Lawmakers have whirlwind day at Capitol as transmittal deadline nears

Legislature heard almost 150 bills, from trans rights to wolf trapping

The Montana Capitol in Helena, Montana. The building was built in 1899, and an addition completed in 1911. Eric Seidle For the Daily Montanan.

Lawmakers did not stray from hot-button issues and fiery debates on Monday as they fought against the clock to dispose of more than 140 bills across both chambers before the legislative transmittal deadline on Wednesday, by which time most policy proposals must advance to the opposite chamber or die. 

As it worked through an hours’ long floor session (with two provided meals), the Senate passed a pair of bills that weigh a Republican vision for religious freedom and legislative authority against the rights of LGBTQ Montanans, beginning its morning with the passage of SB215, a bill to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Montana, sponsored by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, on third reading. 

That bill is similar to others that Republicans in state legislatures and Christian conservative groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom have pushed across the country. Proponents say they are necessary to protect religious freedom from state action by allowing Montanans to claim that a law or government entity “substantially burdens” the exercise of their religion. Advocates, however, say such language opens the door for homophobia and transphobia under the guise of an objection to law for the sake of religious freedom. 

In the early afternoon Monday, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would prevent transgender Montanans from changing the gender listed on their birth certificate without a court order affirming that they received gender-affirming surgery. Both bills passed 26-24, though the latter, SB280, still awaits a final vote in the chamber before moving to the House.

“This has nothing to do with statistics or making sure information in some bureaucrat’s drawer is correct,” said Sen. Bryce Bennet, D-Helena. “This is about putting the thumb in the eye of trans people. On a piece of paper, they want a letter to change. I don’t know that I could find one person whose life would be negatively affected in any way by folks in the trans community being able to change their birth certificate.”

The Legislature must abide by certain deadlines — the most obvious being the 90th and final day of the session. But at the halfway mark (March 3, this year), lawmakers must take action on most of the bills that originated in their chamber and send them to the opposite body. The time limit does not apply to budget bills, which operate on their own time frame.

This requirement has created a crush in both the final committee meetings of the first half of the session and in proceedings on the floor. Monday alone, there were more than 140 bills on the second read agenda across both chambers, a number that doesn’t include dozens more bills that face a final vote on the third read agenda. 

“I’ve been in the legislature since 2011 & NEVER seen anything like this,” tweeted Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, on Monday. 

Last week, lawmakers pushed through dozens of bills on packed committee agendas and worked on Saturday to move along action on the floor, raising concerns about transparency and adequate notice for members of the public to testify.

“Every session, we always have everyone trying to get their last little bit done before transmittal,” said House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, in a February press conference.

A spokesman for the legislative majority said that lawmakers have proposed nearly 1,000 bills this session, with 621 in the House and 373 in the Senate. In 2013 and 2005, also years with a new governor, the Legislature saw an even higher number.

Still, some Democrats, advocates and lobbyists have publicly wondered how lawmakers could possibly give adequate consideration to heavy-duty legislation when there’s such a rush to meet the March 3 deadline. 

That was on display this weekend, when, as reported by the Helena Independent Record, a House committee took a vote on a bill without some Democrats following a squabble over the attendance roll. The chair of the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee, Rep. Derek Skees, admitted fault this morning and reconducted the actions the committee took Saturday. 

In addition to bills addressing telehealth services, coal revenues and cleanup, wolf trapping, time zones, dice games and more, the two chambers took up several bills that would reshape Montana’s judicial system, though lawmakers as a whole were reluctant to embrace a sweeping overhaul.

House Bill 355, sponsored by Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls, would have made races for seats on the state Supreme Court partisan. It failed its second reading on a 44-56 vote. An earlier version of the bill died in the House Judiciary Committee but eventually passed after being amended to only apply to Supreme Court elections.

House lawmakers in February voted down a similar proposal, carried by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, but have also approved a measure that would remove the Judicial Nomination Commission, giving the governor unilateral control to fill court vacancies.

The Senate, meanwhile, narrowly voted down a bill on Monday expanding the definition of malfeasance as it relates to the impeachment of a judicial officer. 

Lawmakers in that chamber also defeated a measure changing the composition of another theoretically nonpartisan — or at least bipartisan — body: legislative interim committees. SB122, brought by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would create a partisan split on ethics committees and on the panels that study and draft laws in between sessions. 

Currently, statute requires that two members from each party serve on the committees. The bill would change the balance to three members of the majority party and one from the minority party. The bill failed 22-28.

The Senate also killed two bills that were part of a push by legislative Republicans to establish right-to-work in Montana. SB228 broadens the windows for workers to withdraw from a bargaining unit, while SB89 prevents a public employer from automatically withdrawing union dues from a worker’s paycheck. Both bills explicitly address public-sector unions.

“I don’t like everything the unions do either… but that’s between a member and their union,” said Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, warning against government interference in existing contracts.

The Senate was still in order by publication time.

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Starting at 8 a.m., the House of Representatives fired through 70 bills in eight hours and covered everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to the state’s effort to legalize recreational marijuana.

The House passed 67-33 a bill imposing up to 30 years in prison for people found guilty of damaging “critical infrastructure” like gas pipelines and power stations. HB481’s sponsor, Libby Republican Rep. Steve Gunderson, has made specific references to protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in explaining the bill, which opponents say is meant to chill and criminalize peaceful demonstrations against oil projects like Keystone XL.

The bill would also hold liable organizations that conspired with the alleged vandal, which could mean that a group of people protesting the same cause could be on the hook for significant financial liability if just one person violates the law. 

“Laws like this…are a road I don’t think we should be going down,” said Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder.

A bill that would ensure students grades three through 12 “receive instruction about the United States Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance” also passed its second reading Monday. 

Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, said it is critical that the legislature declares its intent that school children are taught about American values: “We owe it to each generation to teach in our public schools what it means to be an American citizen.”

Countering Phalen’s point, Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, said the pledge has “dubious origins” and that we should teach kids to be independent thinkers.

“Do we want to raise a generation of little robots that just repeat words, or do we want them to teach them to be analytical and critical?” the former social studies teacher asked the floor.

Windy Boy furthered Funk’s point and said, “When we are talking about the origins … and the originality of the United States, we need to be truthful.” 

Windy Boy had his own education proposal up for debate Monday. House lawmakers voted 66-34 to make indigenous language education an allowable work activity under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal cash assistance program.

Windy Boy, said the bill, HB487, would help preserve native languages and encourage people to seek higher education.

“This bill is basically expanding the policy to allow for those who are seeking work to also utilize (TANF) to further their opportunity for higher education,” he said.

With near-unanimous support, the House passed HB553 limiting the time of suspended sentences for felony convictions. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jimmy Patelis, said it would lighten caseloads for parole and probation officers that have to supervise parolees with suspended sentences lasting as long as 20 years.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, joked that some legislatures wouldn’t even make it one day without a beer or a minor traffic violation, nonetheless 20 years, and said parole officers shouldn’t be burdened supervising every mishap of a 20-year sentence.

“We’re asking a lot from those good folks that are involved in the supervision,” he said. We can’t set expectations that are impossible for offenders to meet and impossible expectations for the people that are supervising them. I’m ready to try something different.”

Another criminal justice bill before the House on Monday was HB517, which passed on a 79-29 vote.

The passage of Initiative 190, which opened the door to recreational marijuana in the state, also established that minors caught possessing marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia can choose between a $100 fine or four hours of drug education classes for a first offense. 

HB517 would align the penalties associated with underage marijuana possession to reflect those of underage alcohol possession and would allow the courts to adjudicate underage marijuana charges.

Missoula Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, speaking against the bill, said lawmakers should respect the voters’ decision to pass I-190, and parents should have the opportunity to teach their children before skipping straight to criminal penalties.

The purpose of the initiative, Tenenbaum said, was to “avoid the expansion of government into a parental role … we can curb youth experimentation with marijuana more effectively without expanding our criminal code.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, said marijuana and alcohol should be treated the same. 

“Why we would choose to minimize the marijuana offenses and treat them differently than the alcohol offenses is beyond me,” he said.

Another bill sponsored by Mercer that would have delayed the implementation of recreational marijuana in the state by one year was tabled last week by the House Business and Labor Committee. 

After passing out of committee by just one vote, the House voted Monday 75-25 to expand the state’s Good Samaritan law to include protections for sex workers. HB520, sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, would protect sex workers from being charged with prostitution when reporting sexual assault. Some worried the bill could provide a loophole to avoid prostitution charges, but supporters argued even with a loophole, it would ultimately do more good than harm.

“Opponents of this bill have said that this will give those an illegal business and a way to get off without any repercussions,” freshman Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings, said.

She added: “If somebody comes forward, and we can end up helping 20 other girls … I think it makes it all worth it. We shouldn’t be killing good legislation simply because we’re afraid of a couple of people taking advantage of it.”