HELENA - Montana legislators have proposed 22 different constitutional amendments so far this session, but they've already dropped a number of them.
Their ideas range from expanding term limits to limiting abortion and creating an oil and gas constitutional trust fund to changing the name of the office of state auditor.
“I think there’s more this session than usual,” said House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers. “But it’s a very, very difficult job to get them through the process.”
Doing so requires getting two thirds of the total members of the Legislature — at least 100 of the 150 lawmakers — to vote for the final version of the proposed amendment. It can be any combination of 100 representatives and 50 senators, and it does not require two-thirds majority votes in each chamber.
Any proposed constitutional amendments that make it through the Legislature will appear on the ballot in the next general election for voters to decide.
Two years ago, none of the 20 proposed amendments got the required votes to appear on the ballot.
Blasdel said it’s hard enough to get 51 votes in the House and 26 in the Senate to pass a regular bill, must less obtain the two-thirds majority for a proposed amendment.
“They've got to be something that makes sense to the public,” he said.
At this point, it appears the first proposed constitutional amendment most likely to make the ballot is House Bill 79, by Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup. It would change the name of the state auditor to the commissioner of securities and insurance to better reflect what the office does.
“The state auditor does not audit anything,” Berry said in the debate. The auditor is in charge of regulating securities and insurance in Montana.
It passed the House 87-7, so it needs only 13 votes in the Senate.
In 2006, voters rejected a similar proposal to call the auditor the state insurance commissioner.
Another bill to be debated soon is House Bill 277, by Rep. Bill McChesney, D-Miles City, to change the term limits provision for legislators. It would allow a legislator to serve a total of 16 years in any 24-year period, regardless of whether it was all in the House, all in the Senate or some combination.
At present, a legislator can serve eight years out of every 16 years in the House and then do the same in the Senate, or vice versa. Some legislators already put in 16 years between the two chambers, but are in one house for eight years.
“It’s been a brain drain on that all-important institutional knowledge,” McChesney said.
In 2004, Montanans rejected a constitutional amendment to extend legislative term limits to 12 years from the current eight, in one chamber.
Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, is trying again this year to amend the constitution to require that the both houses approve a revenue estimate to meet the constitutional requirement that the Legislature adopt a balanced budget. His bill is in the Senate Taxation Committee.
Although both chambers have adopted a revenue estimate in 2013, but that has not been the case in recent sessions.
The Joint Select Committee on Pensions will hear HB282, by Rep. Kirk Wagoner, R-Montana City. It would forbid the Legislature from increasing the two-year general fund budget beyond inflation unless public pension funds are funded on an actuarially sound basis.
Legislators have scrapped plans for three more already-introduced proposed, including one to prohibit the use of initiatives for hunting, fishing and trapping laws and one to reduce the number of seats in the House and Senate.
They have requested that 14 more proposed amendments be drafted, although at least of four of them have been dropped.
Among them are proposals by:
- Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, to extend term limits for legislators.
- Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, to prevent enactment of any law abridging the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology or modern livestock or ranching practices.
- Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, to set aside money from the state general fund to pay for major projects such as constructing new buildings so the state wouldn't have to borrow money to finance them. It would require a simple majority to spend this money, not the two-thirds majority needed to issue bonds.
- Rep. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, to establish an oil and gas trust fund, similar to the state coal tax trust fund, by dedicating at least 30 percent of taxes from the extraction, severance or production of oil and gases to the fund. The rest would go to the state general fund. It would take a three-fourths vote of both houses to spend the principal of the trust fund, although the interest and income could be appropriated by a majority vote.
- Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, to set up an oil and gas trust fund, similar to what Jacobson wants to do, but providing that at least 25 percent of the oil and gas tax revenues go to the trust fund. Kaufmann wants to have an accompanying bill to repeal the state oil and gas tax holiday, using half of that revenue to go directly to help address the impacts of oil and gas development and the other half to go a statutory trust.
- Rep. Douglas Coffin, D-Missoula, to put in the constitution a provision about higher education that’s similar to what the 1972 document says about quality K-12 education. His proposal would require the Legislature to provide for a high-quality, affordable, accessible and nationally competitive university system and financial aid system. It would require the Board of Regents to use comparisons to national standards to establish Montana standards and to assess how the Montana system compares to them.
- Rep. Jerry O’Neill, R-Columbia Falls, to allow any constitutional amendment by the Legislature or the people to amend more than one constitutional provision at a time. O’Neill said the Montana Supreme Court in 1999 struck down Constitutional Initiative 75, on ground that it amended multiple provisions.
- Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, who has two proposals aimed at restricting abortion. One would essentially ban abortion by defining “person” to include every human being at any stage of life, including conception. Another would specify there is no right to abortion or public funding of abortion.
- She also has proposed amending the constitution to prohibit the taking of property for nonpayment of taxes.