJy

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Billings Gazette, Dec. 13, on funding for transportation projects:

After years of passing patches that lasted only months or weeks, Congress finally delivered a multi-year Highway Bill.

That’s great news, especially for Montana, because our vast, sparsely populated state depends on federal funding for about 87 percent of our highway construction budget. The other 13 percent comes from the state’s 27 cents per gallon fuel tax. Few other states lean so heavily on federal support.

H.R.22 passed with strong bipartisan support, garnering the votes of every member of both the Montana and Wyoming delegations.

“For the most part, it’s a very good bill for Montana,” Jim Skinner of the Montana Department of Transportation said last week from Helena. The legislation (quickly signed into law by President Obama) includes small increases for inflation. It maintains state authority to select projects and continues transit funding for 40 Montana communities, including the Billings MET buses.

Skinner credited Montana’s delegation, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke for their work.

“They did a really good job protecting Montana’s rural interests,” he said.

No more construction delays

“The five-year authorization allows us stability in our project delivery and planning process,” Skinner said. “It makes it so we don’t have to juggle projects.” Earlier this year, MDOT had to delay the start of some projects because full funding from the federal government was uncertain.

However, the new law doesn’t include major funding to tackle aging bridges or other inadequate infrastructure.

“It’s not going to allow us to turn the tide on deteriorating infrastructure,” Skinner said.

According to a statement from Daines, 46 percent of Montana’s 74,000 miles of public roads are in mediocre to poor condition, a situation that costs the average Montana motorist about $484 per year in additional vehicle maintenance.

Daines said Montana has 914 bridges that are structurally deficient or obsolete, but only 216 are on the National Highway System. He said the other 698 will now have great access to federal funds for repairs.

Exports and crop insurance

Tester noted that the five-year authorization invests nearly $2.3 billion in Montana transportation, increasing highway funding by 5.1 percent this fiscal year.

Tester also supported reauthorization of the Export Import Bank, which was added to the Highway Bill. The Gazette had urged the Montana delegation to support the bank because it pays for itself and makes U.S. goods more competitive in the world market.

For his part, Zinke touted the crop insurance funding that was added to the highway bill. Crop insurance subsidies had been left out of the budget deal negotiated in October by then House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama.

Getting a multi-year Highway Bill is critical. However, the funding gimmicks don’t deserve as much praise. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out that the bill increases spending without producing any new resources for the government. Instead, it will transfer the Federal Reserve’s capital surplus to the Treasury. The bill also relies on selling oil from the nation’s strategic reserve at a time when prices are relatively low. The new law authorizes a higher level of transportation spending for five years, but even with these gimmicks, the funding only covers three years. Some of the funding it relies on will be realized over the next 10 years, yet all of the money in the bill will be spent in the next three years.

The FAST Act is a shortcut that doesn’t take the nation to sustainable funding for our vital road system. Congress and Obama rejected the obvious need to modestly increase the federal per gallon fuel tax and index it to inflation. Making travelers pay the cost of maintaining public roads is the fairest long-term solution.

At least Montana has a transportation program funded for three construction seasons. That’s a much better deal than usual from Capitol Hill.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/1T1cuS0

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Great Falls Tribune, Dec. 15, on sex offender evaluations:

Sex offenses are horrendous and reporting the crimes and the process of a trial is grueling for victims.

As a story in the Tribune Sunday by Andrea Fisher pointed out, there are situations in Montana district court in which defense attorneys for those accused of sex-related crimes can essentially shop around for a sex offender evaluation that is most favorable to their client during sentencing.

The article cited the case of a man who molested a 4-year-old girl. Johnny Ray Seright pleaded guilty to felony sexual assault of a child, but the defense rejected the psychosexual evaluation it had requested because it was unfavorable.

That strikes the editorial board, and Great Falls Police Detective Jesse Slaughter, as a situation that is not objective and fair-minded. If the defense can shop around for a psychologist or counselor who will be easy on a defendant, that process can end up creating danger for members of the public.

State district judges can try to resolve these cases by using their best judgment, but it would be best for these jurists to have objective information available to them.

That’s why Slaughter has suggested that appointment of the evaluator be made by the presiding judge, rather than by defense attorney. That seems to us to be the best course of action.

We realize that defense attorneys have bristled for years at greater amounts of money and experts available to prosecutors in criminal cases, while public defenders are relegated to shopworn offices, lesser pay and reduced access to experts. We understand the frustration, and we agree funding for both prosecution and defense needs to be placed on a more even footing.

That said, psychosexual evaluations are an issue of protecting the public from sexual predators and people who are more likely to offend again. This is an evaluation that is done after the criminal admits guilt, and the goal is protect the public, as well as attempt to rehabilitate the offender.

We endorse the idea that the 2017 Montana Legislature should enact a law placing authority over appointment of the evaluator in the hands of a state district judge, rather than leaving the appointment, and also whether the results would be provided in court, to the defense.

It’s a matter of fairness and public safety.

Editorial: http://gftrib.com/1Jbqtiv

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