Senate kills stream access code changes, moves forward on nursing home and hospital charges bills
Bill wrap from Wednesday’s Senate floor session
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, addresses the Senate toward the start of the floor session on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
The Montana Senate heard more than 60 bills on second reading Wednesday to kick off a series of nearly full-day floor sessions as both chambers work to get all general bills passed to the other chamber before Friday’s transmittal deadline.
In a floor session that lasted the better part of nine hours, the Senate voted to move forward with the bulk of the bills, killing a few that had drawn controversy and ire from both Republicans and Democrats.
The Senate will reconvene at 8 a.m. Thursday to hear what is expected to be another 60 to 70 bills on second reading, and to consider the measures forwarded Wednesday for a third and final reading.
Find a roundup of action from Wednesday’s floor session below:
Senate Bill 497, sponsored by Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, failed on second reading in a 14-36 vote, as 20 Republicans joined Democrats to kill the bill. The bill was amended to make the changes to prescriptive easements affect a code other than Montana’s stream access code after outrage that the law was being toyed with, lawmakers said. Still, lawmakers voiced concerns about giving more leeway to wealthy landowners to block public access and undoing one of what many see as Montana’s most sacred statutes.
“The last thing we want to do is have a hearing on this yesterday that sportsmen and women had no idea what was going on, then vote the next day to in any way jeopardize those rights,” said Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade. “If we’re going to go down this road to threaten stream access – real or imagined – we have to do it with a bright light and everyone in the room.”
Two bills that would have changed nonpartisan elections to partisan ones each failed on their second readings. Great Falls Republican Sen. Daniel Emrich’s Senate Bill 302, which would have allowed judicial candidates to declare a party on the general election ballot, failed in a 16-34 vote. Opponents noted the measure went against the judicial conduct code, nearly 90 years of nonpartisan judicial elections in Montana, and against the experiences of other states that have tried partisan elections and want to revert back, like Texas. Senate Bill 317, from Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, also failed, in a 20-30 vote. It would have required city council and mayoral candidates to declare their party during municipal elections.
Elliston Republican Sen. Becky Beard’s Senate Bill 296 passed in a 37-13 vote. The bill seeks to revise funding of nursing homes and assisted living facilities and to consider inflation, service costs, and costs of living when setting Medicaid reimbursement rates.
Senate Bill 308, sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, which he said he brought because COVID restrictions prevented some people from seeing their loved ones before their death or a family member’s death, passed in a 40-10 vote. It allows a patient to have at least two hours of in-person visitation per day, even during a state of emergency of declared disaster. Health care facilities could still subject visitors to health screenings and restrict them from entering if they do not pass the screening.
Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, kicked off a long discussion with his Senate Bill 364, which aims to put limits on how much a hospital can charge for care up to 250% the reimbursement rate for Medicare. Much of the discussion centered around at which rates hospitals should charge patients, and how to cut those costs without putting rural hospitals, especially, out of business. The bill passed on a 29-21 vote on second reading after Hertz implored the Senate to forward the bill along to the House for further discussions.
The Senate gave final approval to four bills that complete an “eight pack” of measures sought by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte from the legislature surrounding the governor’s tax cut and investment goals. It passed on third reading House Bill 192, which gives one-time income tax rebates to Montanans; House Bill 222, which gives $500 property tax rebates to primary residence owners each of the next two years; House Bill 251, which pays off the state’s general obligation debt of about $25 million each year; and House Bill 267, which sends about $100 million in surplus money into a SAFER Montana Roads and Bridges Account that will work to leverage at least $600 million from the federal government to repair roads and bridges. A Senate Republican spokesperson said Gianforte is expected to sign the package of bills in the next two weeks.
Senate Bill 405, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, failed on a tied 25-25 vote on second reading and was indefinitely postponed. The bill sought to allow Montanans ages 75 and up to opt out of jury duty automatically if they so wish. Trebas noted there were 34 other states that allow citizens to opt out of jury duty at a certain age and said people should be able to opt out of duty if they want a break. Sens. Andrea Olsen, R-Missoula, and Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, both spoke in opposition. Olsen said serving on a jury was a sacred right and there are already mechanisms for people to opt out, while McKamey argued that people might be defendants at age 75 or older and want a jury of their peers.
Sen. Jason Small’s Senate Bill 208 passed second reading in a 33-17 vote. The Busby Republican’s measure preemptively bans local governments from banning or limiting energy and fuel choices – part of a national effort to try to get ahead of local bans on natural gas in new buildings. Small said he had to wonder if the effort was needed but said it was happening in other municipalities in other states. Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, noted, as was said in its committee meeting, that no local governments in Montana have proposed such a ban or restrictions. Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, was the lone Republican no vote.
Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, saw his Senate Bill 373 pass second reading in a party-line 36-14 vote. Salomon’s bill aims to allow people with bachelor’s degrees to undergo a teacher certification program that would be recommended by the state superintendent and approved by the board of education. He said the bill would help address Montana’s “extreme” teacher shortage through the online education program. Further, he said it would allow people to become teachers in the communities in which they already live and allow them to stay there without moving in order to go to school.
Senate Bill 450, sponsored by Emrich, passed second reading in a 29-21 vote. Though Montana already has religious and conscience exemptions for certain vaccines and care in various settings, the bill would require state agencies, day cares, health care providers, state licensees and others to allow for religious and conscience exemptions for vaccinations, drugs and medications required for employment at schools and child care facilities.
Senate Bill 333, sponsored by Hertz, would put a law on the books that would make trespassing with a drone a crime. It would apply to unmanned aerial vehicles operating above or below a person’s private property without permission. There would be exclusions for work conducted by the government surrounding traffic studies, law enforcement responses and firefighting, among a few others. It passed second reading in a 38-12 vote.
Senate Bill 420 from Friedel, passed second reading in a 31-19 vote. The bill moves elections for city councils and mayors to even years. Friedel said the bill keeps school board elections out of the changes so the boards can be in place when a school year starts. He said he felt citizens were tired of voting in so many different elections and that his bill would streamline the process.
Senate Bill 348 from Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, failed on second reading in a 22-28 vote. His bill would have removed the guaranteed annual benefit adjustment for new employees in state defined benefit retirement systems. Opponents of the bill said it was not a good bill to run when the state is trying to recruit and retain more public employees, while proponents on the floor said it generally was a good start at fixing the increasing pension liabilities.
Senate Bill 393, sponsored by Majority Leader Fitzpatrick, passed second reading in a 33-16 vote. His bill revises campaign finance laws to make it so a campaign treasurer does not have to be a registered voter and changes the way candidates would have to file reports if they are running unopposed in a race. The measure also changes when a candidate would have to report certain contributions and expenditures regarding their campaign account.
Senate Bill 483 from Sen. Christopher Pope, D-Bozeman, passed second reading in a 30-20 vote. The bill sets up the ability for the state to enter into public-private partnerships on large public development projects. He mentioned community college residence halls, state hospitals and prisons as possible sites that the partnerships could work on. There are exemptions that would not allow the partnerships to construct toll roads or bridges or broadband infrastructure projects.
Senate Bill 323, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, passed second reading on a 42-8 vote. The bill would allow for duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to be zoned in cities under the same zoning laws used for single-family residences. Cities with at least 5,000 residents would have to allow duplexes, while cities with populations above 50,000 would have to allow all three residence types to be zoned under single-family regulations.
Senate Bill 402, sponsored by Sen. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, which would have allowed hazard pay for firefighters working on an uncontrolled fire or working at an incident helibase, failed on second reading in a 24-26 vote.
Trebas’s Senate Bill 464, which was blasted to the floor on Tuesday, passed second reading in a 30-20 vote. The bill would require peace officers administering a witness lineup to be unaware of which person in the lineup was the suspected perpetrator. Trebas told the Senate the bill would remove any unintended bias from those lineups and lead to fewer wrongful convictions. He said smaller departments have the option to use a lineup that prevents the administrator of the lineup from seeing which member of the lineup was being viewed by the witness.
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