As 65th Montana Legislature winds down, a look at the key issues
By Michael Siebert/UM Community News Service
HELENA — After nearly five months of rigorous debate, Montana’s 65th legislative session is coming to a close.
While lawmakers are only constitutionally required to draft and pass a two-year budget for the state’s numerous offices and programs — which they did last week — legislators from all walks of life address the concerns of their constituents, as well as their own ideas in the other bills they bring.
Some of these bills were inspired by personal struggles, like Livingston Republican Rep. Alan Redfield’s bill to establish eating disorder centers, brought in part because of a family member’s struggle with the issue. Others sought to make big changes, like a failed bill from Kalispell Republican Rep. Derek Skees that would have put a ballot initiative before voters to amend the Montana constitution to outlaw abortions.
With 1,186 bills introduced it could prove difficult to keep track of everything. Here, then, are some of the session’s most significant issues, divisive and otherwise.
Funding Infrastructure Projects
Both parties have repeatedly said advancing an infrastructure plan is a top priority.
Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said the success of the session hinges on whether or these proposals make it to the governor’s desk.
“It’s frustrating to … still not have an answer on that,” Eck said. “If everyone could just come together, we could absolutely do it.”
Perhaps the most significant infrastructure bill of the session, Kalispell Republican Frank Garner’s House Bill 473, which passed both houses. The bill initially increased the gas tax by $0.08, but the amount was lowered to $0.045 by the Senate. It will eventually raise to $0.06 by 2023.
Another major bill, House Bill 5, introduced by Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, allocates funding for a variety of infrastructure projects, including a veterans’ home in Butte and university system projects like the renovation of Montana State University’s Romney Hall. The bill, with the Senate’s amendments, passed the House 88-11 last week.
Public Land and Water
Other bills focused on the administration of Montana’s public lands.
“It wasn’t just access but actual maintenance of the lands,” said Rep. Adam Rosendale, R-Billings.
Senate Bill 363, introduced by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, allocated funds to help deal with the invasive mussels that could potentially wreak havoc on Montana’s streams and rivers. The bill is currently being debated in a conference committee after House amendments were overwhelmingly rejected by the Senate.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, carried a bill to present a constitutional referendum to voters that would safeguard the right to hunt, fish and trap on public land. The bill passed both Houses, but failed when the House debated Senate’s amendments.
The majority of bills this session had to do with things like taxes and local government operations — and much of that still had to do with the budget. But several contentious social issues made their way onto the House and Senate floor.
“They played a very minor role,” said Sen. Nels Swandal, R-Wilsall. “They get a lot of publicity. Probably unnecessarily so, because they’re not a primary focus.”
Still, several bills on social issues divided Republicans and Democrats.
Two bills would limit access to abortions. Two of them, Senate Bills 282 and 329, would prevent women from having abortions at roughly 20 weeks. SB 282, introduced by Sen. Albert Olszewski, R-Kalispell, would prevent doctors from aborting “viable” fetuses, or those that can live outside the mother’s womb. SB 329, introduced by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would restrict abortions to fetal development 19 weeks or less, or when it becomes “pain-capable.”
Both of these bills were passed by both Houses, but have yet to be signed or vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock.
Others attempted to liberalize gun laws.
HB 246, introduced by Rep. Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell, would have allowed Montanans to carry firearms inside Post Offices, and would have allowed firearms to be stored in cars in Postal Service parking lots. HB 262, introduced by Rep. Bill Harris, R-Winnett, would have significantly loosened concealed carry laws, allowing anyone of age without felony convictions to conceal a handgun.
House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said these bills weren’t reflective of what the public was looking for from lawmakers.
“Folks sent us up here to deal with the economy, to work on creating jobs and [to get] things done that people really need,” Eck said.
Meanwhile, a bill that would have created a statewide non-discrimination ordinance, House Bill 417, introduced by Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, drew a particularly noteworthy committee hearing. Members of the public gave emotional testimony both in support of and against the bill, which would have extended anti-discrimination laws to LGBTQ-identifying Montanans. The bill was ultimately killed in the House.
Reforming laws, modifying criminal justice
While the ideologically driven issues divided lawmakers, a slew of bills from interim committees on sentencing and prosecution standards often brought them together.
“There’s a whole series of bills that came out of the law and justice interim committee on sexual assault,” Eck said.
Those bills updated existing sentencing guidelines for rape and sexual assault. Senate Bill 29, introduced by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, eliminated the requirement that rapists use physical force in order for their crime to be considered rape. That bill passed the Senate unanimously, and awaits signature or veto from Gov. Bullock.
“This session we did modernize our sexual assault statutes, which was sorely needed,” Swandal said.
Swandal, a former judge and prosecutor, sponsored a Senate Bill 17 that would eliminate the requirement that minors register as sex offenders. While judges still have the ability to place individuals on the registry, they would have more discretion under the bill.
He said such reforms were necessary to reduce the public defender budget.
Swandal also requested a bill that eventually became House Bill 168, introduced by Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman. HB 168 would allow individuals convicted of misdemeanor crimes to request the expungement of the crime from their record. The bill was signed by Gov. Bullock earlier this month.
Other bills sought to place checks and balances on law enforcement. Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, brought House Bills 147 and 148, which work in tandem to require police to obtain search warrants before searching electronic devices. He also sponsored House Bill 149, which would limit law enforcement’s use of license plate readers. All three bills passed both houses.
A “commendable” spirit
In spite of debating such divisive issues, many legislators said the session was more civil and friendly than it has been in the past.
“I wasn’t here last session, but from what I was told, Democrats and Republicans are working together pretty dang well this session,” said Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre.
Bachmeier, a first-time lawmaker and the youngest legislator at 19 years old, said the body’s ability to remain friends after heavy debate was “commendable.”
Rep. Rosendale, also a first-timer, echoed Bachmeier’s sentiments, but added he was focused more on bringing the values expressed to him by constituents to the legislature than making deals.
“Grassroots is way more important than trying to win over representatives or make deals on stuff,” Rosendale said.
Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.