The 64th session of the Montana Legislature convened Jan. 5 with lawmakers from across the state meeting in Helena for four months — 90 working days, to be exact — to pass and amend laws and approve the state’s biennial budget.
The Legislature, which convenes every two years, has two chambers: the Senate, which has 50 members, and the House of Representatives, which has 100. Each chamber meets separately to consider bills and propose laws, and both chambers must approve every bill before it becomes law. The governor has the ability to veto any bill, but the Legislature can override the veto with a two-thirds vote. This Legislature features a 29-21 Republican majority in the Senate and a 59-41 majority in the House. The only action that must be completed each session is the approval of a state budget.
As the latest session arrives, here are some of the main topics that will likely make headlines over the next few months:
Gov. Steve Bullock is sending a $336 million infrastructure plan to the 2015 Legislature in hopes that lawmakers will approve the building projects, despite bridling from Republican leaders who are reluctant to incur millions of dollars in long-term debt. Bullock has rolled the lion’s share of the plan into a single bill, which includes everything from new state buildings to sewer-and-water maintenance in eastern Montana to school maintenance. About $205 million of the plan’s proposed projects would be financed by bonds or state loans, requiring approval by a super-majority of the Legislature. The $131 million of projects financed by cash require approval by a simple majority. Legislators also have the power to introduce their own bills, and Republican lawmakers already are talking about breaking up the Bullock infrastructure plan into pieces and voting on them separately.
Among the many health care topics that are going to surface, Medicaid expansion will no doubt spark the most heated debate. Bullock has listed it as one of his priorities, proposing to provide health care coverage to 70,000 low-income Montanans by accepting federal funds. The expansion is part of the nation’s health care overhaul (or Obamacare), but the U.S. Supreme Court left it up to the states to decide whether to impose it. Republicans in the 2013 Legislature rejected Medicaid expansion plans, and supporters last summer failed to gather enough signatures to place the proposal on the Nov. 4 election ballot. Last week Republican lawmakers released a proposal that would give health insurance to the disabled, parents whose income falls below the poverty line and some military veterans. Sen. Fred Thomas of Stevensville who helped draft the plan said free government health insurance shouldn’t go to able-bodied adults without children. Bullock says the GOP plan would accept some federal money but leave “tens of thousands” of Montanans uncovered.
Increasing the Speed Limit
Four state lawmakers have drafted bills that would raise the daytime speed limit on Montana interstate highways from 75 to 80 and possibly as high as 85 mph. State Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, and state Rep.-elect Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, both say Utah, Wyoming and Idaho all have raised their speed limits above 75 and they haven’t seen any problems as a result. State Highway Patrol officials have declined to offer opinions about the proposals but have warned that driving faster reduces reaction time and makes stopping more difficult. Montana did not have a numerical speed limit on its interstate roads from 1995-98. Instead drivers were recommended to maintain a “reasonable and prudent” speed.
Public Pre-School Programs
One of Bullock’s priorities this session is proposing a $37 million early childhood education program that would make half-day, pre-kindergarten programs available to 4-year-olds. Under the voluntary program, block grants would be available to public schools to create or expand early childhood education programs or to partner with existing programs in their communities. Montana is one of eight states without any state investment in preschool programs. Studies suggest students who have high quality, early childhood education are more likely to read at grade level and graduate from high school and are less likely to become teenage parents, require public assistance, abuse drugs or end up in jail. Republican lawmakers are questioning the plan, raising concerns that the program would not be the best use of state money and would harm private businesses that are daycares.
Real Estate Prices
The state Department of Revenue is asking lawmakers to change the law to allow real-estate sales prices to become public. Currently they are kept confidential, while 39 other states make them part of public information. Supporters say making the prices public would help taxpayers who protest their property tax bills. However, the proposal has received pushback from the Montana Association of Realtors, which has helped rebuff previous attempts.
Tribal Water Compact
One of the most prominent and significant topics this session, a proposed water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, will feature a divisive, heated debate with a lot on the line. In early December, Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox announced an agreement on the compact that they said would protect the tribe’s rights while ensuring irrigators and residents on or near the Flathead Indian Reservation have a reliable water supply. The agreement would set up a $30 million fund in part to pay for water pumping to meet irrigation demands. It also establishes a technical team that includes irrigators to put into effect provisions of the compact that protect historic uses of the reservation’s water while also making sure the tribe’s stream-flow targets on the Flathead River are met. The compact needs further approvals from the state Legislature, Congress and the Northwest Montana tribes. The Legislature last year rejected a prior agreement that was the product of more than a decade of negotiations. At least four lawsuits have been filed since then over claims to the water flowing on or through the reservation. How much of the reservation’s water goes to farmers, ranchers and others through the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project has been at the core of the dispute. The 2015 session is the final chance for lawmakers to approve a compact with the tribes. If they fail, the tribes will assert their water rights by filing claims in a state stream adjudication court by June 30, 2015.
The 2013 session featured a public dispute between breweries and taverns and tensions seem to have eased between the two sides. However, alcohol regulations are a perennial source of contention, and that doesn’t appear to have changed this time around. A new working group featuring members of the Montana Tavern Association and Montana Brewers Association is supporting a proposal that would allow breweries to purchase a retail license to sell beer and liquor while also allowing retail on-premise locations, like bars, to purchase a brewery license and brew their own beer. The proposal sparked backlash from another one of the main industry players, the Montana Beer and Wine Distributors, which dropped out of the coalition and spoke out against the proposal. Also, while this issue is debated, other proposed changes to the state’s alcohol regulations could gain traction, including an effort to expand the availability of beer and wine licenses in cities like Kalispell, where opportunities are sparse amid a quota system.
Sexual Assault Prosecution Unit
Montana’s attorney general has listed as one of his priorities this session improving the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault crimes. A bill proposed by Rep. Stephanie Hess, R-Havre, would establish a special team within the Montana Department of Justice’s Prosecution Services Bureau focused on prosecuting sex assault crimes directly and training county attorneys how to better prosecute those charges.
Attention is refocusing on the state’s medical marijuana industry, which has been quietly – and cautiously – making a slow comeback in Montana after the 2011 Legislature passed Senate Bill 423 to rein in the number of providers and users by preventing the commercial sale of marijuana, among other regulations aimed at reducing medical use of the drug. Hoping to keep the industry on solid ground, the Montana Cannabis Information Association has crafted a list of proposals to bring before the Legislature that would add regulations to the industry and prevent rampant growth and abuse, according to the group. The proposals include designating the Montana DPHHS as the oversight agency; increasing provider application fees to cover the cost of inspecting facilities; allowing providers to hire employees; and adding post-traumatic stress disorder and epilepsy to the list of qualifying illnesses for cardholders. In October, there were 9,619 registered medical marijuana patients in Montana, including 1,151 in Flathead County, the second most of any county in the state behind Gallatin (1,869). There are 363 providers statewide and 48 in Flathead County, also the second most in Montana, again behind Gallatin (93).
In recent years, so-called “school choice” has gained attention in Montana, and Republican leadership has tabbed it as one of its goals this session. In 2013, a bill cleared the Senate that would have allowed up to $2.5 million in state income and corporate license tax credits for donations to “student scholarship organizations” and “education improvement organizations” at charter schools and private schools. The bill died in the House, but attempts to support school privatization are already reappearing this session. Republicans are discussing options and supporters say it’s important for Montanans to be able to look at private education or home schooling as a viable option. Opponents contend that it would be an inappropriate use of public funds and would undermine the state’s public education system.
Efforts are underway to simplify the state’s income tax system, which has over 30 different tax credits and is widely considered one of the most complicated in the nation. A bipartisan plan is being shaped to reform the system into a simple, clean process while also lowering Montana’s income taxes by up to 13 percent. Property tax reappraisal is back, too. The Montana Department of Revenue conducted its recent reappraisal of real estate across the state and found that the value of residential property had dropped 2.85 percent from 2008 to 2014. Lawmakers will have to decide how to mitigate the tax impacts and prevent taxes from increasing. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, is also proposing a bill to reduce the reappraisal cycle from six years to two.
Pardons and Parole Authority
The state’s seven-member Board of Pardons and Parole is in charge of determining whether a prison inmate should be released into the community under parole supervision and whether an offender who does not abide by their conditions should be returned to prison. The 2013 Legislature ordered a legislative committee to study the parole board’s rules and powers after lawmakers received complaints from the families of inmates and others that it appeared inconsistent or too strict in granting parole requests. Lawmakers are expected to consider legislation during the upcoming session that would give the governor the power to grant clemency without a recommendation, give the governor the authority to remove the chairman and require the board to videotape its hearings.
Sexual Offender Registry
As part of Attorney General Fox’s long-term strategy for reducing the number of sexual offenders who lack a tier designation, a new bill being proposed would place more of the tier-designation burden for out-of-state and federal offenders on the offenders themselves. The bill would also require registered offenders to disclose email addresses and online social media screen names to law enforcement, and would require a tier-1 (lowest risk) offender to register for 15 years, instead of the current timeframe of 10 years, before they could petition for removal from the registry.
Hunting, Fishing License Increases
The agency in charge of managing Montana’s fish and wildlife is faced with stagnant funding levels that are no longer adequate to sustain everyday operations, according to state officials, and the agency faces a $5.75 million shortfall in the coming year. To help support statewide programs, such as research and management, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is seeking increases in hunting and fishing licenses that must be approved by the Legislature. The agency is asking to raise fishing licenses by $3 and hunting tags by $8. Also, seniors would receive a discounted license at age 67 instead of the current age, 62, and the price for most free and discounted licenses would be standardized at 50 percent of normal price. The last fee increase for Montana’s general resident hunting and fishing licenses was in 2005 and in 2003 for nonresidents. The state’s fish and wildlife management programs are primarily funded through the sale of fishing and hunting licenses.
Montana has had a tuition freeze at its four-year universities for eight of the past 10 years and all of the last 10 years at two-year schools. Gov. Bullock will attempt to continue keeping students’ costs at bay for two more years. In Bullock’s proposed budget plan, the state would give the Montana University System $32 million to account for the ongoing tuition freeze. The university system received $28 million after the last legislative session. The tuition freeze, Bullock says, helps alleviate the costs for families and prospective students to attend college. The governor is also seeking to invest more in research and development at Montana’s universities.
Public Land Transfer
The topic of transferring public lands from the federal government to the state has become a topic of debate in Montana over the past year, and it’s likely to receive attention from state lawmakers. Proponents of the idea say that federal lands are being mismanaged and that transferring national forest land to the state is a sensible idea that would put locals in control of the land they use and cherish. Opponents say the transfer would be a reckless and radical move that would overburden the state with something it couldn’t handle managing and could result in a loss of public access. Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming are actively looking at efforts to wrest control of public lands from the federal government and there are at least two bills being proposed in the Montana Legislature to study the idea.
Several high-profile cases invoking the “castle doctrine,” including the shooting of a Kalispell man in 2012, have sparked renewed debate over Montana’s heightened self-defense laws. In 2009, the Legislature passed a new law that stated individuals no longer needed to retreat from a threat and could use deadly force in the face of any perceived threat. Those who opposed the bill said the previous self-defense law, which expected a person to avoid confrontation first by calling police or retreating, was sufficient. Under the castle doctrine, prosecutors must now prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s actions were not justified, which has proven difficult in recent cases.
Several bills are in the works regarding DUI laws and penalties. Attorney General Fox has already expressed his support for enhancing laws. Montana laws have historically been more lenient when it comes to drunken driving, and although they have been tightened in recent years, they are still relaxed compared to those of other states. From Jan. 1-Dec. 29, there were 43 fatalities on Montana roads involving alcohol as a contributing factor, an increase of two deaths compared to last year, according to state data.