Kangaroos, cartels, not popular on Montana House floor

By: - March 1, 2023 7:36 pm

The grand staircase in the Montana Capitol in Helena (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Representatives in the House weren’t in favor of kangaroos — at least in apartments — or cartels or ranked choice voting.

Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers continued a marathon floor session expected to kick off again Thursday in time for them to push bills through at least one chamber before the legislative halftime deadline.

Friday will mark day No. 45 of an estimated 90-day session.

The kangaroos related to tenant and landlord legislation, and the cartels related to a youth court bill.

The bills in this story were up for second reading Wednesday. If they hopped over that hurdle, they’ll still need to pass third reading in order to head to the Senate.

House Bill 598 to prohibit ranked choice voting in Montana passed 54-46.

Sponsor and Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, argued that method of voting means top candidates get ignored and tossed out of a race, it’s overly complicated, and it turns elections into a game of odds.

Worst of all, she said it disenfranchises voters.

In support, Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, said the bill is urgently needed, and without it, Montana would experience a takeover from the “far left.”

In opposition, however, Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, said conservative media has “gone out of control” in representing rank choice voting, but it’s a simple way to have multiple elections on one ballot.

Nikolakakos also said it made sense for independently minded voters in Montana, who don’t need politicians to direct ballots for them.

“This is not a good bill,” he said.

Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, disagreed – and he said ranked choice voting would work quite well for candidates who didn’t get the most votes. So he supported the prohibition.

“If you want the minority candidate to wind up winning, you’re gonna get it,” Butcher said.

A bill sponsored by House Appropriations Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad to increase starting teacher pay passed with full support from the body – 100 votes in favor for House Bill 588.

Montana has struggled to pay rookie teachers competitive wages.

The bill will cost the state $200,000 a year starting in the 2025 fiscal note, according to the fiscal note. Money will go toward districts that qualify to bump up starting pay for newer teachers.

A bill that outlines how charter schools can start in Montana passed 79-21 in the afternoon session — after another one had passed in the morning.

House Bill 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, was one of two charter school bills recently passed by the House Education Committee.

At a hearing, “school choice” advocates spoke against HB 549 as a bill that wouldn’t move the needle enough to actually help launch more charter schools.

But Anderson said it is designed to meet constitutional requirements and honor the authority of the Board of Public Education. He said its purpose is to provide parental choice for children by expanding educational opportunities.

Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula, and Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, noted this bill and the other one, House Bill 562, have a lot of overlap.

They encouraged their colleagues to advance both and possibly allow a conference committee to sort through the positive elements – to best serve Montana students.

A bill to revise youth court laws passed, but with some opponents concerned it would harm young people who end up in court.

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, said House Bill 614 modernizes the way courts deal with more serious offenses by youth so a county attorney has more discretion over whether a teen goes through youth court or district court.

In opposition of the bill, Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, said young people are legally and developmentally different than adults, and they might not even be direct perpetrators but might be held accountable nonetheless.

“Trying youth as youth in youth court is most often the best thing that we can do,” Howell said.

Butcher, though, said cartels and gangs have recognized youth get off easy, so they enlist young people to commit their crimes. If they’re burning down buildings as opposed to just shoplifting, throw them into adult courts, he said.

“Nail these kids early on,” Butcher said.

The bill passed 69-31.

Mercer also sponsored House Bill 639, to note that reducing recidivism is one purpose of the Department of Corrections. He said every department has a purpose in code, but recidivism hasn’t been part of the DOC’s. It passed with 100 votes.

Rep. Jodee Etchart, R-Billings, sponsored a bill to revise laws related to insurance coverage of breast exams.

Typically, Etchart said, insurance covers just a mammogram, but if a mammogram reveals a subsequent test is necessary, that extra screening might not be covered, and it can be expensive.

Etchart argued House Bill 665 would reduce barriers for early cancer diagnoses for both women and men.

It passed 99-1. Nikolakakos voted “no.”

When Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway is leasing out a rental, she doesn’t want to allow a tenant to have, say, a kangaroo just because it’s supposedly an emotional support animal.

So Sheldon-Galloway supported House Bill 703, sponsored by Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis.

Loge said the bill allows a landlord and tenant to work out an agreement about an emotional support animal before a tenant moves in. (The bill says service animals are separately defined in state law.)

The bill outlines the reasons landlords can deny an emotional support animal. It also says that “if a tenant’s disability-related need for an emotional support animal is not readily apparent,” the landlord may request the tenant provide supporting documents from a mental health professional.

Speaking against the bill, Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, conceded people who rent out units won’t want kangaroos in apartments. However, Zephyr said the bill allows landlords to turn down more tenants with emotional support animals than they should be able to.

The bill passed 71-29.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.