Montana Senate select committee holds first hearings on marijuana bills

Marijuana Select Committee
Posted at 8:21 AM, Apr 13, 2021

HELENA — The three major bills on how to implement legal marijuana sales in Montana are now in the hands of a special legislative committee.

The Montana Senate’s new Select Committee on Marijuana Law met for the first time Monday afternoon. Over the next week, they’ll be tasked with hearing each of the bills – as well as several smaller bills – and possibly coming up with a single proposal to move forward to the full Senate.

“At some point, we have to end up with one bill,” said Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton. Ellsworth is chairing the select committee.

In the House, House Bills 670, 701 and 707 were heard in multiple committees due to their wide-ranging effects. On the Senate side, leaders instead put together the select committee, which includes members representing many different standing committees.

“What we did is talk to multiple senators, as well as leadership, to try to get the best mixture of people that we could get on that committee,” said Ellsworth.

The committee is set to hold a hearing Monday on HB 670, followed by a hearing on HB 707 Tuesday and one on HB 701 Wednesday. Ellsworth says, by Thursday, he hopes members will choose two of those bills to keep working on and table the third. On Friday, he plans to have the committee discuss potential amendments, so they can consider them over the weekend.

“What we don’t want to see is getting to executive action and amendments being put on there that we don’t have time to contemplate,” he said.

Ellsworth said, by Monday, the committee could put amendments onto the bills and choose one to move forward.

“Everybody says, ‘Well, what bill will that be?,” he said. “I certainly have no clue, because it is up to the committee, and I am just one vote out of the 12 members that we have sitting on there.”

HB 670, 701 and 707 would all make significant changes to the recreational marijuana framework set up by the voter-approved Initiative 190, and they would all set up very different systems. Lawmakers have talked about the possibility of combining some parts from each bill.

“Each one of these bills has a piece that can play a part,” said Ellsworth. “I would imagine that whatever bill is tabled would also have a role in the final product.”

While he’s set out a planned timeline for action, Ellsworth said they could take additional days to work if needed.

“It’s not about time, it’s about having the right product,” he said.

The Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning has prepared fiscal notes for each of the main marijuana bills. They estimated that, if I-190 remained unchanged, Montana could see $65.2 million in recreational marijuana sales in the first six months and more than $200 million annually by the third full year. That would create between $40 and $50 million a year in tax revenue, based on a 20% sales tax.

The fiscal notes estimated the amount of sales would be relatively similar under any of the reform bills, though the start date of legal sales would be delayed. However, they would make big changes in how the revenue is used:

· I-190 would direct the money to things like conservation programs and veterans’ services.
· HB 701 would use it for the “HEART Fund,” an account for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
· HB 670 would lower the tax rate from 20% to 15% and direct the revenue to a trust fund to deal with the impacts of marijuana.
· HB 707 would collect taxes on wholesale instead of retail – potentially creating somewhat lower revenues – and would direct the money to the state general fund.

Ellsworth said the select committee will be able to build on the work the House committees did in going through the bills. He said he’s confident they can come up with a final product lawmakers can get behind.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to sit there and claim 100% victory,” he said. “It is about compromise, it’s about working together and accomplishing what we need to do for the people of Montana.”