A million dollars looks headed to Montana University System coffers for the “full implementation of open and concealed firearms” on campuses — a shift from earlier debates in the legislature.
Monday, representatives in the House voted 67-33 to approve an amendment allocating the one-time appropriation for items such as firearms training, metal detectors for events, gun safes for resident housing, awareness campaigns, or other costs.
Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, who did not ask for a fiscal analysis of his open carry bill, said Tuesday he believes the university system would be able to implement House Bill 102 without any extra dollars. A spokesperson for the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education earlier agreed.
When legislators debated the bill, though, Sen. Diane Sands stressed the need for a fiscal review. She said estimates for implementing the bill on the flagships alone came to $4.5 million each — every year.
If the amendment withstands further legislative wrangling in the budget bill, it could mark a million dollar bump for the university system, a relative win, albeit under one condition. A caveat in the amendment notes the appropriation is void if the university system contests the legality of HB102.
Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of academic, research and student affairs, said he couldn’t comment on whether the $1 million was worth the tradeoff. At least one report estimated the cost to implement a concealed carry law in Arizona would cost $3 million for three campuses every year and $13.1 million in one time money.
“I think this amendment is sort of a consequence of the ongoing conversations we’ve had more than any specific bargain that was struck,” said Tessman, in the Commissioner’s Office. “I do think it reflects our intent in this office to build a policy that implements the law.”
Republicans have a majority in the Montana Legislature, and this year, for the first time in 16 years, they also have a partner in GOP Gov. Greg Gianforte. Lawmakers quickly passed Berglee’s open carry bill in both chambers, and the governor signed it into law.
The fast action took place despite an analysis by legislative staff attorneys that noted possible conformity issues with the Montana Constitution. The legal review quoted Article X, section 9(2)(a), which states oversight of campuses is vested in the Board of Regents, “which shall have full power, responsibility, and authority to supervise, coordinate, manage and control the Montana University System.”
“According to the Montana Supreme Court, this constitutional provision grants a high degree of independence and autonomy to the Board of Regents, subject only to the Legislature’s power of Appropriation,” said the legal review.
Casey Lozar, chair of the Montana Board of Regents, did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment on the amendment.
And Tessman said the Commissioner’s Office must implement the provisions in HB102: “We have no other choice but to build out a policy that will allow us to follow this law.”
He didn’t dispute the idea a judge could be asked to review the legality of HB102, but he said the Commissioner’s Office had to work with the reality of the bill, and that meant finding a way to make it work on campuses.
“This is clearly a significant challenge for our system, and while we were not supporters of the bill, and while we certainly find a lot of complications with the law, we’re just doing our best to act within the boundaries of the law,” he said. “It’s our responsibility.”
He also said any legal fight would not come from the Commissioner’s Office: “If the Board wanted to pursue that, they would do that as the Board of Regents, not as OCHE (the Commissioner’s Office).”
Berglee said if a legal battle ensues, taxpayers will be footing the bill for both sides; he’d rather see public funds go to help colleges implement the law.
He said he and the Commissioner’s Office talked about some discretionary funds that were removed from the higher education budget and the desire to give campuses some flexibility, and the amendment was the result. He also noted $1 million wasn’t a lot of money overall, some $500,000 each year of the biennium spread across 16 campuses.
Berglee said he did not request a fiscal note earlier because the bill doesn’t create mandates for campuses. Rather, he said campuses can expand safety measures, such as safes in dorms and safety trainings, as they choose.
“It’s an elective cost to them. It’s not a mandatory cost,” Berglee said.
Lawmakers passed the amendment Monday on the House floor as part of the budget bill, House Bill 2. In preliminary votes, they took on funds for public education in Montana, both for the Commissioner’s Office and the Office of Public Instruction.
On the floor, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, praised much of the result for the Commissioner’s Office.
“In the 10 sessions I’ve been here, this is probably the most aggressive and most advanced approach on education,” Windy Boy said.
Rep. David Bedey, who leads the appropriations and finance joint subcommittee on education, presented the overview to legislators. The largest portion of the budget in the Office of Public Instruction funds K12 at $1.6 billion, which includes an inflationary increase of $57.3 million more than the previous biennium.
The Commissioner’s Office is currently slated to receive $583 million in all, a 2.8 percent increase from the 2021 biennium and 0.6 percent more than the governor proposed, said Bedey, a Hamilton Republican. He noted the bulk of the money, 72 percent of the budget of the Commissioner’s Office, is the $420 million paid out of the general fund and higher education levy to operate the campuses.
After his presentation, lawmakers pitched amendments.
Among them was one proposed by Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, to provide $600,000 for schools to have the ability to offer all students breakfasts and lunches. The amendment would bring in more federal dollars, she said, and it would make sure children wouldn’t go hungry.
Rep. Ed Stafman, a Democrat, urged his fellow legislators to vote yes and offered a larger observation on the choices lawmakers were making.
“It is a defining moment for who we are in the state,” said Stafman, of Bozeman. “This needs to be part of our budget, which is a blueprint of our values.”
The House voted 65-35 against the measure, and it subsequently took up Berglee’s amendment.
Rep. Bedey said he considered the amendment a friendly one. With HB102, the legislature had “essentially perhaps created an unfunded mandate,” he said, and he wanted the bill to be appropriately funded.
A couple of legislators pushed back. Windy Boy said with a couple of earlier amendments, lawmakers were “slash and burning” the education budget, and now they were adding debt.
“I just view this as a jobs bill for attorneys, so be prepared,” he said.
Rep. Mark Thane, a Missoula Democrat and former district superintendent, questioned the lack of a fiscal note earlier in discussions among lawmakers over HB102 — and the ensuing $1 million pricetag.
“At the time we debated it in this House, there was no fiscal note, and we were told that there was no cost,” Thane said.
He also said the condition in the amendment that would prevent the Montana University System from seeking legal clarification regarding the Board of Regents’ constitutional authority was “simply unreasonable.”
Berglee, though, argued the amendment represented a good faith effort in working with the university system and helping them implement the bill, and the House approved the amendment 67-33.
In a phone call Tuesday, Tessman said specific costs are uncertain, and any estimates will need to come out of actual policy, an issue the Board of Regents will take up in May. In the meantime, he said the dollars in the amendment lend support to the work ahead of the university system.
“It is genuinely an effort by the legislature to say, ‘Look, we understand this is going to be a big lift,’” Tessman said.
Tuesday, Sen. Sands said if Montana is going to have guns on campus, the $1 million was a small price to pay to make sure colleges and universities could provide the necessary security and protection for students, staff and faculty. She also said the Commissioner’s Office would have to eat the costs of implementation even if it had disputed the idea the bill would require spending.
“It just means at this point, they were not willing to antagonize the legislature with strong opposition to the bill because their budgets are at risk,” Sands said. “And as long as their budget is before the legislature, they will, in whatever way they need to, try to accommodate bills such as this, even though there are in fact consequences for campuses that have to be accounted for somewhere.”