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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Legislative News Roundup - Week 2

Montana Capitol.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio

In the second week of the 64th Montana Legislature, two initiatives from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget were opened up in joint appropriations subcommittees.

Bullock’s infrastructure bill,the “Build Montana” act, got its first hearing in the joint subcommittee on long-range planning. Rep. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, the bill’s sponsor, said it would invest more than $380 million through a mix of cash and bonding, which he and other proponents of the bill lauded as a smart business decision.

“We do infrastructure, it’s our job to do infrastructure,” said Dan Villa, Bullock’s budget director.
Contractors, architects and bankers spoke in support of using a mixture of bonding and cash to fund the bill. Many said Montana’s good credit rating and low interest rates make this the right time to borrow.

Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, vice chair of the committee, said the biggest debate over House Bill 5 will be whether the funding comes from borrowing money in the form of bonds or spending cash.

“I think bonding will be one of the biggest issues. I’d just as soon pay for it up front if we can,” Ripley said.

The bill includes projects across Montana. More than $68 million is allocated for projects in Eastern Montana. In 2013, Bullock vetoed a bill that would have provided around $35 million in infrastructure projects to Eastern Montana in.

Parts of the measure require a 3/4 majority vote on the House floor. That could lead to projects being split into separate bills if some legislators don’t support parts of the bill.

Villa urged the committee to leave the projects in one bill.

Hearings on mental health programs also opened this week, and brought in a line of people who urged legislators to put money into local care options instead of the state institutions like the state hospital in Warm Springs and the nursing home in Lewistown.

Gov. Bullock’s budget allocates money for updates to both of those facilities, and does include some funding for local mental health care.

Chief Justice Mike McGrath speaks on the state of the judiciary and judiciary committees ramp up

Montana’s Chief Justice Mike McGrath gave the State of the Judiciary address to a joint floor session of the legislature during the second week, saying a decreased budget had hurt the judiciary.

He said budget cuts had led to a personnel shortage in some departments, a court backlog and inadequate staff training. He also spoke about the value of having three branches of government for a system of checks and balances.

“An independent, adequately funded judiciary is key to a constitutional democracy,” McGrath said.

Aside from that, the judiciary committees in both houses saw a lot of action this week.

The Senate Judiciary committee looked at a bill that would strengthen the law that prohibits secretly filming or watching someone when they have an expectation of privacy, even if that’s in public.

Lewis and Clark County Deputy County Attorney Luke Berger gave an example of a local case in which a man had hidden cameras in a women’s bathroom and had more than 90 videos of women.

However, media organizations raised concerns that the statute might be too broad, and may prevent reporters from doing their jobs. Some language prohibited loitering around someone’s home without their knowledge.

“It’s sometimes important for them to be in front of somebody’s house,” said Dewey Bruce, president of the Montana Broadcasters Association.

The Attorney General’s office requested the bill, and the office’s legislative liaison Jon Bennion said he would be willing to work with the media on that concern, but didn’t think it was a big problem.

“Often it’s easy to see a boogeyman where there isn’t one,” Bennion said.

A bill to include electronic communication in the indecent exposure statute drew support from prosecutors and victims’ advocates in a Senate Judiciary hearing Wednesday. The bill would criminalize indecent exposure by e-mail and other electronic communication and strengthens the penalty in cases where the victim is a minor.

The House Judiciary committee heard a bill that would create a voucher program to help get housing for people on parole who might not have other options at the time of their release.

“The idea of getting people into good housing situations is critical,” said Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, the bill’s sponsor.

Supporters testified that finding a new home for paroled criminals helps ensure they won’t be repeat offenders.  

Bills seek to change election laws

The Senate State Administration committee saw two campaign bills Wednesday.
One would prohibit the placing of campaign signs on private property.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said campaign sign placement is a frequent complaint his office hears.

Another bill seeks to update Montana law to match a 2012 court decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court struck down a 1935 law prohibiting political parties from endorsing judicial candidates and making independent expenditures in those races. The decision left in place a ban on direct contributions.

The bill matches what the court decided in 2012 – allowing parties to endorse judicial candidates and make independent expenditures in those races, but leaving in place the ban on direct contribution and coordination with the candidates.

“What’s on the books needs to conform with the courts,” Motl said. His office requested both bills.

Lawmakers hear proposals for increasing fees for off-road use, strengthening penalties for hunting violations, allowing electronic signatures for hunting licenses

The House Fish and Game committee heard a bill to bump up the fees on out-of-staters who ride off-road vehicles in Montana.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, would raise the fee for an out of state off-road vehicle permit from $5 to $25, similar to fees charged by other states. Proponents of the bill said the proceeds would be used for trail maintenance and possibly noxious weed control.
Another bill would increase penalties on hunters who hunt from the road and landowners harassing hunters.

“This bill attempts to cut both ways,” said Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, the sponsor of the bill.

Flynn added that the bill comes after a hunting season marked by an increasing problem of hunters who chase large herds of elk along roads and sometimes even block roads to shoot into the center of the herd.

Wildlife organizations and sportsmen spoke in support of the bill. Lawrence Sickerson, a sportsman, spoke against the bill, saying it didn’t have enough teeth against landowners.

Sickerson told a story of going hunting with his son on public land and being harassed by a nearby landowner. He said the man who harassed him was fined $135 and was allowed to go on his way, a penalty Sickerson thought was too little.

“They have a vested interest to bully and buffalo people away from hunting,” Sickerson said.
Another bill, to allow electronic signatures on hunting and fishing licenses, passed out of the Senate.

Bills address raw honey sales, police horse protection

The House Judiciary committee took up a bill Monday to offer protection to police horses.

Livingston police officer Jessika Kynett spoke to the committee about her horse Larry, the only police horse in the state.

“Larry does have his own badge,” Kynett said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, would criminalize harming a police horse and fine the offender thousands of dollars. It would protect horses to the same degree dogs and police officers themselves are protected.

The bill was tabled in committee after Representatives asked if the fine was strong enough.

The Senate Agriculture committee also had a little fun this week when it heard a bill to allow raw honey to be sold at farmers’ markets.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Lea Whitford, D-Cut Bank, would simply add raw honey to the list of unlicensed products that can be sold at farmers’ markets in the state. It corrects a discrepancy between federal and state law. Federal law says raw honey is OK for sale, while the state law doesn’t directly address it.

“In state law, the word honey is missing,” said Cort Jensen, representing the Department of Agriculture.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services was in support of the bill, and says there aren’t health differences between raw and processed honey.

Montana has about 200 registered beekeepers, according to the Department of Agriculture. Beekeepers with less than 10 colonies aren’t required to register, and therefore aren’t included in the count.
Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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