From redistricting to the state's rural/urban divide to the influence of dark money, a group of western Montana lawmakers on Thursday discussed the greatest issues facing the state as part of the Leadership Montana Confluence, a two-day gathering of movers and shakers meant to foster personal growth and collaboration.

The event was held on the University of Montana campus and continues Friday.

Thursday afternoon's legislative and economic issues panel included three state legislators: Rep. Frank Garner, a Republican from Whitefish; Rep. Ellie Hill, a Democrat from Missoula; and Sen. Pat Connell, a Republican from Hamilton.

They were joined by Missoula City Council member Emily Bentley and lobbyist Jennifer Hensley, president of Public Solutions in Butte.

Each panelist started the discussion by talking about what they perceive to be the biggest issue in the state. Much of the discussion focused on growth and how the population is concentrating in urban centers.

“The federal government has, frankly, continued to pass the buck to the state and local governments, especially on infrastructure,” Bentley said. “And so when we look at growth in Missoula, we know that we’re going to have 24,000 additional people here in the next 20 years. And how are we going to accommodate those people without carving up every single green field in our county and our city?

"And so, we have to do that through density and encourage economic development. And one of the things we talk about is transportation funding and how that affects growth.”

Bentley said she hears from housing developers that the impediments to new housing complexes often involve parking.

“They can’t get housing to pencil out for multifamily with structure parking, and of course we can’t have dense housing without it,” she said. “And so how can we look at public/private partnerships for that? And transit? And basically looking for ways we can look to be creative toward density and growth are the most important things.”

Bentley said the way in which local government interfaces with the state and federal government is critical.

“And of course I think all things start locally,” she said. “Which is why when people come to me with social issues that we may or may not have a lot of jurisdiction over, but when a group of well-organized people comes to me and asks me to do the right thing, I always say yes. All of the major social changes that have happened in this country have started with local solutions, from marriage equality to everything. And that’s why you hear about the Missoula City Council always leading locally on those issues.”

***

Connell said the most important things Montanans will face this fall and next year are the elections.

“It is absolutely incredibly crucial for the future in which we as Montanans want this state to go,” he said. “I’m a Republican. My party seems to be wanting to try to make a pup tent out of a big tent in some situations. It’s very challenging to the idea of governance when you have the media feasting off of turmoil because you’ve gotta have a new story to get the people to listen to you or to read your story. And it’s gotta be inflammatory, it feels. And you as the voters simply have a challenging row to hoe if you really want to learn the details of an issue that’s critical to you.”

Connell also said that the differences between eastern and western Montana pose a real challenge for lawmakers who try to work together on issues.

“The concerns of Wibaux County are much different than the concerns of Missoula County,” he said. “All you have to do is look at state politics over the last elections. There’s an awful lot of folks who come out of Billings thinking that they’re going to skate right into a statewide office. And they find out that this little hill between east and west is actually deeper than the Grand Canyon philosophically and attitude-wise. And that presents an incredible difficulty for both policy and politic issues that we deal with in the session. And redistricting has further consolidated voting power into voting caucuses of Yellowstone County and Missoula County.”

***

Hill said the majority of Montanans now live in just a few cities.

“The majority of Montanans are now urban Montanans,” she said. “They’re city people. They’re not cowboys riding around on ranches. You know, 8 to 10 percent are Native Americans including urban Indians, but other than that they live in Billings and they live in Missoula. That’s what we’re struggling with as people and that’s what we’re struggling with in the Capitol. What does it mean to be a Montanan?”

Term limits, campaign finance reform and how inclusive the Republican Party chooses to be are the big issues in politics, Hill said. She stressed that this past session, Republicans and Democrats worked together on several big issues, such as the so-called "Uber bill" that ended competitor vetoes by existing taxi companies on new transportation services.

***

Garner, the former chief of the Kalispell Police Department, said it’s a constant challenge to represent everybody in his district. He said his time in Afghanistan as a police adviser gave him the perspective that he’s supposed to be concerned about all the people.

“And so as a freshman legislator, I carried the bill in the House that many of you would probably know as the ‘dark money bill,’ and I think I probably received more praise and criticism for my stance on that bill,” he said. “I think everyone should have the right to speech when it comes to how we influence elections. I just think you ought to know who’s trying to influence you when it comes to our elections and your vote. It’s pretty simple.”

***

Leadership Montana is a nonprofit organization governed by a volunteer board that holds these seminars across the state every year, according to executive director Chantel Schieffer.

“It’s a statewide leadership development and alumni organization,” she said. “We’ve been around for about 12 years. Every year, we select between 40 and 44 leaders from different communities to travel the state together and learn about the challenges and opportunities and go through a very personal leadership development journey.”

For more information, visit leadershipmontana.org.

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