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In any legislative session there are moments when the political fog lifts and the true debate emerges. This session it came during the discussions surrounding efforts to pass right-to-work legislation. A bill was recently introduced to bar public employees from collective bargaining. If the point of the legislation was about unions, why not include everyone? Then the light went on, this is not a debate about unions, certainly the law allows unions. This is actually a debate about whether Montana public employees are entitled to the rights of full citizenship.

This legislation would have eliminated for a small number of Montana workers a right -- the right to collectively bargain. Every citizen in Montana has the right, by law, to organize. There are those in the Legislature who consider this an inconvenient right. They explain that it is messy to allow labor representatives to bargain against the taxpayer and unions don’t always allow for political decision making. Yes, the right of workers to bargain with their employers is sometimes inconvenient. Just like the right of free speech, the right to nondiscrimination and oh, yes the right to bear arms. That’s how rights are. As a society we grant them to show or citizens that they are full participants in this democracy. But then along comes legislation, based on the belief, that if you care for the elderly, protect our safety, plow our roads, teach our children or preserve our heritage and wildlife then you have not achieved the right to form a union. Your neighbor who fixes your car, or serves you a cocktail, or keeps your power on, they have jobs of entitlement, so they are allowed to collectively bargain.

So much legislation this session has been about who is entitled and who is not. And so far it has gone like this: The tax code should favor the wealthy; the school system should concentrate on the gifted and those who can afford it. We must help the oil boom counties in eastern Montana but the unemployment problems of Lincoln, Madison, or Silver Bow can wait. Our tribal friends may have treaty rights but they should not be recognized.

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In the coming 45 days we will be considering and debating my legislation, House Bill 249. This bill encompasses Gov. Bullock’s Healthy Montana plan, which expands needed health care to 70,000 working Montanans. The debate against Medicaid expansion is centered on the belief that the program is simply increased welfare for the undeserving. Setting aside the cost we all pay for expensive emergency room care, forgetting the economic health and safety of our hospitals, ignoring the consequences to our Montana families, and failing to recognize the faces of individuals in need seems to be the only way anyone could oppose such legislation. Many conservative Republican governors across this nation choose to care for their citizens and expand their states Medicaid program. Their ideological commitment is undoubtedly the same as the conservative members of our legislature, but their degree of compassion may prove to be greater.

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This next half of the session we will make a choice between two strikingly different Montanas. One is a state where we fence out our neighbors, are suspicious of our tribes, resent our government, punish our workers, alienate our poor, ignore our sick, and favor those who are deemed entitled. And the other is a state that lives up to our constitution, values all its citizens and their contributions, provide opportunity for all willing to try, rejoices in diversity and takes great pride in its culture of compassion. Is this a Montana where we bring all our citizens along in a positive blue sky agenda, or a Montana that pushes into the dark, selfish pools of suspicion and envy? Which Montana will we be?

 -- Montana Rep. Pat Noonan. D-Butte, is a fourth-term legislator representing House District 74 and Healthy Montana bill sponsor.

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