HELENA — The Montana House and Senate worked for hours Wednesday, debating dozens of bills ahead of a key deadline at the end of the week.
Friday is the transmittal deadline, when hundreds of “general bills” – bills that don’t spend money or affect state revenue – must pass through their first chamber or they’ll die in the process. Both chambers are holding full-day floor sessions Wednesday and Thursday to get through as many of the bills as possible.
In the House, the floor session began at 8 a.m. Wednesday and continued until after 6 p.m., with a few short breaks. During that time, lawmakers debated and took preliminary votes on 92 bills – endorsing all but four to continue moving forward.
One notable issue Wednesday was education. Representatives gave initial approval to two different proposals to establish charter schools in the state. The first, House Bill 562, sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, would create “community choice schools.” They would operate largely autonomously, with exemptions from a number of requirements for traditional public schools. The bill would also create a new state commission to authorize the schools.
The other bill, House Bill 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, would give local school districts the first option to create charter schools, but allow independent schools to come in if districts decline. The Montana Board of Public Education would have oversight on charter proposals, and these schools would have fewer exemptions.
Lawmakers were divided on which proposal was best. Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula, favored the model in HB 549, saying he had concerns about authority and oversight in the community choice model in HB 562.
“I would submit to the body today that we will pass a charter school bill, and I recognize that,” he said. “I would suggest to the body that this is not the bill that this body should pass.”
Rep. Fiona Nave, R-Columbus, supported the greater autonomy in HB 562.
“I don’t want a local elected school board that already is responsible for the public schools to also be responsible for the charter school – if nothing else, I think it’s a conflict of interest,” she said.
Many lawmakers voted to advance both bills. Several noted there are many areas of overlap between the proposals.
“If you're motivated to get a functional charter school program in front of this state, I would recommend that we advance both of these and work through reconciling them so that we can have a win for the students and parents of Montana that's satisfactory for everyone,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton.
HB 562 passed 63-37, while HB 549 passed 79-21.
The House also endorsed House Bill 575, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, 67-31. The bill would prohibit abortion of viable infants, except when necessary to protect the life of the mother. It would require providers to make a determination of viability in writing, and it would presume viability no later than 24 weeks into pregnancy.
Other bills that passed preliminary votes in the House Wednesday include:
- House Bill 470, sponsored by Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Power, would clarify Montana’s “move over” laws to ensure drivers comply with safety rules when passing law enforcement or highway workers and their vehicles on the roads.
- House Bill 484, sponsored by Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, would renew the state’s broadband advisory commission to provide recommendations on how to distribute federal broadband funding, and it would direct the state to prioritize Montana-owned providers and rural projects when awarding funds.
- House Bill 556, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, would allow people to provide child care in private residences for up to six children without registering as a day care facility or family day care home.
- House Bill 569, sponsored by Rep. Terry Moore, R-Billings, appropriates $96 million for the pension systems that serve sheriffs and deputies, detention officers, Montana Highway Patrol troopers, game wardens and state peace officers. It would also revise rules for the systems, including requiring new employees to serve 20 years of service and reach age 50 before starting to draw their pension. An attempt to amend that change out of the bill failed narrowly, 47-53.
- House Bill 584, sponsored by Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, would prohibit government entities from suing gun and ammunition makers, trade associations or sellers for “the lawful design, manufacture, marketing, or sale of firearms or ammunition.”
- House Bill 684, sponsored by Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, would prohibit the use of vaccination status as evidence in a child custody or other parental rights case.
- House Bill 692, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would allow prosecutors to waive the option of imprisonment in some misdemeanor cases, which would mean defendants in those cases aren’t guaranteed a public defender.
- House Bill 546, sponsored by Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, would dedicate another $15 million to the state’s Multifamily Coal Trust Homes Program, which provides loans to support the development and preservation of multifamily rental homes.
- House Bill 598, sponsored by Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, would prohibit ranked-choice voting for any state, federal and local elections.
- House Bill 629, sponsored by Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, would let a defendant who is acquitted after arguing self-defense get reimbursement of their court costs.
- House Bill 733, sponsored by Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, would let political candidates carry over unspent campaign funds to their own future campaigns or contribute them to another campaign or a political committee.
- House Bill 770, sponsored by House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, would establish state laws seeking to prevent large tech companies and social media platforms from censoring content based on viewpoint. The bill is based off a Texas law that is currently being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawmakers also debated dozens of bills in a nearly all-day floor session in the Montana Senate. While many passed with little to no opposition, a few bills of note passed the second reading process and have a good chance of passing third reading and heading to the Montana House of Representatives soon.
One of the key points touched on in the Senate was housing, and building more of it. Senate Bill 406 from Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, will create a law that prohibits local governments from adopting more stringent building codes than the building codes the state has. Trebas noted in his statements to the Senate chamber that the state already has the ability to adopt stricter building codes than what is required at the national level. The Senate agreed to move that bill to a third reading.
Trebas also introduced Senate Bill 323, which will allow duplex, triplex, and fourplex buildings to be built on land that is zoned for single-family homes. That bill was moved to a third reading with little opposition.
Consumer protection and privacy bills were also discussed on Wednesday. Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings brought forth Senate Bill 351, which relates to biometric data, and Senate Bill 384, which relates to consumer privacy.
SB 351 applies to data like DNA that is shared with a business like Ancestry.com and what control people have over the data they are providing. For example, if the bill passes, companies that accept Montanans' biometric data must provide what the DNA will be used for, who has access to it, and whether it could be shared. That bill was endorsed by the Senate, 49-0.
SB 384 looks at data provided by consumers and will provide them with an opportunity to opt out of having their personal data used for such things as targeted advertising. The bill would also allow consumers to find out whether their data is being collected, obtain a copy of it, or demand it be deleted.
Other bills that passed preliminary votes on Wednesday include:
- Senate Bill 373, brought by Sen. Daniel Salomon, R-Ronan, would provide an alternative route for prospective teachers to earn their accreditation. It passed second reading 36-14.
- Senate Bill 328, brought by Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, would integrate policies created under the Indian Child Welfare Act that was established by the United States Congress to all child protection services cases in Montana. This bill was passed by the Senate on second reading unanimously, 50-0.
- Senate Bill 203, brought by Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, which has caught fire in recent weeks following the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon spotting over Billings. It would prevent foreign adversaries from buying, leasing, or renting various types of property near military installations, and it passed second reading 48-2.