AFSCME Endorses Robert Farris-Olsen for House District 81


AFSCME is proud to endorse Rob Farris-Olsen in his race to become the next representative of House District 81. As a Helena city commissioner Rob has shown his dedication to public employees, and will provide a strong and consistent voice for Helena’s workers when he is elected.

Rob, the son of two public employees, understands that our State, County and Municipal employees help form the backbone of Helena’s economy. He will work to protect them from unnecessary budget cuts and layoffs and demeaning political attacks while simultaneously working to ensure the solvency of their retirement.

In his time on the Commission, Rob has demonstrated his leadership qualities, and fought to improve the lives of Municipal employees. Rob established Helena’s paid parental leave policy to make sure that parents wouldn’t have to sacrifice their jobs to have a family. We know he will work to do the same at the state level.

If you take the time to spend a few minutes with Rob it doesn’t take long to appreciate his dedication and willingness to better the lives of Helena’s hard working families, says Timm Twardoski, Executive Director of AFSCME. I am confident Rob will continue his dedication and family values as the next Representative serving HD 81. Rob understands we need to make it easier, not harder, for Montanans to continue to improve our communities.

When asked about the endorsement, Rob shared, “I'm honored to be endorsed by AFSCME. As the son of a 35-year state employee, and a lifelong Helenan, I understand how important our public servants are. They work hard every day, and I will work to protect their jobs and retirement. This community exists because of public employees, and we must work to provide them the support they need.”

On Helena’s city commission, Rob also dedicated his time to improving City infrastructure, creating economic opportunity, and ensuring that all of Helena’s citizens are protected. He was instrumental in adjusting the rate structure to make sure large corporate interests pay their fair share into our infrastructure, while simultaneously funding over $100 million of infrastructure needs.

Rob lives in House District 81 on the same street he grew up on with his wife Erin, Executive Director of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council, and young son Tupper.

Tackling Climate Change

Here's a recent editorial published by the Helena IR:

In 2009, the Helena Climate Change Task Force created an Action Plan for the city to assess its Greenhouse Gas emissions and the vulnerability of the City’s water supply, as well as make recommendations to the City to address these issues. Over the past nine years, the City has addressed a number of the recommendations, with many of them coming in the last two years.

Two years ago, the City fundamentally changed its rate structures to promote water conservation and limit resident’s exposure to rate increases. As part of the change, with Commission created a tiered water rate system, or “inverted block rate” whereby those who use between 0-8 units pay less per unit than those who use between 9-15 and more than 15 units. The purpose of this rate structure is to discourage excessive use of wasteful water practices and providing incentives for lower water rates. The City has seen the impacts, as the Parks department decreased City water usage over the last two years.

Most recently, the City created a Citizen Conservation Board, with the stated purpose of implementing Task Force recommendations. As part of the resolution creating the Citizen Conservation Board, the Commission also created an annual report wherein the City documents specific activities implemented by the City, track greenhouse gasses, energy usage and other resources such as water, and recommend future sustainability measures for the City of Helena. The first Citizen Conservation Board had its first meeting on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, and the first annual report will be part of this year’s budget. These two items will help guide the City as we move forward with implementing additional recommendations of the Task Force Report.

As we move forward following, the City still has much work to. Including, implementing some larger scale changes, such as hiring a sustainability coordinator, establishing Greenhouse Gas reduction goals, instituting a disposal fee for plastic bags, and improving our non-motorized travel options. I’m hopeful with the guidance and support of our new Citizen Conservation Board, the City will move forward and begin continue implementing the Task Force’s recommendations.

Social Justice: Driver's License Suspensions Target the Poorest Montanans

Often times, our laws - either intentionally or unintentionally - target our poorest citizens exacerbating their economic plight. One example of this is the recent lawsuit Scott Peterson and I filed with the non-profit group Equal Justice Under the Law.  

The lawsuit tells the story of Michael DiFrancesco, who is a 22-year old. He has never been charged with a moving traffic violation, or any violation related to road safety, yet State law prevents him from obtaining a driver's license. It all started when he was cited in 2008 for an MIP and fined $185 and ordered to attend a community based substance abuse program. Mr. DiFrancesco could no afford his fine or for the course. So in January 2009, his driver's license was suspended. He was never given a hearing on his ability to pay the fine or for the course. 

In order for Mr. DiFrancesco to get his license back, he was required to pay the fine, complete the course, and pay a reinstatement fee. He of course could not afford these costs. As a result, he has never been able to obtain a driver's license. He was ultimately able to pay his original fine, and for the program, but in the meantime he was cited for driving without a valid license, racking up more debt. Debt he couldn't pay. He was also declared a Habitual Traffic Offender and had his license revoked for a period of three years.  

Mr. DiFrancesco's inability to get his license is due solely to his poverty. His license was suspended because he couldn't pay a fine; he was convicted of driving with a valid license because he had to drive to work; and he can't get his license back now because he owes $4,000 in unpaid fines. 

Unfortunately, Mr. DiFrancesco's situation is not unique. In my 4 years as contract public defender, I've seen this scenario numerous times. Sometimes the stories are even worse. For example, if a person is arrested while driving with a suspended license, and convicted of driving with a suspended license, the license is suspended for another year. This creates a cycle where a person can never get their license back, and extends the cycle of poverty. 

Oftentimes, it seems our legislature forgets how some of our laws affect our poorest citizens, and how by making small changes we can have significant economic impacts. With my experience, I will fight to make sure that the State does not unfairly target our poorest citizens. 

Paid Parental Leave

Since before becoming a City Commissioner, I have envisioned paid parental leave for all city employees. On August 2, 2017, we made it a reality. 

As described by the Helena Independent Record:

Commissioner Rob Farris-Olsen instigated research into the initiative which could provide paid time off for new parents in a variety of situations. Based on preliminary cost estimates provided by the human resources department, the plan gained support from all four commissioners and Mayor Jim Smith.

On average over the past five years, eight city employees, mothers or fathers, have had children per year, according to a report from city human resources director James Fehr. Providing paid parental leave is estimated to cost the city $9,500 per week offered if the average of eight employees requesting it per year stayed the same.

The parental leave would be open not only to mothers, but also fathers, adoptees of infants, foster parents of infants and same sex couples, Fehr said.

“There are a lot of overall benefits for the city and it’s employees with this,” he said. “It’s a great tool to attract and retain the most qualified employees. It also allows parents to bond with children and come back when they’re ready. It’s definitely a trend that is picking up momentum across the country.”

After discussion, city commissioners requested further research into the costs and effects of offering four weeks of paid parental leave at an estimated cost of $38,000 per year.

“Compared to the million we spent on increased personnel costs this year, offering this seems like a pretty minor impact on our budget,” Farris-Olsen said.

If elected, I will work to ensure all Montana families don't have to sacrifice their jobs to bond with their family.


Living Wages, Small Business, and the Environment

Just over two years ago, the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce asked me to sign a pledge opposing minimum wage increases or the creation of a living wage. The Chamber also wanted me to pledge to support business development at the expense of the environment.

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I'm proud to have rejected those requests then, and I will continue to work to ensuring that Montana's workers are paid sufficiently. Our workers are one of Montana's most valuable resources and we must make sure they are paid accordingly.

Our environment is another valuable resource that we can't ignore when making decisions about business. Instead we can promote economic growth while protecting our environment.  Our state employs 71,000 people in the recreation industry, which accounts for $7.1 billion in consumer spending. And counties with public lands attract people and jobs. These "public lands are helping to diversify Montana’s economy and fuel industries like outdoor recreation, and professional and technical services."* So economic growth and environmental protection go hand-in-hand.

As a legislator, I will work to protect Montana's assets whether its workers or the environment. I hope I can count on your support.