Legislature passes marijuana bill with conservation funding
On Tuesday, the Montana House of Representatives approved a bill regulating recreational marijuana, including how the sales tax will be spent. It’s headed for the governor’s desk, setting up the likely end of the 2021 Legislative session this week as the budget is finalized.
The House suspended its rules Tuesday to hurriedly consider both the second and third readings of House Bill 701, which passed on a vote of 67-32. The bill fleshes out all the legal aspects related to the two Montana marijuana ballot initiatives passed in November. Initiative 190 legalized recreational marijuana and created a sales tax, and I-118 set the legal age at 21.
One of the primary bones of contention was how the state would dole out the tax money.
I-190 had set a 20% tax on marijuana sales and promised about half of that to public lands and wildlife programs. About 37% would be used for the Habitat Montana program, which allows Fish, Wildlife & Parks to purchase wildlife habitat. About 4% would be directed to other wildlife programs, to state parks and to trails and recreational facilities.
The bill that passed the House will now allot $6 million to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s marijuana Healing and Ending Addiction through Recovery and Treatment program, dubbed HEART. Then 20% of the remainder is to go the Habitat Montana and then 4% to each of the other three programs.
But for the upcoming 2022-2023 biennium, Habitat Montana won’t receive anything until 2023, when it’s promised about $5 million.
Considering where things started, conservation groups were pleasantly surprised.
Montana Conservation Voters director Whitney Tawney said she was still holding her breath after Tuesday’s vote, expecting something to change. But as Sen. Jeff Essman, R-Billings, tweeted Tuesday, the bill passed with the veto-proof margin, so Gianforte should sign it.
“Voters and lawmakers alike deserve high praise for securing a new revenue source for our shared outdoor way of life, proving again our public lands and waters and access to them bring people together,” Tawney said.
Missoula-based Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers tweeted that the will of the voters had been affirmed.
Montana Wilderness Association State Policy director Noah Marion agreed and encouraged Gianforte to sign the bill without delay.
“Passing HB 701 isn’t just a victory for Montana’s state parks, trails, public access, working lands, and habitat. It’s a historic investment in the future of communities across the state and a commitment to conserving our outdoor way of life for generations to come,” Marion said.
But when Gianforte released his desired budget in January, he had none of the tax money going to environmental programs. That had conservationists worried legislators would ignore what voters had passed.
The bill’s language has gone through a lot of changes in the month since it was first introduced in the House. After passing through three House committees and several amendments on the House floor, the Senate added its own amendments before sending it back to the House.
Tuesday’s votes approving House Bill 701 were an about-face from Monday afternoon’s vote of 47-53 rejecting the amendments.
Had the amendments not been accepted, a special conference would try to reach a compromise between the two houses, which would have taken time. But the Republicans already indicated that they expected the session to end this week.
At the end of Monday’s session, Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, made a last-minute motion to reconsider HB 701 for second reading.
“After some consultation with some members on the floor, I apologize. I feel like I did a pretty bad job describing some parts of the situation. I’d like an attempt to clarify some things,” Hopkins said.
Reps. Bill Mercer and Sue Vinton, both Billings Republicans, opposed the motion, saying the bill should be sent back to the Senate.
“We rushed the process to get the bills to the senate on the idea that they would be improved, and we lost ground in some respects,” Mercer said.
Vinton, the Majority Leader, said no new information had come up to justify reconsideration. But something had happened within the few hours since the vote, because nine Republicans changed their minds and voted to reconsider.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com