2011 legislative session’s effectiveness varied by issue

2011-05-01T07:00:00Z 2011-05-01T08:40:17Z 2011 legislative session’s effectiveness varied by issueBy MIKE DENNISON and CHARLES S. JOHNSON Missoulian State Bureau missoulian.com

HELENA - A bruising state budget battle and an overhaul of Montana's medical marijuana law dominated the headlines at the 2011 Legislature - but those were far from the only major items on the agenda.

In the eyes of Senate Republican leaders, who met with reporters after the Legislature adjourned late last week, the session passed numerous bills to boost natural-resource development in Montana, help business in other ways and increase "individual freedom."

"We can take those natural resources and convert (their revenue) into educational excellence that lead to great opportunities in the form of good jobs," said Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo. "That's our goal; that's ultimately why we're here."

Democrats, who were in the minority, had a far different view of the larger picture, saying Republicans spent much of their time promoting a right-wing social agenda, giving tax breaks to big business and hacking away at environmental regulations.

So, what really happened? Here's a closer look at the final or almost-final results in a number of key areas:

  • Abortion: Lawmakers agreed to put House Bill 627 on the 2012 ballot to let voters decide whether a girl under age 16 should be required to notify a parent or appear before a judge as an alternative before getting an abortion. A similar measure, Senate Bill 97, passed both houses and will go to Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his signature or veto. The Legislature rejected HB280, which would require women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion, and HB489, a so-called "personhood" constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
  • DUI crackdown: Three major bills to prevent or crack down on drunken driving in Montana passed the Legislature and await Schweitzer's signature: SB15, which creates a new crime of aggravated DUI; SB42, which enables law enforcement officers to get a warrant to require a blood or breath test for a DUI suspect; and HB106, which will create a statewide "24/7" sobriety program that requires second-time DUI offenders to undergo daily breath testing until their case is resolved.
  • Education: Public schools will have their state funds decreased slightly this year and then increased 2.4 percent next year - if state revenue meets a certain trigger. This coming school year, many school districts will need voter-approved property tax levies to maintain their budget.

In higher education, a deal between Schweitzer and top Republican leaders restored $15 million to the university system's budget, but left about a $17 million reduction over the next two years. The state Board of Regents has the power to raise student tuition to make up the difference, although Schweitzer has urged the regents to hold the line.

  • Elections: A couple of major proposed election changes failed to become law. Schweitzer vetoed HB180, which would have cut off voter registration at 5 p.m. on the Friday before election, ending the right of Montanans to register to vote until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Another unsuccessful measure, HB130, which would have set up a vote-by-mail system for all Montana elections except those run by schools.
  • Energy/environment: Republicans passed two major bills designed to make it both easier to permit mines and other natural-resource projects, as well as harder to step around them with court challenges. Yet Schweitzer has yet to act on Senate bills 233 or 312, which will reach his desk soon.

Schweitzer plans to veto SB306, which would allow new open-pit, heap-leach gold or silver mines that process their ore with cyanide at an existing heap-leach site.

Lawmakers passed three bills to encourage or enable construction of electric power lines that could boost new power projects in Montana. Included among them is controversial HB198, which ensures that power-line developers can condemn property along their intended route. Two of the bills, including HB198, have yet to be signed into law by the governor.

The Legislature also passed a Schweitzer-supported bill that cuts in half the gross-proceeds tax on coal for new or existing underground coal mines, for 10 years.

  • Gambling: Under a new law, SB361, video gambling machines will be allowed to add "line games" that are similar to electronic slot machines. The Legislature rejected HB423, which would have legalized live blackjack games in Montana, with the licensing fees directed to human service budgets.
  • Health care/health reforms: Republicans killed all attempts to implement federal health reform in Montana, including measures to set up a state-based "health insurance exchange," or Internet marketplace for insurance policies. The federal government will now design Montana's exchange.

At the same time, nearly all Republican-backed health reform proposals or bills to stymie federal reform also were killed, often by Schweitzer's veto.

The only major bills still alive in this area are two measures to restrict medical-malpractice lawsuits and another bill allowing interstate health care compacts. However, all three are still vulnerable to a Schweitzer veto.

The GOP also passed a referendum that will be on the 2012 ballot, asking Montanans whether they want to prohibit a federal mandate to buy health insurance by 2014.

  • Renewable power: All Republican bills to water down or eliminate Montana's renewable-power mandates, or undermine other state laws encouraging renewable power and conservation, are dead, either killed in the process or vetoed by Schweitzer.

Republicans also killed attempts by Democrats to expand Montana's renewable-power mandates, which require utilities to acquire a minimum amount of renewable power.

  • Taxes: The major tax bill that passed was SB372, which would reduce the property tax rate on business equipment to 2 percent from the current 3 percent on the first $2 million worth of equipment. If a certain economic trigger is met later, the tax rate would drop to 1.5 percent on the first $3 million worth of equipment. The question is whether Schweitzer will sign it into law because he had a rival proposal that would have taken a number of businesses off the business equipment tax rolls entirely, while not giving reductions to those corporations with the higher valued equipment.

The Legislature rejected a number of bills that would have given the Revenue Department the power to collect taxes from nonresident individuals and businesses owing taxes in Montana.


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