Red Flag Law would save Montanan lives

I have dedicated much of my career to making Montana a better place, first as Helena City Commissioner, and now as the state representative from Helena. Nothing is more important to me than protecting Montanans, and the suicide crisis in our state and in our country has left me concerned, looking for ways to take action.

Suicide rates are climbing across the country, and our state has the highest rate of suicide – more than twice the national average. On average, one Montana resident dies by firearm suicide every 52 hours, and Montanans are 6.5 times more likely to die by firearm suicide than by firearm homicide.

As I see it – as a father and gun-owner – the most important way we can work to bring down the firearm suicide rate here in Montana is to pass a law that would help families and law enforcement intervene in times of crisis. Tragic acts of gun violence, including gun suicides, are often preceded by warning signs that a person is a danger to themselves and others. A Red Flag law would empower family members and law enforcement — the people most likely to spot these warning signs — to act on these red flags before they turn into tragedy.

Here is how it would work: When family members or law enforcement detect threats of violence or dangerous behavior, they would be able to petition a court to seek a year-long Extreme Risk Protection Order, which would remove guns from a person in crisis. Before the final protection order may be issued, there would be a full legal hearing for all parties involved. If a court finds the person does indeed pose a significant risk of injuring themselves or others with a firearm, that person would be temporarily prohibited from purchasing and possessing guns.

Reducing access to firearms for a person in crisis can save lives. Red Flag laws are a powerful crisis intervention tool when someone might pose a risk to themselves or to others.

Easy access to a gun triples the risk of death by suicide. Of the most commonly used methods of self-harm, firearms are by far the most lethal, with a fatality rate of approximately 85 percent. Conversely, less than 5 percent of people who attempt suicide using other methods will die.

What’s clear here is that we must do more to disrupt firearm access in moments of crisis.

Fourteen states have already created a way to do this by enacting Red Flag laws. And lives are already being saved. Last year, a study found that Red Flag laws in Indiana and Connecticut were associated with decreases in the firearm suicide rate in both states. In the first decade after enactment, Indiana’s firearm suicide rate decreased by 7.5 percent. Connecticut also saw a 14 percent drop in the firearm suicide rate over the eight years following the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, in which the state tightened enforcement of their Red Flag law.

It is long past time for Montanans to come together toward a common purpose: keeping our families safe by preventing gun suicides. That’s why I introduced HB718. I hope you will ask your representatives to join me in supporting this common-sense legislation to save lives.

Fueling Montana’s future with school breakfast

As a father myself, I know I want to do all I can to set my kids up for success each day. I want them to have a bright future. And I know that starts ensuring they have the nutritious meals they need to thrive.

Unfortunately, not all Montana kids get that start they need each day. That’s why I’m sponsoring HB 648, a bill that will provide high-need schools with a financial incentive to increase their school breakfast program participation.

School meals like breakfast can close the gap between kids who have enough to eat and those who don’t. One in six Montana kids struggle with hunger, and we can dramatically reduce that hunger by making sure kids in need are able to access school breakfast.

But ensuring that more Montana kids are able to eat school breakfast does more than just quiet rumbling stomachs. If our children start the day too hungry to learn, their academic success is doomed before classes even start. For teachers to effectively teach, students’ basic needs must be met. Students cannot do well in school without textbooks, and they can’t be expected to do well in school without the nutrition they need in the morning to fuel their brains and bodies. Research shows that when kids eat breakfast each day, their test scores rise, attendance improves, and discipline problems drop.

Making sure more kids are getting a morning meal can have a profound impact on long term academic achievement in Montana. It leads to better graduation rates, healthier citizens, and a stronger economy. When children are hungry, they are more likely to develop preventable illnesses and struggle to grow up to be strong, healthy, and productive members of our society. This comes at a massive cost to the Montana economy and its competitiveness. Montana businesses want a strong pool of candidates, and making sure kids get the nutrition that fuels their brains and bodies helps to ensure a smarter, healthier workforce of tomorrow. As lawmakers and proud Montanans, we all want a robust economy and employment opportunities for our state.

To build the strong, healthy, educated workforce of tomorrow, we need to focus on the kids of today.

As a father, and as a representative, I’m proud to sponsor this legislative initiative that will ensure that every kid gets to focus on their studies and not on their stomachs. By encouraging more schools to expand their students’ access to school breakfast, HB 648 will allow more kids to fuel their dreams and kick-start Montana’s future.

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.