While the budget is almost always the biggest story to emerge from any Legislative session, a bevy of other bills in 2009 changed state law on everything from guns to gravel pits. While the following list is by no means comprehensive, if you’re wondering, “What ever happened to that bill?” what follows is a roundup of legislation upon which the Beacon reported over the previous four months.
GUNS: The governor signed into law a bill that exempts Montana-made firearms from federal regulations. While this affects a tiny number of gun makers in the state, sponsor Rep. Joel Boniek, R-Livingston, and other gun rights advocates hope the bill could trigger a Supreme Court case over how the federal government regulates gun sales.
Schweitzer also signed into law a bill clarifying gun rights, which says people don’t have an obligation to run away before using a gun in self defense, landlords can’t control whether tenants have guns and people who use self defense should not be presumed guilty by police. A provision was stripped out of House Bill 228, sponsored by Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, that would have allowed anyone legally able to carry a gun do so in towns, without a concealed weapon permit.
GRAVEL PITS: The permitting process for gravel pits by the state should get a makeover – speeding it up and strengthening environmental oversight – if the governor signs House Bill 678, sponsored by Rep. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman. The bill obligates gravel pit operators to pay the Department of Environmental Quality a yearly fee. In return, DEQ can add four new employees and must evaluate a mine application within five days of its receipt. Public meetings with neighboring landowners must also be held, if those neighbors wish.
JUDGES: Schweitzer may or may not sign a bill increasing the number of district judges in the state by three – including one in the Flathead – sponsored by Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell. The governor tried an amendatory veto to delay when the new judges would begin, but the Senate rejected his changes.
ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT: After a hard push by Republicans, Schweitzer has indicated he will support SB 498, which allows the state to begin setting up a regulatory framework for sequestering carbon underground in anticipation of developing Montana’s natural resources. It was sponsored by Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter.
Projects funded by the federal stimulus would have been exempt from review by the Montana Environmental Protection Act under a bill – which died in committee – introduced by Barkus.
A slew of bills to expedite energy development made it through. HB 529, by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, sets limits on when the state can review energy projects proposed on state land. Another bill by Jones, HB 483, requires the Board of Environmental Review to issue a final decision within 120 days on air quality permits and facility siting for energy projects.
A statewide effort to fight aquatic invasive species will be coordinated under Senate Bill 343 by Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell. Aimed squarely at the tiny zebra and quagga mussels, the bill sets up check stations for boats, mounts an awareness campaign and establishes management districts to deal with the mussels.
SALES TAX: A bill allowing communities to vote on whether to institute a 4-percent local option sales tax as a way to offset property taxes went down in flames. Billings Republican Sen. Jeff Essmann’s Senate Bill 506, supported by many of Montana’s municipalities, including Kalispell, failed to clear the Senate.
TERM LIMITS: Two bills that would have weakened Montana’s term limits for public officials – one of which would have abolished them all together – failed. A bill to ask voters whether to approve holding annual, shorter Legislative sessions narrowly failed to gain the two-thirds support needed to place it on the ballot.
WORKERS’ COMP: Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, managed to pass a bill aimed at reducing workers compensation costs to employers by allowing them to pool risk with other employers who implement a workplace safety program. Musicians are excluded from stringent state workers’ compensation requirements under a bill sponsored by Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay.
DEATH PENALTY: A bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana, sponsored by Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, and which passed the Republican-controlled Senate, failed to pass out of the House Judiciary Committee.
HORSE SLAUGHTER: A highly controversial bill encouraging horse slaughter facilities in Montana sponsored by Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, was vetoed by Schweitzer based on provisions it contained preventing environmental appeals of proposed slaughter facilities. The Legislature sent the bill back to the governor unchanged, and its status remains uncertain as of this writing.
STREAM ACCESS: A landmark bill clarifying stream access from bridges passed the Legislature, hopefully settling a decades-long dispute between anglers and landowners. Billings Democrat Kendall Van Dyk’s HB 190 clarifies how landowners can attach fences to bridges, and reimburses them for expenses incurred by modifications to their current fences.
SUDAN: A bill requiring the state Board of Investments to divest from any business activities that might benefit the government of Sudan, as a way to affect the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, was tabled in the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish, carried the bill on behalf of Whitefish High School students.
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