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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bill making it harder to sue the state over environmental policy clears the Senate

Spring Creek Mine, Decker, MT
Cloud Peak Energy
Spring Creek Mine, Decker, MT

Two bills that passed in the Montana Senate this week could make it more difficult for groups that want to sue the state.

The first bill, brought by Republican Senator Mark Noland of Bigfork, would require groups challenging state environmental decisions to pay up in order to take the government to court.

“We’ve had frivolous lawsuits many times come across the state stopping good practices, good mining, good oil and gas production, uh, timber harvesting,” Noland said.

Noland’s bill would require organizations suing the state over its decisions to approve projects under the Montana Environmental Policy Act to pay for the cost of compiling materials for court, post bonds for any financial losses a company may incur while the case plays out and prove they are likely to win.

The bill has the backing of mining and petroleum interest groups. Opponents include environmental groups and the ACLU of Montana.

Senator Janet Ellis, from Helena, spoke in opposition to the bill, saying placing a cost on this process could violate Montanan’s constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.

“What this bill does is place a lot of costs if you want to participate by questioning government at all,” Ellis said.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Noland said part of the reason he decided to bring the bill was to avoid any future rulings like the Montana Supreme Court’s Lucky Minerals decision.

In that case, organizations had sued the state questioning the government’s decision to approve a gold mine north of Yellowstone National Park. The court struck down a 2011 MEPA amendment as unconstitutional and the mine’s previously issued permit was revoked.

Noland said nonprofits shouldn't be able to use their tax exempt status to impact the property or economic interest of another.

Michelle Uberuaga is the Executive Director of the Park County Environmental Council, one of the groups involved in the case. Uberuaga says the bill is unfair in forcing groups like hers to have to pay upfront costs and disclose their funders, while not requiring companies who request these development projects to do the same.

“I'm pretty sure a lot of companies have quite a few partners and financial interests, many of whom are not members of our community, who, who seek to gain substantially financially from these permitting projects,” Uberuaga said.

The second bill from Republican Senator Greg Hertz of Polson would tax nonprofit funds spent on litigation challenging government action. Hertz said this is needed because nonprofits use tax exempt dollars to bring lawsuits the state must spend taxpayer dollars to defend.

Opponents of Hertz’s bill have said it violates citizens’ right to freedom of speech. Hertz’s bill had no proponents during its first hearing.

The bill presents logistical challenges for the Department of Revenue. Mark Schoenfeld, with the department, said his agency isn’t sure how they would track these expenses.

“I guess we’d have to understand who is making these contributions and we’d have to find out who is from Montana, it would be very difficult on our part,” said Schoenfeld.

Both bills passed in the Senate this week and will next be heard in the House of Representatives.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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