Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Legislation to exclude abortion from Montana’s constitutional protection for privacy advanced Wednesday in the Senate, as did a controversial GOP bill to reduce income taxes.

Senate Bill 154 to exempt abortion from privacy protection earned 28-21 approval with little discussion — and some Republican support.

Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, stood up to break with her party on SB 154. She said her record shows she’s adamantly pro-life — personally. But she said privacy is privacy.

“If enacted, this bill would be unconstitutional,” McKamey said.

Few people spoke to that bill, but Republicans and Democrats sparred over a taxation proposal, Senate Bill 121.

SB 121 passed second reading on party lines. It would drop the top income tax rate from 6.5% to 5.9% and increase the earned income tax credit.

Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, responded to criticism from Democrats who said the cuts were going to the wealthiest Montanans and people on the lower end were getting just crumbs.

Top earners pay most of the taxes in the state, he said, and Republicans are making headway on lowering taxes for all people.

“I’m not sure how we can please this side of the aisle sometimes,” Hertz said of Democrats.

Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, offered one example of a benefit to people who don’t have big salaries.

Right now, he said, someone earning $34,000 would pay $1,600 in taxes, but if the bill becomes law, that single earner will pay $940.

“Tell me how that does not benefit low-income individuals?” Zolnikov said. “We are doing that.”

Attempts to amend the bill failed, but Republican Brad Molnar of Laurel joined Democrats in calling for more help for people at the bottom end of the income scale.

In support of a couple of changes that didn’t get traction, Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, said all Montanans should see a fair tax benefit.

Certainly, people at the top pay more hard dollars, she said, but those on the other end need help to buy eggs and shoes for their children.

She tried to bump the earned income tax credit, which helps people who earn less, from 3% of the federal credit to 60%.

As proposed, the bill would push it from 3% to 10%, but Dunwell said President Ronald Reagan called the EITC the No. 1 tool to fight poverty.

“Well, let’s fight for Montanans in poverty,” Dunwell said. “Vote yes.”

Not enough people voted yes on the amendment for it to pass. However, a majority said yes to the main bill, SB 121, sponsored by Sen. Becky Beard, R-Elliston.

Sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, SB 154 to say abortion isn’t part of Montana’s right to privacy passed second reading as well.

Regier characterized the change as one that would “clarify” the privacy right.

He said one point that gets lost but he believes is important is that the constitution protects the right to “individual privacy,” not privacy on its own. But he said abortion isn’t just about an individual.

“It involves another set of fingerprints,” Regier said. “It involves another individual. Our right to privacy should not apply to an abortion any more than a right to privacy applying to child abuse or abuse in a spouse.”

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, which protected abortion through privacy, and Regier said courts can be wrong.

As such, he disputed the idea that the Montana Supreme Court’s decision in Armstrong v. State, which also protects medical care and abortion through privacy, was a reason to oppose his bill.

However, Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, said the majority of Montanans don’t support restricting access to comprehensive health care for women.

“This bill, as mentioned before, is blatantly unconstitutional and will be litigated, and this thus becomes a waste of taxpayer time and dollars,” O’Brien said.

In addition to McKamey, Republican senators who opposed SB 154 were Bruce Gillespie of Ethridge, Dan Salomon of Ronan, Russ Tempel of Chester, Terry Vermeire of Anaconda, and Jeff Welborn of Dillon.

Another tax bill, one sponsored by Hertz, also got a greenlight on second reading, albeit without support from Democrats or Molnar.

The bill raises revenue from multistate corporations that do business in Montana, Hertz said.

For example, he said right now, a company that manufactures in Montana but sells products mostly outside of Montana is penalized.

With his bill, he said, if just 10% of the company’s sales are in Montana, just 10% will be taxed.

“Some corporations are going to be paying more because they should pay more,” Hertz said.

The Senate also passed a bill by Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, to revise a five-year temporary tax exemption so it applies to tribal members who want to move their fee property into trust.

Webber said some people want their land in fee so it can be used as collateral — because some banks still won’t make loans to Native Americans — but she said people should have the option to put their land in trust and get the benefit.

Passed unanimously, Senate Bill 119 grants the exemption while the trust application is in the works.