Montana Legislative Session Roundup

During Montana's 90-day legislative session lawmakers moved beyond the bitter acrimony that bedeviled their last meeting two years ago.  Instead, legislators worked to craft a compromise budget that made new investments in health care and education, but saw agency spending drop 2%.  While working families were protected on key issues, the state did take several steps back on the environmental front as laws regulating resources extraction and energy infrastructure saw rollbacks in multiple areas.

Budget and Stimulus:  Lawmakers were able to pass a balanced budget that totaled about $8 billion including close to $900 million in stimulus funds. The state will also have an ending fund balance of $260 million, as well as $100 million fund to cover wildfire fighting and other contingent expenses.

  • Transparency: The Governor and the Senate clashed over infrastructure funding with Senate leaders pushing for block grants to the counties, which the Governor likened to "shovel[ing] money out of a window in the dark of night.”  He instead demanded that all projects be individually listed in the budget.  In the end a compromise was reached where projects are stipulated in the budget, but localities can petition to have dollars moved.
  • Conservative Opposition: Conservatives were strongly opposed to stimulus funding for unemployment and other non-infrastructure spending, claiming that if revenues come in lower than expected the state would not be able to cut support for workers and families in response.  Instead, they wanted to use stimulus funds primarily to back-fill spending cuts.  Backers of true stimulus spending won by just a few votes.
  • Property Tax Adjustment: The biggest revenue debate this session concerned the recent property reappraisal by the Department of Revenue, a job lawmakers take up every six years. The value of the average home increased 55% statewide, leading to steep property tax increases.  Progressives worked to increase existing aid programs for the elderly, disabled veterans and other long-time residents suffering most from increases in the value of their property, but attempts to overhaul the reappraisal were unsuccessful and aid programs were untouched.
  • Children's Health Care: Conservatives fought hard to phase in a voter-approved expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), but progressives were able to achieve full implementation of the plan to insure 30,000 additional kids.  In response to many mentally ill people ending up in prison for lack of services, as well as Montana' highest-in-the-nation suicide rate, community mental health service programs were expanded with a $2 million appropriation and several new policies (HB 130, grants for community-based crisis programs; HB 131, extra emergency detention beds; and HB 132, diversion from involuntary treatment).   One notable failure for the health of Montana's youth was the defeat of a provision to allow CHIP to cover contraceptives.  Finding common ground with progressives on this issue, Sen. John Brueggeman noted that more abortions would be the inevitable result.  He lamented that "we all have to be clear with that, we all have to sleep with that."
  • Education: Education will also get a 3% annual spending increase, growth that conservatives fought against strongly.  In addition, $15 million of the state's stimulus dollars will go to increasing the energy efficiency of schools.

Environment and Agriculture

  • Energy: In the name of increasing the state's energy development, a couple of bills will loosen environmental review of various projects, leading to a disappointing session for environmental and conservation advocates.  Areas targeted for deregulation include the review process for energy projects on state land (HB 529) and air quality and facilities citing for energy projects (HB 483).  As noted by Ryan Busse of Montana Conservation Voters, "Several of these bills presented this kind of false choice of ”˜it’s either jobs or it’s environmental protection’.”   One area of defensive victory has been protecting the state's renewable energy portfolio.  Two bills to undermine mandates for renewable energy production failed to become law (SB 257, SB 403), though SB 403 may be brought back to life by a legislative override.  Another small area of victory was passage of a bill beefing up the environmental review of open-cut mines.
  • Horse Slaughter: Like all of the west, Montana faces a huge increase in abandoned horses.  An emotional dispute over the proper response was resolved, when lawmakers re-passed a bill limiting legal action against slaughterhouses after it was initially vetoed by the Governor.  The Governor let the bill, which is expected to open the door for the first horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. since 2007, become law without his signature.

Criminal Justice

  • Gun Deregulation: Several new laws support a boldly libertarian approach to gun rights.  One new law purports to exempt firearms manufactured in Montana from federal regulations.  The bill is an attempt to challenge the federal regulation of gun sales.  Another law, HB 228, relieves people from the obligation to attempt to escape before using a gun in self defense, puts the burden of proof on the state in any criminal trial where a "defendant has offered evidence of justifiable use of force" and allows any licensed gun owner to carry their gun in public unconcealed.  Removed from the final bill was a provision to allow any licensed gun owner to carry their firearm concealed.
  • Death Penalty - The GOP-controlled Senate passed a bill to repeal the death penalty in the state.  Sadly, this tremendous advance was not followed by any action in the House.

Elections and Governance

  • Voting Procedures: Early in the session there were major skirmishes over voting rules when some conservatives tried to undo the state's recent adoption of election day registration.  Simultaneously, an effort was made to establish a vote by mail pilot project.  However, the county clerks supported a direct move to vote by mail.  Advocates worked to both protect EDR and establish voter protections in a vote by mail law and keep to a pilot program that would be studied thoroughly before further steps were taken.  Agreement between the various stakeholders proved impossible and no significant changes were adopted.
  • Yearly Legislative Sessions: A constitutional amendment to move the legislature to shorter, yearly sessions from its current 90 day session every other year failed by four votes.  Proponents felt more people could serve and new lawmakers would have an easier time becoming familiar with the legislative process.  However, more than a third of lawmakers disagreed, feeling that this would move the state toward a full-time legislature.
  • Bus Federation, Forward Montana  Recognized: Forward Montana's "Trick or Vote" halloween get-out-the-vote campaign adn the national campaign of which it was a part won a Reed Award from Politics Magazine for the best GOTV campaign and execution in the nation!  This fun and effective GOTV event is now conducted all over the West through the efforts of the Bus Federation of which Forward Montana is a member.