Dems smack down SEIU dues-play in Montana

Related story: "SEIU sees dues bonanza in Montana"

Misuse of voter-initiative process cited

A voter initiative to expand in-home care for the elderly and the disabled in Montana won't be on the ballot this fall. The labor union pursuing Initiative 159 announced Wednesday that it is withdrawing the measure.

Ted Dick, the political director of the Montana for Service Employees International Union, said the union and its supporters gathered more than enough voter signatures to place I-159 on the general-election ballot this November. But facing political pressure from Democratic legislative leaders and advocacy groups that said they "had problems" with I-159, the union on Wednesday formally asked election officials to stop counting the signatures.

Dick said leading Democrats and the advocacy groups convinced the union that it would be better to work through the 2009 Legislature to expand and reform in-home health care rather than to attempt an overhaul with a voter initiative.

"We want to go through the legislative process, so everybody can understand this issue a lot better," he said at a Capitol news conference. "In the end, it just kind of made sense. We need to really take the opportunity to study it, to vet it, and get a lot of input from people who received these services."

Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, said Democratic leaders have committed to working on legislation in 2009 that could expand access to in-home care.

"If we run it through the Legislature, we can take a much more in-depth look at what the costs would be," Cooney said. "We can ask a lot of questions."

I-159, if approved by voters, would have allowed in-home care workers to be independent, private contractors employed by the people they care for. They would be paid by state and federal funds and could choose to become organized by the union.

The union pitched the proposal as a way to expand in-home care and allow more people to stay in their homes instead of going to a nursing home, thus saving government money over the long run.

Dick said the union spent about $150,000 to collect signatures to place I-159 on the ballot and collected 30,000 signatures of registered voters in five weeks. A ballot measure needs only 22,308 valid signatures to qualify, as well as signatures of 5 percent of the voters in at least 34 of Montana's 100 legislative districts.

Several prominent groups had declared their opposition to I-159, including the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes and in-home care companies, and AARP-Montana, the state's largest consumer group for the elderly.

Cooney said Wednesday that Democratic leaders had concerns about the initiative's potential cost to the state and whether its changes would truly benefit the elderly and the disabled.

He said he and Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, had a teleconference two weeks ago with the union leaders in Montana and Seattle, asking the union to consider withdrawing the measure.

"We made the point to SEIU leadership that we would like to at least have a bite at the apple here (in the Legislature) and try to craft good policy that we felt comfortable with," Cooney said. "If the Legislature does not succeed in making strides along this route, I suspect SEIU, along with other groups, may revisit this in the future."

Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, the executive director for Disability Rights Montana, said that group is "very pleased" with the decision to withdraw I-159.

Decisions on changing the in-home care system for the disabled needs more input from those it serves, she said, and the initiative "was not an inclusive process."

"We need to make sure (the system) is based on the values of the people who are affected," she said.

Dick said the union will spend more of its efforts to help elect legislators who support its vision of expanding in-home care.


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