Most remaining constitutional amendment proposals face long chances at Montana legislature

Nearly all remaining proposals need bipartisan support in other chamber

By: - April 4, 2023 6:20 pm
Dozens of people packed the Capitol rotunda in Helena on Feb. 1, 2023, to call on lawmakers to stop trying to amend the Montana Constitution.

Dozens of people packed the Capitol rotunda in Helena on Feb. 1, 2023, to call on lawmakers to stop trying to amend the Montana Constitution. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Only one of the proposed constitutional amendments from the 2023 legislature appears to have a strong chance of being sent to Montana voters in 2024 among seven remaining, though several still have long-shot chances after third reading in their initial chambers Tuesday.

The House and Senate voted on the remaining referendum proposals – all sponsored by Republicans – on their third readings on Tuesday prior to the deadline for referenda to pass at least one chamber. A proposal to strip admission authority to the state bar from the Supreme Court from Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle, did not get enough House votes Monday to be sent to the Senate for consideration.

Each remaining proposal will need to get at least 100 votes between the House and Senate out of 150 in a legislature controlled by a Republican supermajority that has 68 Republicans in the House and 34 in the Senate.

Best chance of making the ballot

Senate Bill 563: Mental Health Trust Fund

The Senate passed Senate Bill 563 from Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, in a 40-10 vote on third reading – one fewer vote than the measure received on second reading on Monday. Five Democrats and five Republicans voted against the bill. The referendum would ask voters if the state should create a mental health trust fund for up to $50 million whose guidelines would be determined by the next legislature.

Long shots, but still possible

House Bill 551: Put ‘constitutional carry’ into the Montana Constitution

Malta Republican Sen. Casey Knudsen’s measure, which seeks to strike a prohibition on concealed-carry weapons in the Constitution, passed third reading with 65 votes, meaning it will need to pick up 35 votes in the Senate in order to be sent to voters. If all Senate Republicans vote in favor of the measure, they would still need one Democrat to vote along with them for the proposal to make the ballot.

House Bill 372: Establish the ‘right to hunt’ in the Constitution

House Bill 372, sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, aims to ask voters to amend the Constitution to say that hunting, trapping and fishing is the “primary but not exclusive” means of managing wildlife in Montana. The Constitution currently says the right to harvest wild fish and game is a “heritage that shall forever be preserved” by Montanans, but Fielder’s bill would change that so Montanans “have the right” to hunt, fish and trap fish and wildlife. After getting 62 votes on Monday, the measure received 64 votes on third reading and will need 36 votes in the Senate to make the ballot in 2024.

Senate Bill 534: Constitutional amendment on redistricting

Billings Republican Sen. Tom McGillvray’s Senate Bill 534 lost the vote of Sen. Walt Sales, R-Manhattan, on third reading and heads to the House with 30 votes – needing 70 there to make the ballot. The proposal would change the Constitution to say that the redistricting commission “may not consider any data pertaining to the political affiliation of electors or prior election results” and says communities of interest do not include relationships with political parties, candidates or incumbents.

Most likely not on the ballot

House Bill 517: Board of Regents

House Bill 517 from Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, got 61 votes on third reading Tuesday after receiving 66 on second reading on Monday. It will need 39 votes from the Senate in order to make the ballot. The proposal would change the Constitution to create exceptions from the board of regents, which currently has “full power” to supervise the university system. The change would allow the legislature to require the board of regents “to adopt and maintain policies and practices that protect the rights and associated civil liberties” provided in the Constitution and also allow the state to “provide judicial remedies” in that pursuit.

House Bill 915: Have governor appoint Supreme Court justices

Billings Republican Rep. Bill Mercer’s measure aims to change the Constitution so voters do not elect Supreme Court justices, as is currently the case. It would have the governor appoint justices to be confirmed by the Senate and makes tweaks to the judicial vacancy process. Mercer said the proposal would make the process more like the federal system, but Democrats have said the vast majority of Montanans oppose having a partisan governor appoint justices. The bill received 59 votes on third reading, five less than it did on Monday, and will need 41 votes in the Senate to make the ballot.

Senate Bill 272: Constitutional sheriffs

While the measure from Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, will move to the House for consideration, it is all but dead on arrival. Her proposal received just 22 votes on third reading in the Senate – one fewer than on Monday, as McGillvray switched to a no vote Tuesday – and would need 78 votes in the House to make the ballot. That is extremely unlikely as all Republicans and 10 Democrats there would need to vote for the measure. It seeks to put into the constitution “constitutional sheriff” parameters that would make the elected sheriff the ultimate authority of their county.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.