Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) The magic number 100 is on the minds of legislators as constitutional amendments are debated and voted on leading up to Tuesday’s deadline to get from one chamber to another.

To get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2024, the legislature needs 100 votes from both chambers. Republicans have a 102 member supermajority, so if the caucus sticks together, that could mean smooth sailing.

But during second reading Monday, it was clear the caucus wasn’t entirely on board for every amendment proposal.

The deciding vote will come on third reading on Tuesday, and leadership still has time to push defectors to get in line for the final vote.

Rep. Wayne Rusk, R-Coravallis, voted against all of the constitutional amendment proposals in the House. Republican Senators Jason Small of Busby, Russ Tempel of Chester and Jeff Welborn of Dillon also all voted the proposed constitutional amendments down in their chamber.

Explaining his votes, Tempel told the Daily Montanan on Monday that he said he agreed he wouldn’t vote for any constitutional amendments on the campaign trail.

Democrats across chambers opposed all constitutional amendment proposals outside of a bill from Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, establishing a mental health trust fund.

Rep. Laura Bishop, D- Livingston, said she would be opposing all constitutional amendments.

“I think what we’ve heard loud and clear from Montanans is that full stop, they’re not interested in changing our Constitution,” she said.

On the road to likely passage

Senate Bill 563: Mental Health Trust Fund

Democrats didn’t vote against every constitutional amendment discussed on Monday. An amendment from Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, would establish a mental health trust fund with a capacity for $50 million, but includes no appropriations. Bogner said that funds and guidelines would be determined by the legislature once approved by the voters. Five Republicans voted against the measure but nearly all Democrats voted in favor, with just four holdouts. With 41 in favor, it clears the votes needed in the Senate and bought some cushion for holdouts in the House, if these votes hold going into Tuesday.

Passed on second reading, but not a sure bet

The following proposals passed on second reading, but if the vote remains the same on third reading, are unlikely to meet the 100 legislator threshold to get on the ballot.

House Bill 372: Establish a Right to Hunt in Constitution

Six Republicans voted against the measure that would make hunting as the primary, but not exclusive, method of wildlife management in the state. Rep. Deming, R-Laurel, said the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Paul Fielder, R- Thompson Falls, had brought this bill for seven sessions now. Fielder cited as one of his reasons for the need of the amendment was animal rights groups efforts in other states.

House Bill 517: Board of Regents

The bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R- Missoula, would eliminate the Board of Regent’s exclusive oversight over the constitutional rights of students. Two Republicans voted against the measure, meaning if the vote count stays the same on third reading, the bill would need every Senator to vote in favor for it to survive. This amendment comes after the Montana Supreme Court determined the Board of Regents was in charge of concealed carry rules on campus in a ruling last summer. Currently, the Montana Constitution gives the Board of Regents full authority over the Montana University System.

House Bill 551: Right to Concealed Carry

A constitutional amendment, when working with Hopkins’ bill, would permit students’ ability to carry concealed weapons on college campuses in the state. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, would strike language prohibiting concealed carry in the section of the state’s constitution on the right to bear arms. Three Republicans voted against the measure, meaning it’s likely dead if the vote stays consistent on third reading.

House Bill 915: Change selection of Supreme Court Justices

A bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would change how Montana Supreme Court justices are selected, away from being elected directly by the people, to appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Mercer said that this change was mirroring how Supreme Court justices are selected at the federal level. Democrats said Montana shouldn’t be trying to be more like D.C. and pointed to a survey that found 92% of Montanans opposed this amendment. Four Republicans voted against the measure.

Senate Bill 534: Preventing election data from being used in Redistricting process

Three Republicans voted against a measure that would prevent Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission from using election result data in drawing districts. Bill sponsor Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said that politics should not be part of the districting process. Democrats said there could be unintended consequences, especially in Indian Country, where Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, said election data is used to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, said in committee last week this bill would force the politics of this process behind closed doors and outside the public eye.

What died on second reading:

Senate Bill 272: Amendment to secure the office of county sheriff

An amendment to establish the county sheriff as the ultimate authority in the county from Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, failed 23-27. The constitutional sheriff movement has been tied to extremism in the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

House Bill 965: Remove Supreme Court’s authority over admission to the bar and conduct of members

Speaking in opposition, Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, said this bill would make Montana the only state in the nation where the Supreme Court would not have a role in the admission and regulation of attorneys in the state. She spoke to the power attorneys have, from finances to a person’s freedom to illustrate the importance of competency in this field. Bill sponsor Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle, characterized the current system in place as “letting the fox guard the henhouse.” Rusk, who voted against all the constitutional amendments, said he had concerns the House was “coloring outside of the lines on this one.” The bill failed 55-45.

Besides the two bills that failed second reading, it’s not over for proposed constitutional amendments.

Bills will need not only a majority vote to advance to the next chamber on third reading, but the Republican caucus will need to remain together to make the 100 legislator threshold to put measures on the ballot without Democrat support.

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