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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

State Lawmakers To Vote On Potential July Special Session

Montana Capitol, Helena, MT.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol, Helena, MT.

State lawmakers will formally vote on a proposal for the Legislature to come back to Helena for a July 16 special session.

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton tweeted just before five Wednesday afternoon that his office will send out ballots to legislators as soon as possible.

The effort to convene a special session comes at the request of Republicans concerned about a pair of citizens initiatives that will likely appear on ballots this November.

Senate Majority leader Fred Thomas says Republicans in the Senate are on board for a special session, although Republican leaders in the House are divided on the issue.

Thomas says, "We’ve kicked this around. We think this issue is substantially too important to be afraid to meet and deal with it now."

Thomas says two proposed ballot initiatives could, separately, change the future of mining and health care coverage for the poor, elderly, and disabled in Montana. Some Republicans are hoping to pass referenda during a special session that would run alongside citizen initiatives on the ballot later this year.

I-186, dubbed by its supporters as ‘Yes For Responsible Mining’, would require new hard-rock mines in the state to have cleanup plans that wouldn’t require perpetual treatment of polluted water and other contaminants.

Mining industry advocates say this could effectivly kill future mining in the state. I-186’s supporters disagree.

A draft request for the poll on a special session to be sent by Republicans to the Montana’s Secretary of State says if lawmakers convene this July they would consider legislation that "strengthens Montana's hard rock mining laws to protect the environment and taxpayers while still allowing for responsible mining activities to occur in Montana."

"I-186 does exactly that," says David Brooks, the executive director Montana Trout Unlimited and one of the leaders for the campaign in support of I-186.

"It is concerning that a handful of legislators want to interfere with our right as citizens," says Brooks.

Yet Republican leaders supporting the call for a special session say ballot initiatives often present emotional and one-sided arguments and the legislature is better suited to deal with complex policy issues. They also say their proposal isn’t stepping on the toes of the citizens initiative process because they want to put more options for citizens to consider on the ballot.

They’re also concerned with proposed I-185, the Healthy Montana Initiative campaign. I-185, would extend the state’s Medicaid expansion program beyond it’s 2019 sunset date, and raise the state’s tobacco tax to help pay for it.

Republicans in favor of the special session say they want to place a referendum on the ballot next to I-185 that would require some people who receive health coverage under the Medicaid program to work for their benefits. Republicans leaders also want to add financial tests for Medicaid recipients to prove they really need government assistance.

Kathy Weber-Bates is with the Healthy Montana Initiative campaign. She says, "It would be a unfortunate to waste taxpayer dollars on an expensive special session over an initiative that has broad support from Montanans from all walks for life and organizations including AARP Montana, The American Heart Association, rural hospitals, and dozens of others who believe that it is time to ask big tobacco corporations to pay their fair share."

It is still unclear if Republicans pushing for a special session have enough support from the rest of their caucus to call it. And Democratic legislative leaders say they’re unlikely to receive much help from their party.

Another wrinkle in the proposal for what would be Montana’s second special session in eight months, is that if lawmakers potentially pass referenda, those measures could miss the deadline to appear on the November ballot. That would mean a special election could have to be called.

Long time statehouse reporter and MTPR Political Analyst Chuck Johnson says, to the best of his knowledge, it would be unprecedented for lawmakers to call a special session in response to ballot issues that have yet to be voted on.

He says citizens were given the power to change state law through initiative in 1906.

"It was part of the progressive movement nationally in the Teddy Roosevelt years, and later the Woodrow Wilson years. In a lot of legislatures, like Montana, corporate interests controlled legislatures, so it made it very difficult. And of course in Montana you and the Anaconda Company, which was a power force that not only controlled the Legislature but owned a lot of other business in the state. It controlled the newspapers eventually. The initiative and referendum was part of this broad general reform movement that swept the country in that time," says Johnson.

Republicans need 76 votes to call a special session, that’s over a majority of the 150 seats in Legislature. The party now holds more than 90 seats, and with sufficient unity could order lawmakers back to the state Capitol without support from Democrats or the governor.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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