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Montana legislative committee split on abortion, gun safety law

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 8:19 PM, Jun 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-28 22:19:04-04

HELENA — Two hot-button issues that hit the national political scene last week surfaced Monday in a Montana legislative committee.

After a daylong hearing on other issues, the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee finished its meeting with Republicans and Democrats deadlocking on two motions related to abortion and the recent federal gun safety legislation.

The Safer Communities Act passed with support from all congressional Democrats and some Republicans and was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Saturday. In addition to its provisions on firearms, the law set aside several billion dollars in funding for things like school safety improvements and school-based mental health providers.

Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, the committee’s chair, suggested that they appoint one Republican and one Democrat to go through the provisions of the Safer Communities Act and identify which of the programs they were interested in having Montana participate in.

“We’ve seen the terrible consequences from years of ignoring these problems, in terms of deaths of children around the country,” Stafman told MTN Tuesday. “I wanted to do everything we could on an urgent basis to increase safety for Montanans and Montana children by jumping immediately at these opportunities.”

All five Democrats on the committee supported the idea, but all five Republicans opposed it. It failed to move forward because of the tied vote.

Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, the vice-chair, called the Safer Communities Act “federal government overreach at its best,” and said it was too much for the committee to take on at this time. They are only set to meet one more time this year, in August.

“I don’t think this is appropriate at this late date, for us to try and cram this into here; I don’t like it,” he said. “If there is something that doesn’t stink to high heaven in here, we’ll have time to process it before the session in January.”

The committee also split on a proposal, introduced by Stafman on behalf of Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, to draft a bill codifying access to abortion into Montana law. Currently, abortion remains legal in Montana – despite the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in its Dobbs decision last week – because of a state Supreme Court ruling that found the Montana Constitution’s right to privacy guarantees women can have an abortion before fetal viability.

Stafman said creating a bill to officially maintain abortion rights in the state as they are now would reassure people concerned about the federal ruling.

“They’re so worried about what this new decision out of the Supreme Court could mean in their life,” he said. “Even though currently abortion is protected under Montana law, they want the assurance that’s going to continue.”

Committee members voted without further discussion, and they again tied on party lines, so the motion failed.

Many Republican leaders have called on the Montana Supreme Court to reverse its ruling in Armstrong v. State, the case that guarantees abortion access. This week, Attorney General Austin Knudsen filed an updated brief to the court, stating that the Armstrong case relied specifically on Roe v. Wade and the Dobbs decision would significantly affect its validity. He called on the justices to consider additional briefing on how the new ruling changes the issues in an outstanding appeal.