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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

I-181 Has Consequences Beyond Brain Research

Graphic: Montana Public Radio News, Politics

Backers of a ballot initiative that they say is all about brain research argue that it would fund critically needed scientific inquiry into conditions like Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

But opponents say it’s about much more than that, and that approving I-181 would give voters unprecedented power over state spending in a way that would be unwise, and even illegal.

I-181 would give Montana the opportunity to sell 200 million dollars in taxpayer-backed bonds. The money would be used to fund research into a variety of brain diseases, injuries and illnesses.

But Democratic State Senator Dick Barrett from Missoula says when voters look at ballot initiative I-181 they’re not seeing all the other areas of government that need funding, and it's the job of state lawmakers to decide where state money goes.

“[The] public has to make the decision about whether or not to borrow that amount of money and then use that amount of tax money to repay, without knowing at all what other kinds of programs have to be funded by borrowing,” Barrett said. 

Barrett runs the opposition ballot issue group Montanans for Fiscal Responsibility. He says I-181 sidesteps one of the biggest jobs of the Legislature: appropriating state funds.

Supporters of I-181 disagree. Randy Gray with Montanans for Research and Cures says the ballot initiative respects the legislative process.

“There is no assurances that if even if [I-181] passes that the Legislature will fund it. Maybe they’ll not fund it the first cycle, but will fund it the next cycle,” Gray said. 

According to governor's budget office, if the initiative passed, the Legislature would need to find a way to fund the bond process. But the Legislature could also vote to repeal part of I-181, and not appropriate the money.

In July, a coalition opposed to I-181 asked Montana’s Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional on its face. Montanans for Fiscal Responsibly says the initiative illegally asks to use public debt to pay nonprofit and for-profit entities that are independent of the State of Montana.

The Supreme Court said state law doesn't allow it to rule until a challenge is heard in lower courts.

The coalition of three labor unions, the Montana Taxpayers Association and three lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, have so far only raised about 600 dollars, but say if I-181 is approved, they’ll take it to court again in a constitutional challenge.

Senator Dick Barrett from Missoula says he doesn’t know if the ballot initiative is legal or illegal. But he says the way this proposal plans on spending state money just isn’t that smart.

“Lots of things that we would like to spend money on, things that we would like to fund, important programs - education, human services, healthcare," Barrett said. "A whole bunch of things that are important programs that are not going to be funded at the same level, that have a claim on those same resources that we’re setting aside for this particular program at this particular time.”

Montanans for Research and Cures, which is backing I-181 has raised and spent over two hundred thousand dollars so far in their campaign.

Over 40 percent of the money received by that group has come from the McLaughlin Research Institute, in Great Falls.

Randy Gray, the Treasurer for Montanans for Research and Cures, is also chairman of the McLaughlin Research Institute’s board.

McLaughlin will likely apply for research grants if I-181 is approved.

I-181 would create a 13-member research board, to be appointed by the governor, and confirmed by the Senate, that would review and approve grant requests.

Board members representing patient advocacy groups, industry, and physicians would oversee up to 20 million dollars a year for 10 years.

Randy Gray with Montanans for Research and Cures says good brain research is often done on the coasts, far away from Montana. And Montanans need local research to study the serious conditions they live with.

"Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, MS, ALS, stroke, it would cover brain cancer," Gray said. 

Gray says McLaughlin’s push for I-181 isn’t a conflict of interest, because McLaughlin would be treated the same as any other research group seeking grant funding.

“UM, UM Pharmacy particularly, MSU, that would be Shodair, McLaughlin," Gray said.  "As we’ve traveled around the state and talked to hospitals and clinics, some of the major hospitals in Montana; St. Pats, Billings Clinic, Kalispell Regional, Bozeman Deaconess, Benefis. Any of those hospitals also would be eligible to apply.”

Matt Kuntz is with the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness,  or NAMI, which supports I-181.  Kuntz, says I-181 does ask for a lot of money.

“It's a tough question for anybody," Kuntz said. "The strongest argument in my opinion for why the finances of this makes sense is Montana has a graying population and we are going to be spending incredible amounts of money treating Alzheimer's and dementia, in particular. We are also one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. While the sticker shock of 200 million dollars is real and it should be…”

Kuntz says it's worth it.

He says NAMI isn’t the kind of organization that’s likely to get any money from of the health research grants created if I-181 passes. Kuntz says he wants to see I-181 approved to improve care for people with Alzheimer's, dementia and other poorly understood brain diseases.

“There are special interests on every side of this," Kuntz said. "NAMI is a special interest because we care for people with mental illness. We are 100 percent biased that if we get better brain research in this state which leads to better treatment, we are going to be very happy that our people are getting better care, in the same way the special interests of some of the other groups want money allocated towards the things they care about. So I think it really comes down to the Montana tax payer deciding what they value, and that is something for each individual and each family to decide.”

A yes vote on I-181 would create the Montana Biomedical Research Authority that could request up to 20 million dollars a year for brain research through the sale of state general-obligation bonds.

“It’s simply unconstitutional," head of Montana AFL-CIO Al Ekblad said. 

He says I-181 raises a larger question about the authority of voters in Montana.

“The biggest concern is it takes the budgetary process of the state, the appropriations of state dollars, and it puts it into the initiative process, where an out-of-state entity or an in-state private entity could invest five hundred thousand or a million dollars in an initiative process," Ekblad said. "And for that initial investment of five hundred thousand or a million end up with 2 or 3 million dollars in return. And the taxpayers are on the bill to pay that off.”

According to the governor’s budget office, Montana voters have never before created bond debt through a ballot initiative.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  MTPR previously posted an incorrect draft of this story. The current post is correct. 

Corin Cates-Carney is the news director at Montana Public Radio. He joined MTPR in 2015 and is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.
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