House kills partisan justice elections bill, ‘constitutional sheriff’ bill
The interior of the Montana state capitol in Helena, which was completed in 1899, 10 years after the state was admitted to the union. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan.)
Legislators in the House said “no” on Thursday to “constitutional sheriffs,” to partisan Montana Supreme Court elections, to “roofying” others, and to moving the Cowboy Hall of Fame away from Great Falls.
The day before the legislative deadline for general bills to pass one chamber, the House met all day and into the evening to consider nearly 100 bills on second reading.
A “constitutional sheriff” bill that aimed to give county sheriffs in Montana authority over federal law enforcement officers failed on a 32-68 vote.
Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Churchill, said House Bill 604 would require communication and cooperation among local and federal law enforcement, and in doing so, ensure officer safety. She said it would give local sheriffs tools to protect the people of their counties.
But opponents said it was legally problematic.
Rep. Wayne Rusk, R-Corvallis, said the idea to empower sheriffs isn’t bad, but the bill purports to do so by rejecting federal law. Plus, he said legislators swore to protect the constitution.
Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, said he shared a concern raised in a question to him by Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda.
“I do believe that if we enact this, it will be challenged in federal court, and it will be held to be unconstitutional,” said Mercer, a lawyer.
He said the idea the state could burden the way federal power is exercised is specious.
“If we go down this road, it will be a short trip, and one we shouldn’t take,” Mercer said.
But in support of the bill, Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, said he knows of situations where sheriffs didn’t know “federal entities” were on the scene because they were undercover — a recipe for injuries.
On the other hand, he said there’s a benefit to sharing information about investigations.
“If they know, they can also help,” Hinkle said.
But Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said the idea has been contemplated again and again, and it isn’t constitutional — and it isn’t a good idea for the body to pursue “blatantly unconstitutional actions.”
Another bill that would have created partisan elections for Montana Supreme Court justices failed 46-54.
Sponsor and Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls, described the House Bill 595 as a “voter transparency bill,” and he said it would “shine a light on implicit bias in each one of us.”
Bedey, though, said it was possible the concern about ideology among justices was justified, but he thought the bill would only serve to pour gasoline on a fire the legislature was trying to put out.
“It feels like Groundhog’s Day today,” Bedey said.
The Cowboy Hall of Fame is staying in Great Falls.
Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, tried to move it to Wolf Point, where it started, but Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, said it should stay where it is, centrally located and near the C.M. Russell Museum, with which it has an association.
Rep. Gary Parry, R-Colstrip, also said he wasn’t sure the legislature should get involved with a 501©3.
House Bill 794 failed 46-54.
With all 100 House members in favor, Rep. Marta Bertoglio’s bill to create an online repository for information on school district boards of trustees passed.
Bertoglio, a Clancy Republican, said House Bill 811 is a transparency bill. She said people would be able to find information about local trustees, including if they are thinking about running themselves.
“It’s good for everyone to know who is on our school boards,” Bertoglio said.
All members of the House agreed Montanans shouldn’t be roofied without their consent. House Bill 457 would make using drugs associated with date rape an assault.
Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, sponsored the bill to criminalize the use of date rape drugs rohypnol, flunitrazolam, hydroxybutyrate or prescription medications.
“Let’s keep our citizens hydrated and safe without getting into trouble,” Buckley said.
The House killed a bill 37-63 to provide continuous eligibility for Medicaid.
Sponsor and Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, said people who have continuous health coverage are more likely to seek preventative care and are less likely to have to go to the emergency room.
Montana has had continuous eligibility since Medicaid expansion was created in 2015, but without House Bill 609, it will end in April, Howell said: “Don’t take a big step backwards.”
Howell said Montana should put money toward helping people instead of doing paperwork to review eligibility.
“Medicaid expansion is part of what makes Montana work, and continuous eligibility is part of what makes Medicaid work,” Howell said.
Against the bill, Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, said one look at the fiscal note was evidence enough the bill is a bad idea. The fiscal note estimates the impact to the general fund at $2.2 million the first year and then $5.7 million the year after.
A bill that tried to require “an official congressional declaration or action to release the Montana National Guard to active combat duty” failed on a 40-60 vote, but not before much debate.
House Bill 527, sponsored by Rep. Lee Deming, R-Laurel, drew comments from military veterans in the body.
Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, said Montana could lead the way with the bill and prevent any more “forever wars.” It would mean soldiers are deployed only when constitutionally necessary, he said.
But Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, said the bill isn’t constitutional — “it’s radical.” He said it would be dangerous for missions and economically, and it didn’t account for situations such China and Russia fighting against the interests of the U.S. on the ground right now.
“If we pass this bill, we’re in trouble,” Nikolakakos said.
Rep. Gregory Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, said he was proud to have served his country, but he feared Montana would lose funding for the guard if it passed.
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