Wildfire threatens Montana ski area, forcing evacuation
RED LODGE, Mont. (AP) — Authorities evacuated a ski lodge in southern Montana on Saturday because of a wind-driven wildfire heading toward it.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jeff Gildehaus says the wildfire was reported about 1:45 p.m. Saturday and had burned an estimated 200 acres of grass and timber about 4 miles west of the community of Red Lodge.
The fire began on open private land, but it was driven by 35 mph winds into the Custer National Forest, where the Red Lodge Mountain Resort ski area is located.
Gildehaus says the decision to evacuate the ski area was made about 2:30 p.m. He isn't sure how many people were evacuated but estimated about 500.
MONTANA BULLY BILL
Montana nears final approval of anti-bullying bill
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana is nearing final approval of a bill defining and prohibiting bullying in Montana, the only state without anti-bullying laws.
Senators passed House Bill 284 37-10 on second reading Saturday. It must pass a final vote in the Senate before heading to the desk of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
The proposal from Democratic Rep. Kimberly Dudik of Missoula would originally have directed public school districts to adopt certain policies addressing the issue of bullying. The bill was amended in the House to simply prohibit students and teachers from bullying any student in a public K-12 school.
Bullying victims have poured into the Montana Legislature throughout the vetting process, with no opponents except skeptics who question if the measure is necessary because recently adopted state regulation provides similar protections.
House votes down proposed drone regulations
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana House has killed a proposal to regulate drones after removing a major provision calling for drone licensing.
Representatives voted 49-48 Saturday to fail House Bill 593, the largest of multiple proposals this session to rein in drone use.
In its original form, the measure would have enacted a licensing procedure for unmanned aerial vehicles. The House Judiciary Committee deleted that section on Thursday.
Before defeating the measure, representatives also removed a provision requiring written consent before a drone could fly within 5 miles of an airport.
The amended bill would have prohibited flying drones after dark or within 25 feet of a nonconsenting person, and allowed local government regulations on the issue.
Daines blasted for vote on federal land transfer amendment
(Information in the following story is from: Independent Record, http://www.helenair.com)
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Some conservation groups and outdoor-related business are critical of U.S. Sen. Steve Daines for his vote on an amendment related to federal land transfers.
Critics say the amendment to a federal budget bill is a first step to federal land transfer or sale.
But a spokeswoman for the Montana Republican says the amendment does not authorize any federal land transfers or sales.
Alee Lockman also says Daines has not altered his opposition to large-scale transfer or sale of federal lands.
The amendment was sponsored by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. It passed the Senate Thursday 51-49.
Montana's other senator, Democrat Jon Tester, voted against it.
SENATE SPECIAL ELECTIONS
State senators favor elections for US Senate vacancies
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana senators are advancing proposals to require special elections to fill vacant U.S. senatorial seats.
State senators easily passed Senate Bill 169 last month and on Saturday passed a "backup" referendum, Senate Bill 279, 38-8 on second reading.
The move comes one year after Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appointed former Lt. Gov. John Walsh to fill a U.S. Senate seat vacated by retired Democrat Max Baucus.
Democratic Sen. Bradley Hamlett of Cascade brought the nearly identical proposals to require a special election 85-100 days after a U.S. Senate seat is vacated, which is already required if Montana's U.S. House of Representatives seat is vacated.
Hamlett's latest proposal would put the change on November 2016 ballots.
Air Force test-launches 2nd missile in week from California
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) — The Air Force has test-launched an unarmed Minuteman 3 missile from a Montana base.
The missile blasted off at 3:53 a.m. Friday from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the coast northwest of Los Angeles.
The Air Force says the missile carried a test re-entry vehicle that hit a target area in the Pacific Ocean near Guam 40 minutes after liftoff.
The test involved personnel from Vandenberg's 576th Flight Test Squadron and the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
It was the second missile launch test in a week. A missile from Wyoming was tested Monday.
STATE PAY AGREEMENT
House denies consideration of state employee pay plan
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Representatives have failed to take up pay raises for state employees in the House as a whole.
Montana's House of Representatives voted 44-55 on Saturday to deny consideration of House Bill 13, which had been tabled in the House Appropriations Committee on Friday. The bill is likely dead.
Under the proposal, state employees would receive 50 cents more an hour in October 2016 and again in October 2017. It represented a negotiation between Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and the three major state employee unions.
The measure would also have increased the state's contribution to health care costs by 10 percent in January 2016 and by another 8 percent in January 2017.
Senators endorse bill to close Boulder developmental center
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — State senators have endorsed a plan to close over the next two years the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder.
By a vote of 41-8, senators passed Senate Bill 411 on second reading Saturday.
The proposal would create a committee to design a specific route to fully closing the center on July 1, 2017. It would reduce the number of clients housed there by the end of 2016.
Democratic Sen. Mary Caferro of Helena says recent cases of assault and sexual abuse justify transferring all clients to community-based settings.
At a hearing on Monday, supporters told stories of abuse that have left them wondering if people will ever be safe at the Boulder center. Opponents of the bill say there's no other facility in Montana that can provide court-ordered, specialized care for developmentally disabled adults.
Senate blasts Medicaid expansion bill to floor for debate
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Senators have voted to blast a Republican lawmaker's Medicaid expansion bill out of committee and to the floor for debate.
The motion passed by a 28-22 vote on Thursday.
Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls introduced Senate Bill 405 last week, touting it as a compromise bill.
The measure would accept money from the federal government for expanding Medicaid eligibility to low-income Montanans, but requires them to pay premiums each month as well as co-payments for certain services.
Those who enroll would also be asked to participate in a workplace assessment survey designed to help people obtain higher-paying jobs.
Buttrey estimates about 45,000 Montanans would enroll in the program in the next four years.
The measure is set for a second reading floor debate and a vote on Friday.
House endorses dark money bill by narrow vote
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The House has narrowly endorsed a bill that would require more disclosure surrounding campaign donations.
House members voted 51-49 to endorse the measure after passing one of sixteen Republican amendments offered in two hours of debate.
Sponsored by Republican Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip and backed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, the measure aims to shed light on anonymous money that began flowing into elections after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Under Senate Bill 289, newly defined groups would be required to publicize reports on political donations and expenditures if they spend money supporting or opposing candidates or ballot issues.
Supporters say the bill shines a light on anonymous donors while opponents say the bill is vague and doesn't go far enough.
Montana lawmakers kill bill to create campaign ethics board
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — State lawmakers have tabled a proposal to create a campaign practices and ethics review board to decide if criminal charges should be pursued in cases of alleged campaign violations.
Members of the House State Administration Committee deadlocked and subsequently tabled House Bill 623 on Thursday, leaving little chance it will be revived before a Tuesday deadline.
The measure would have created a four-member board to decide whether litigation proposed by the Commissioner of Political Practices is necessary. Currently, the governor appoints one commissioner who enforces Montana's campaign laws. That person opposed the proposal.
Republican Rep. Ryan Osmundson said he brought the proposal to infuse bipartisanship in the state's only political watchdog role.
Republican Rep. Art Wittich, who faces trial for a campaign violation, said existing oversight seems skewed.
RANCH TAKEOVER THREAT
73-year-old gets 75 years for trying to reclaim former ranch
(Information in the following story is from: Ravalli Republic, http://www.ravallirepublic.com)
HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) — A 73-year-old man a judge says is unwilling to accept that he lost his western Montana ranch in a 1979 divorce has been sentenced to 75 years in prison for intimidating and stalking the owners.
The Ravalli Republic newspaper in Hamilton reports that District Judge Jeffrey Langton handed down the sentence Wednesday after John Fesler Lance II said that if he were released, he would try again to take back the property near Florence.
Lance spent more than 20 years in prison for felony intimidation tied to his effort to reclaim the ranch. He was released last March and showed up the next day at the owner's workplace.
Lance went to jail from April through July for violating a protection order. He was arrested at the ranch Sept. 15.
Senior BLM official convicted in Montana of fraud, theft
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A senior official in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been convicted of covering up for an employee who left his post for a job in Montana but kept drawing a federal salary.
A federal jury in Great Falls on Wednesday convicted John Grimson Lyon of Clifton, Virginia, of wire fraud, false claims and theft of government property.
The 61-year-old former state director for the BLM's Eastern States Region could face 35 years in prison, $750,000 in fines and the forfeiture of $112,000.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris allowed Lyon to remain free pending his June 25 sentencing.
Prosecutors said Lyon knew or should have known that former employee Larry Ray Denny left his post in Springfield, Virginia, to work for Montana's Chippewa Cree Tribe. Denny pleaded guilty to similar charges last week.
FATAL PLANE CRASH
1 killed, 1 hurt in small plane crash in Meagher County
(Information in the following story is from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com)
GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Authorities say a pilot was killed and his wife was injured when their small plane crashed into the Big Belt Mountains in central Montana.
Meagher County Sheriff Jon Lopp tells the Great Falls Tribune the woman called authorities at about 1 p.m. Thursday to report the Saratoga Piper Cub she and her husband were in had crashed into a mountain west of White Sulphur Springs. Lopp says the pilot apparently became disoriented in the clouds and didn't see the mountain range in front of him.
A helicopter from Malmstrom Air Force Base responded, and the woman was taken to a hospital in Helena. Her condition hasn't been released.
Lopp says the plane from Canada had stopped in Great Falls and was headed to Helena.
The victims' names have not been released.
Mine dispute involving Montana ex-governor headed for trial
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A dispute over mining claims that involves former Gov. Brian Schweitzer appears headed to trial even as federal officials gave tentative approval to the mine involved.
Schweitzer and a group of investors are seeking $10 million in compensation over mining claims that were condemned to make way for the Montanore silver and copper mine near Libby.
Project sponsor Mines Management Inc. of Spokane, Washignton rejected the group's compensation figure during court-ordered settlement talks on Wednesday.
That sets the stage for a trial next month in which a three-member commission overseen by a federal judge will settle the issue.
The U.S. Forest Service on Thursday issued a final environmental study that would allow the mine to proceed pending final approval. Mines Management chief executive Glenn Dobbs says the agency's announcement marks a huge step forward.
Execs from Montana's largest mining company moving to Denver
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Top executives from Montana's largest mining company are relocating to Denver and the company plans to close its offices in Billings as part of cost-cutting moves.
Stillwater Mining Co. Chief Executive Officer Michael McMullen told The Associated Press on Thursday that he is among five senior company officials who will make the move to Denver this summer.
That comes just two years after a leadership change at Stillwater in which McMullen's predecessor was sharply criticized for spending too much time out of state.
Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer — now Stillwater's chairman — questioned at the time how its platinum and palladium mines could be managed from outside Montana.
McMullen says the relocation plan has support from Schweitzer and other board members. He says he'll remain a hands-on manager.
Supreme Court upholds $150K restitution in securities fraud
(Information in the following story is from: Ravalli Republic, http://www.ravallirepublic.com)
HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court has upheld a $150,000 restitution award in a securities fraud case against a Hamilton pastor, but reversed his conviction for fraudulent practices and sent the case back to District Court for a new trial.
Harris Himes was convicted in September 2013 of failure to register a security, failure to register as a security salesman and fraudulent practices. He was sentenced to three concurrent 10-year commitments with the Department of Corrections.
Prosecutors alleged Himes cheated a church member out of $150,000 by telling the man the money would be invested in a factory in Mexico that didn't exist.
The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that District Judge Loren Tucker erred by giving the jury a definition of "fraudulent practices" that was not in effect at the time of Himes' actions and overturned that conviction.
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