Five generations ago, my mother’s family settled in Kalispell’s Lower Valley. They tilled the soil and tamed the land, some of which is still in the family today. The valley has changed tremendously since the 1890’s, and if my legislative inbox is any indicator, the most recent cultural and infrastructure changes are weighing heavily on residents of the Flathead.
One of the most dramatic changes is the rise of crime, evidenced by a skyrocketing number of break-ins, vandalism, and assaults in the last few years. Until a month ago, a big-city biker gang attacking bystanders at a public event would have seemed outside the realm of possibility. Assaults with a deadly weapon have doubled year over year, and our law enforcement is stretched thin. For the first time, many are questioning their safety in our sleepy little town.
The message I heard while campaigning was clear: Go to Helena and do something about it. The charge was large and provided a perfect space to foster a team effort. While in Helena, as a delegation, we have looked at all angles of the crime issue - from mental health services and housing solutions to law enforcement resources and tougher penalties for drug trafficking.
Much work has been done to-date to move the dial. Representative Keenan is currently shepherding through a $300-million-dollar investment in our state’s mental health services. Representative Fern has presented numerous creative housing initiatives that are still in play. As a whole, the House has overwhelmingly voted to fund programs for mental health and housing; it’s been an honor to support both priorities.
The 68th legislature has also backed several criminal justice efforts that will promote safety in the Flathead, including a package of three community safety bills I was pleased to sponsor. The first, House Bill 256, permits auxiliary officers in the Flathead Valley Sheriff’s Posse to carry a less-than-lethal weapon upon approval from the Sheriff and completion of comprehensive training. Auxiliary officers provide approximately 10,000 hours of service at public events, crime scenes, and rescue missions; the capability to protect themselves and others while in uniform is a win for the safety of our community.
(Posse member Lambrecht, Sheriff‘s Posse Commander Murphy, Corporal Pesola, and Representative Sprunger connect after a successful hearing in Senate Judiciary.)
Second, House Bill 790 builds on the collaboration of Representative Garner and Senator Regier in the 2021 session. Together, they passed a bill allowing for electronic monitoring of those awaiting trial for felony domestic assault. House Bill 790 provides survivors of domestic assault the choice to directly opt in to electronic monitoring and receive direct notification. Knowing if an alleged attacker is near their home or work can serve as a life-saving service for survivors of domestic assault.
Third in the series is House Bill 791, which ensures a mandatory minimum jail sentence of two years for anyone convicted of trafficking fentanyl in Montana. In our state, Fentanyl seizures have increased by almost 11,000% since 2019. The bill was crafted in conjunction with Montana Attorney General Knudsen and the Department of Justice to ensure it targets traffickers – those with 100 or more units of fentanyl – and that it does not sweep in those with a substance addiction in need of rehabilitation services. For those seeking support for an addiction, we are with you; this session, we dedicated substantial resources to mental health and rehabilitation through programs such as the HEART Fund. For traffickers who profit off the death and destruction of Montanans, the message is now clear: if you sell fentanyl in our state, you’re going to jail.
All three public safety bills are headed to the Governor’s desk for signature. These collaborations and many others highlight our delegation’s ability to work together for the betterment and safety of our community. That willingness should, in my mind, be a primary qualifier for any public servant. May we continue to look for common understanding in an effort to make Kalispell a place we can all be proud to call home.