Senate president seeks to oust AP from 3rd floor press room

Former Republican Gov. Tim Babcock praised him as “the fairest person I ever knew,” and said when J.D. Holmes wrote something “you didn’t have to worry about its accuracy.”

J.D. Holmes, an influential and respected political writer for The Associated Press, is shown in this undated file photo. Holmes, who covered Montana state government for 30 years, died Sunday, March 21, 1999, in a Helena, Mont., nursing home. That year the Legislature passed a resolution naming the 3rd floor press room in his honor.  Holmes, who retired in 1978, is shown working in the study of his home, flanked on one wall by filing cabinets filled with clippings and other information. He is holding one of his famous "black books,'' crammed with information about state government. (AP Photo, files)
J.D. Holmes, an influential and respected political writer for The Associated Press, is shown in this undated file photo. Holmes, who covered Montana state government for 30 years, died Sunday, March 21, 1999, in a Helena, Mont., nursing home. That year the Legislature passed a resolution naming the 3rd floor press room in his honor. Holmes, who retired in 1978, is shown working in the study of his home, flanked on one wall by filing cabinets filled with clippings and other information. He is holding one of his famous “black books,” crammed with information about state government. (AP Photo, files)

One time Holmes discovered a serious error in the state budget after lawmakers had left for the session. His discovery prompted a special legislative session to correct it.

Legendary Hi Line lawmaker Francis Bardanouve said Holmes “knew more about how much money we spent than we did.”

Holmes was so revered by lawmakers who served during the 16 legislative sessions he served as the Associated Press Montana Capitol reporter, that in 1999 the Legislature passed a resolution naming the press room on the third floor of the capitol the “J.D. Holmes Press Room.”

Incoming Senate President Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, has now made inquiries into turning the J.D. Holmes Press Room into Senate office space, a move would oust Associated Press capitol reporter Lisa Baumann, who currently occupies the space.

In a telephone message Friday morning Barrett said she has not formally requested the space but acknowledged making inquiries.

“I want to meet with (Department of Administration Director Sheila) Hogan, and my staff, maybe legislative staff, and just ask some questions (about) why we have what we have,” Barrett said. “Things have evolved, and technology has changed. So I’m just going to kind of find my options.”

Sheryl Olson, of the Department of Administration, also confirmed that her office was looking into the legislative history of the room on behalf of legislative leadership.

In an email Friday Olson said her office has not received an official request to relocate the AP press room, “but informal inquiries have been made.”

The Associated Press pays rent for the space. Olson said the AP wasn’t notified of the inquiry since there hasn’t been an official request. The authority to make the decision rests with the Department of Administration, according to state statute, which states “The Department of Administration may provide space in the capitol for the use of representatives of the press.”

Barrett did not return calls seeking comment, but Legislative Services Director Susan Fox confirmed Barrett inquired into taking over the space for Senate offices. Sheryl Olson, of the Department of Administration, also confirmed her office was looking into the legislative history of the room on behalf of legislative leadership for the purposes of taking over the space.

Baumann directed calls to the AP regional bureau chief in Denver, Jim Clarke.

“The Associated Press is in the business of reporting the news fairly and accurately, and in particular we’re in the business of holding political leaders accountable,” Clarke said. “We can do that from our current press room, or we can do it from the basement, but either way, we’re going to do it.”

The Associated Press is the lead plaintiff in a legal action 22 news media organizations filed last month against the House Republican caucus asking a judge to find lawmakers in contempt of a 1998 court ruling ordering partisan caucuses to be open to the public.

A judge has scheduled a hearing on that case for Dec. 9.

Former Rep. Hal Harper, D-Helena, was the lead sponsor of the 1999 resolution naming the office space after Holmes. Eighty-nine other lawmakers from both parties and both houses co-sponsored the bill.

Harper said the purpose of the resolution was to ensure the press would always have an office in the heart of the legislative process.

“There is a need for the people’s reporters to be ensconced in the middle of the legislative process so the public can know what’s happening,” Harper said.

Former Rep. Walter McNutt, R-Sidney, was one of the co-sponsors of the bill.

“The idea of them having a place seemed like a good idea to me,” McNutt said. “If you wanted to talk to the press, could always find somebody. The office is centrally located and it was a matter of convenience for me. Periodically you would want to find someone to talk to in the press and you always knew where to go.”

According to Legislative Services staff there has been dedicated press room on the third floor of the capitol – where the Legislature conducts the majority of its business – since at least as far back as 1974.

Former longtime AP capitol reporter Bob Anez said having a news permanent news presence in the capitol someplace other than the basement, which is where the rest of the capitol press corps operatives out of, is critical for the public.

“On more than one occasion I found stories from just being there in the building, seeing people walk by the newsroom, ask them what was up, and found out something was going on,” Anez said. “And it wasn’t a one-way street.”

Anez said removing the AP reporter from the heart of the legislative arena would “blindfold the public to what goes on in their capitol at the hands of their public officials.”

“It’s not a news media issue, it’s a public awareness issue,” Anez said. “I find it curious they would say they need more space. Every senator has a desk or at least an office and phone. They never used to have that.”

Updated on 12/05/14 at 12:23 p.m. with comments from Debby Barrett and Sheryl Olson.