Legislative committee votes down motion to access funds in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act
An interim legislative committee rejected a proposal on Monday to appoint one Democrat and one Republican to draft a bill outlining how the state could access newly announced federal funds allocated to address gun violence and mental health in schools.
Democrats said Montanans needed to take action given the severity of gun violence in the country, but Republicans said the committee already was working on many bill drafts and could not accommodate the request this late.
Plus, the vice chairman noted legislators would have the chance to take up the issue again come the 2023 legislative session if the act passed muster.
“I think this is federal government overreach at its best. And I don’t think that this is appropriate … at this late date for us to try and cram this in there,” said Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, the committee vice chair. “And … if there is something that doesn’t stink to high heaven in here, we’ll have time to process that before the session in January.”
The money would have come from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which was passed in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting. The legislation, signed by President Joe Biden late last week, invested $250 million in community violence intervention and prevention initiatives and $100 million to help the National Criminal Instant Background Check System. It also made $750 million available to states for crisis intervention orders and $250 million for states to enhance comprehensive community mental health services.
“We have just seen a horrible, horrible school shooting in Texas,” said Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman. “And I hope and pray to God that we never see one in Montana. But we’re not immune to it. And especially given our gun rate ownership here … we could be next. And it’s irresponsible, in my opinion, not to take action, especially when the federal government has set up these programs.”
The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives 234-193, with 14 Republicans siding with Democrats, and the U.S. Senate 65 to 33, with 15 Republicans joining Democrats in support.
The motion to draft a bill to access the funds failed on a tied vote in the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee, with Democrats voting for and Republicans against.
However, in January, the Montana Legislature could vote to participate in some of the funding opportunities. The Department of Public Health and Human Services leadership could also decide to access portions of the funds without the Legislature.
At Monday’s meeting, DPHHS Director Adam Meier addressed the possibility of accessing some of the funds.
“We are reviewing it still, but we don’t have any kind of firm feedback. It was a pretty large package, so still absorbing that,” Meier told the committee. Meier added that by the time the committee meets again in August, the department will have a better idea of what, if any, action it will take.
The interim committee only has until September to complete its work, and Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, also said it was not enough time to take on such an endeavor.
“I think that the current proposed bills that we have put together … deserve our effort, really. So, I’m completely against this as well,” she said.
Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, disagreed, noting the urgency of the issue.
“We have an opportunity to do something, which is have a Republican and a Democrat get together and try to figure something out to bring back to the committee for our review. That’s really reasonable. And it’s the least we could do, and it’s urgent,” she said.