Bills Worth Watching

Beyond the major divisive pieces of legislation, such as those to expand Medicaid, fund preschool and approve the water compact, there are a few other bills to keep an eye on

By Kellyn Brown

The Montana Legislature is in full swing and, at least from afar, it appears a little less dramatic than previous years. While there’s the typical bickering, there have been fewer full-fledged blowups – knock on wood. For some, that may suggest the session is boring, but that’s not the case. Beyond the major divisive pieces of legislation, such as those to expand Medicaid, fund preschool and approve the water compact, there are a few other bills to keep an eye on.

Federal lands: Despite critics contending that the idea is at once uneconomical and unpractical, lawmakers have begun discussing transferring federal lands to the state. Legislators, including some from Northwest Montana, have requested dozens of bills addressing federal land management. Supporters of the legislation contend the land is plagued by mismanagement. Even if legislation passed demanding a transfer, the federal government is apt to ignore it. Nonetheless, the debate is worth watching.

Sales tax: Kalispell and other large cities across the state are supporting a bill that would grant them the authority to implement a local-option sales tax. The argument in favor is largely based on rising infrastructure needs in communities that attract tourists, such as ours. Right now, only towns smaller than 5,500 can enact a so-called resort tax. This idea has been floated before and inevitably died at the Legislature, but it seems to have more backing this year.

Alcohol licenses: The most prominent bill to emerge dealing with the state’s convoluted alcohol laws would allow businesses to stack different licenses and raise the barrel limit for breweries operating a taproom. Basically, bars and restaurants would be able to buy a license to brew beer and breweries would be able to buy liquor and beer licenses, which would allow them to increase business hours, relax serving restrictions and to operate more like a bar. The Montana Tavern Association and Montana Brewers Association support the “Montana Brewers Act.” It is, however, opposed by the Montana Beer and Wine Distributors and select breweries.

Infrastructure: Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed a massive statewide infrastructure plan dubbed “Build Montana” that would cost nearly $400 million, two-thirds of which would be funded through bonds. While introduced by Republican Rep. Jeff Welborn and supported by the Montana Chamber of Commerce, it does face GOP opposition. Republican Sen. Majority Whip Cary Smith called the bill “political pork on the state’s credit card.” The governor said he introduced one large infrastructure bill to stop the debate between eastern and western Montana funding, but there’s still a good chance it will be divided among several bills.

Students: Along with a proposal to expand state funding to preschool, there are others aimed at preventing students from leaving high school without a degree. Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau has introduced a bill that would increase the dropout age to 18 – right now, students can drop out when they’re 16 – and another that would provide funding for 19-year-old students. Similar bills have been killed in previous sessions.

Minors: There are a couple bills in the Legislature that would add restrictions to minors – one would prohibit those under 18 from using tanning beds and another would restrict them from accessing e-cigarettes. The latter piece of legislation includes language opposed by Montana’s vaporizer retailers. Restrictions on tanning have been proposed and died before.

Minimum wage: Lawmakers will consider a piece of legislation that would raise Montana’s minimum wage by more than $2, from $8.05 to $10.10. The governor is supporting the bill, but it will have difficulty passing. The Montana Chamber of Commerce opposes the increase and it will likely face resistance from Republicans.

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