HELENA – Emotions ran high during the Montana Legislature’s second week, bringing an end to the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration and first-week honeymoon.
The buzz was palpable Monday morning as people crowded a House State Administration Committee hearing, with some members of the public taking to seats in the hall where they could better-observe the proceedings on closed-circuit TV. That hearing focused on a bill to eliminate same-day voter registration and drew 20 opponents. Another measure later in the week limiting the forms of acceptable voter IDs resulted in a similar outcry.
Mid-week, talk in the Capitol revolved around stories of a rift between factions of the Senate GOP. A Great Falls Tribune article exposed leaked emails that revealed a plan among conservatives to oust more moderate members of the Republican Party from leadership positions.
Senate Republicans met later in the week to clarify priorities and encourage cooperation through the remainder of the session.
At the caucus, Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, reminded colleagues of a principle he gleaned from President Ronald Reagan.
“There was one thing I’m a firm believer in: Reagan’s 11th commandment,” he said, referring to the former president’s phrase, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
The following week promises another round of hot-button issues, including bills to change the amount of oil and gas tax revenue school districts can retain, allow people to cross a geographic point to access new land, permit hound hunting for black bears, and increase the salaries of state employees.
Here’s a look at the big issues of the session’s second week:
Same-day voter registration
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would end same-day voter registration in Montana.
The House State Administration Committee heard the first testimony on HB 30 last week, which would designate the Friday before the election as the last possible day to register. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, said registering voters while simultaneously conducting regular polling challenges the integrity of Election Day.
“The problem this bill is trying to solve is lines trying to register on Election Day up until midnight while clerks and recorders are trying to run an election,” he said.
Twenty people spoke out against the bill, including Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who disputed claims from Washburn and two members of the public who testified in support of the measure.
McCulloch said about 28,000 Montanans total have registered and voted on Election Day since 2006, the first year Montana allowed same-day registration. She added that half of the late voters during the 2012 general election had previously voted in Montana, but moved and had yet to update their addresses.
“Are you willing to look them in the eye on Election Day and deny them the right to vote?” McCulloch asked the committee.
Furthermore, she said eliminating same-day registration strips away the ultimate fail safe for administrative errors, ensuring that people who thought they had registered can vote when they show up at the polls.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a similar measure during the previous legislative session.
Criminalizing death of unborn
The Legislature is again considering a bill that would criminalize the death of an unborn child after Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a similar measure two years ago.
Under HB 104, an assault on a woman resulting in the death of her unborn child would be considered a homicide. The House Judiciary Committee passed the measure last week with a 12-8 vote along party lines, with Republicans voting in favor. The bill will next go to the House floor for a vote.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, told the committee about a 2009 incident in Flathead Valley in which a pregnant woman and her 13-year-old son died in a car crash. He said the man who hit the woman’s car was charged with only two counts of homicide.
“If this bill were in effect, the charge would have been three counts of homicide,” Regier said. “Try convincing the husband of the dead woman that he only lost two family members on that day.”
Regier and proponents cited 36 states with similar laws and said courts have upheld the constitutionality of such measures.
Opponents of the measure said they worry the bill does not contain adequate legal protection for pregnant women, who could be required to prove their innocence in the loss of their unborn child.
Lynsey Bourke, director of development outreach and communication at Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic, called the bill unconstitutional and a “huge infringement on women’s privacy in this state.”
“To miscarry a wanted pregnancy can be an extremely emotional time for a woman,” she said. “The last thing that anyone would want to have is to have someone investigating her private life, determining whether her actions over a long period of time could have potentially caused that miscarriage.”
Marijuana driving limit
A Missoula legislator is renewing an effort to establish a limit on the amount of marijuana people can have in their blood while driving.
Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, introduced HB 168 last week, which would set the maximum amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, people can have in their blood and still legally drive to 5 ng/mL. THC is the active ingredient in cannabis.
Moore told the committee the measure would save innocent lives, relating to them the events of a 2009 incident where the wife of Missoula’s current sheriff died after she was hit by a driver who had both alcohol and marijuana in his system.
While Montana does have drugged driving laws, proponents of the bill said they are hard to enforce because the state has not yet designated a limit that legally constitutes impairment as it has done for alcohol.
Opponents argued that setting a THC limit prevents medical marijuana users from legally driving and that drugged driving laws do not have a significant impact on the number of car crash fatalities.
They also asked for an amendment to clarify that only people exhibiting active levels of THC above the threshold could be prosecuted. Moore agreed to the change, stating he wanted to make it clear law enforcement would not go after people whose bodies still contained THC metabolites, which can stay in a person’s blood for weeks after smoking but not cause impairment.
Lottery revenue for scholarships
Montana’s lottery revenue currently sits in the state treasury, but a new proposal could use it as a scholarship fund for college-bound students.
The House Education Committee heard testimony last week on HB 166, a measure that would redirect the nearly $15 million annual profit in lottery ticket sales to the university system during the next fiscal year for use as scholarship money. The Board of Regents, which governs all of Montana’s public institutions of higher education, would determine how to disburse that money to students.
Students from three Montana campuses spoke in favor of the bill, which is authored by Rep. Amanda Curtis, D-Butte.
Dani Clark, a student lobbyist from Montana State University, told the committee she does not qualify for Pell grants and she’s not at the top of her class, so she does not receive any institutional scholarships. Last summer, she worked three jobs to pay for her education.
“None of that is really making up for it,” she said. “I’m still paying the school more than the amount of money I make every year.”
Increasing hail insurance
Farmers could soon receive double the insurance money if hail destroys their crops.
The House Agriculture Committee passed HB 189 last week, a measure increasing the amount farmers can claim from the state’s Hail Insurance Program to $100 on non-irrigated land and $152 on irrigated land. The bill will next go to the House floor for a vote.
The bill received support from the Montana Grain Growers Association, whose president Ryan McCormick told the committee that farmers’ average production levels have doubled over the last five years compared to the previous five.
“If our income doubles off a per acre basis, we also need coverage to double,” he said.