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The session in review

COMMUNITY NEWS SERVICE - UM School of Journalism

Montana’s 62nd Legislature adjourned last week after a contentious session that spanned most of four months and saw the introduction of more than 1,100 bills.

Less than a third of those have been signed into law. The rest failed to pass, were vetoed or still await Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s decision.

It may take months to sort out the session’s effects, but here’s a rundown by topic of some of its more newsworthy results:

Abortion

The governor is considering whether to sign a measure clarifying that parents of girls under 16 must be notified of impending abortions, except in cases where a judge rules otherwise. A referendum posing the question to voters in 2012 also passed the Legislature.

Schweitzer vetoed a bill that would have banned insurers from covering abortions under any state health care exchanges established under the new federal health care law.

The session’s most emotional abortion debates erupted over unsuccessful bills that would have required that women undergo pre-abortion ultrasound examinations or be screened to ensure that they weren’t being coerced to end their pregnancies. Legislators also rejected proposed constitutional ballot measures asking voters to specifically outlaw abortions and declare that life begins at conception.

Buildings

The Legislature rejected a bonding bill that would have financed construction of $97.8 million in new state buildings and renovation projects, including college expansions in Billings, Bozeman, Dillon, Great Falls, Havre and Missoula; a new Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena; and a nursing home in Butte for veterans.

The House fell seven votes short of approving the measure, with critics arguing that now was not the time for the state to take on new debt. A bonding bill has not passed the Legislature since 2005.

Business and labor

Gov. Schweitzer has signed legislation that aims to reduce the premiums Montana employers must pay for workers’ compensation insurance. Montana businesses pay some of the nation’s highest rates for work comp, but the state also ranks high in on-the-job injuries.

The compromise cuts costs by decreasing some of the benefits workers receive and by reducing payments to medical providers. It also includes a new tax to help pay off the State Fund’s previous liabilities.

Meanwhile, the governor has yet to sign GOP-backed legislation that would cut the state’s tax on business equipment for all Montana businesses by a third. The GOP-backed bill differs from the governor’s own plan, which would have reduced such taxes for all but the state’s largest businesses.

Drunken driving

Lawmakers promised to do more this session to combat drunken driving, and they passed several bills to that effect, including a measure that would require twice-daily testing of suspects charged with repeat offenses.

They also passed bills that would stiffen penalties for drunken drivers carrying passengers under age 16, create the crime of aggravated DUI for offenders with extremely high blood-alcohol concentrations, and allow police to request warrants for blood and breath tests for drivers who refuse to take them in the field.

Legislators tabled a bill that would allow judges to count 10-year-old DUI convictions when considering tougher penalties for repeat offenders. The current law allows a 5-year-lookback. Legislators also balked at giving counties the power to pass ordinances holding adults responsible for hosting events where alcohol is served to underage drinkers.

Education policy

A battle over dollars for public schools and colleges dominated the education debate, but lawmakers also tangled over sex education in public schools and the question of charter schools.

In the end, Gov. Schweitzer vetoed legislation requiring that local school officials notify parents in advance about human sexuality programs and allow them to withdraw their children from sex education classes.

The bill, like many other bills this session, sprang from a controversy last summer over proposed changes in Helena’s sex education curriculum. That debate also spawned unsuccessful bills that would have allowed tax credits for scholarships supporting students attending private schools.

A plan to allow for the creation of experimental charter schools within the public school system also failed during the final negotiations over K-12 funding.

Elections

Early in the session, Republicans rejected Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s bill to establish statewide mail-in elections as way to encourage voter participation.

The governor, meanwhile, vetoed a GOP-backed bill that would have ended Montana’s practice of allowing would-be voters to register on Election Day. The bill, which sprang from complaints about long lines and late voting in 2006 and 2008, would have cut off voter registration at 5 p.m. on the Friday before an election.

In other elections-related action, lawmakers passed a referendum asking voters in 2012 whether candidates for Montana’s Supreme Court should be elected by districts.

Eminent domain

The Legislature passed a controversial bill affirming that utilities can seize private land for state-approved projects such as power lines. The measure springs from a district court ruling that has stalled work on the 214-mile Montana Alberta Tie transmission line that would serve wind farms in north central Montana.

The bill’s fate rests with Gov. Schweitzer, who demanded such a law at the session’s outset. However, he argued in the session’s final days that House Bill 198 didn’t go far enough in answering landowners’ complaints that they were being treated unjustly in such negotiations.

Schweitzer wanted the bill to take effect only until Oct. 1, 2013, but lawmakers rejected that change.

Environment

Republicans began the session vowing to roll back environmental regulations that they believe are blocking development of Montana’s natural resources. They passed several bills to that effect, some of which are now sitting on the governor’s desk.

The most notable is a bill that allows state-permitted development projects to continue, even if a court finds that the state’s environmental review was flawed. It would also prohibit state officials from reviewing potential impacts beyond Montana’s borders.

Meanwhile, the governor has promised to veto legislation to expand gold and silver mining. The measure would have allowed a few mines to expand their treatment of low-grade gold and silver ore via the cyanide vat- or heap-leach process. Voters have twice rejected any expansion of such mining.

The governor has vetoed GOP bills aimed at relaxing the state’s push to promote new renewable energy projects.

Gun rights

Despite an early flurry of bills, lawmakers passed only one measure to expand gun rights in Montana. House Bill 271, which must be approved by the governor before becoming law, would allow Montanans to carry concealed weapons in city limits without a permit if they can prove they have passed the state’s concealed-weapons training course.

Lawmakers rejected measures that would have legalized the use of sound suppressors when hunting, allowed people to carry weapons into bars and banks, given legislators the go-ahead to bring weapons into the state Capitol, encouraged the production of ammunition in-state, and encouraged the governor to work with other states to create “Firearms Freedom Acts.”

Human rights

Despite emotional debate, the session broke little new ground on the issue of expanding human rights protections for Montanans regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression.

The Senate blocked a House bill that would have banned local antidiscrimination ordinances that offer such protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered residents.

The House, meanwhile, rejected a Senate bill that would have erased language in state law classifying homosexuality as a crime. Montana’s Supreme Court ruled the language unconstitutional several years ago, but the Legislature has refused to take the law off the books.

Immigration

Montana lawmakers approved a 2012 ballot measure asking voters to bar illegal aliens from receiving state-funded services such as jobless benefits, tuition assistance or employment with state agencies.

Meanwhile, lawmakers rejected legislation that would have required businesses to use a federal database to verify a job applicant’s legal status. It also would have made it a crime for businesses to hire undocumented immigrants.

K-12 funding

Montana’s K-12 schools will head into the next biennium with a slight increase in state support. After intense debate, lawmakers passed a school funding bill that will mean less state money for public schools this year, followed by a 2.4 percent increase next year.

Many districts are counting heavily on local mill levies this spring to make up the difference.

The debate over how to fund public schools came down to how much oil-and-gas revenue should be taken from a handful of resource-rich eastern Montana school districts and redistributed statewide. The money would cover inflation costs and the loss of federal stimulus dollars that were plugged into school budgets last session.

Senate Bill 329 transfers about $18 million oil-and-gas revenues to the state. Schools with oil-and-gas revenues can keep up to 130 percent of their total budget in such funds, but any amount over that goes to the state for redistribution. The bill also calls for the Office of Public instruction to collect data on student assessment and enrollment.

Medical marijuana

This issue grabbed more headlines than any other issue this session, and it was nearly the last question settled. In the end, lawmakers voted to repeal the existing voter-approved law and replace it with one that would ban advertising and storefront dispensaries while prohibiting anyone from making a profit by providing the drug.

Minors and those seeking to use the drug to treat chronic pain would need the approval of two doctors. All patients would need to have a proven and ongoing relationship with the recommending physician. Those controls aim to reduce the roughly 30,000 Montanans who can legally use the drug today to less than 2,000.

Patients would either have to grow their own marijuana or rely on essentially volunteer growers who would be allowed to cultivate a small amount of the drug for up to three patients.

Social services

How Montana should care for its aged, ill, disabled and poor was at the heart of the budget debate this session. The GOP took a knife to the Democratic governor’s proposed spending initially, but Schweitzer regained much of that in the final negotiations, including the authority to accept millions in federal funds for a variety of programs.

Saved in the end was funding for personal assistants for disabled and elderly who need help with some basic tasks. But the money for this service is one-time only money, so lawmakers will have to revisit the issue in 2013.

The Legislature also restored money to subsidize prescription drugs for the elderly through the Big Sky RX program. Meanwhile, the Healthy Montana Kids, a program to provide health insurance for children of low- and moderate-income families, ended the session with a $40 million-a-year increase after initially being targeted for cuts.

About $25 million per year of federal funding was reinstated for other health services. Among other things, the money could go to help family planning clinics that were largely defunded by the Legislature.

State sovereignty

Fueled by Tea Party anger, conservative lawmakers introduced a raft of bills aimed at denying or restricting the federal government’s power in Montana. Many of them died, some by the governor’s hand.

Schweitzer vetoed legislation requiring that federal law enforcement officers notify local sheriffs before making arrests. He also snuffed a bill authorizing the state to seize federal land under Montana’s eminent domain law.

Legislators, however, blocked bills giving state officials a role in saying how federal health care reform will play out in Montana. However, most Republican bills aimed nullifying federal health care reform died.

State workers’ pay

The Legislature rejected a deal negotiated by the governor and key public employee unions that called for 1 percent and 3 percent raised over the next two years.

Republicans argued that state workers shouldn’t receive raises at a time when Montana’s economy is still recovering from recession. With some exceptions, most state workers have had their wages frozen since 2008.

University funding

The Montana University System will operate with $13.8 million less the next two years. Montana’s colleges and universities were bracing for nearly $30 million in cuts until legislative leaders struck a deal with the governor in the session’s last week.

The Board of Regents will now decide how to divide the smaller budget between schools. They can make up the shortage with tuition increases, cuts in campus budgets, or a combination of the two.

Regents have said they hope to freeze tuition at two-year schools but have made no promises for the other campuses.

The university system voluntarily cut its spending 5 percent last year in response to declining state revenue.

 

– Reporters Cody Bloomsburg, Miranda Dalpiaz, Jayme Fraser and Dan Viehland contributed to this article.

 

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