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Court rejects request to block research ballot measure

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HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a petition seeking to declare a ballot initiative seeking $200 million in state bonds for medical research unconstitutional and to block it from November's ballot.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-0 decision, said state law does not allow the high court to bypass lower courts in a legal challenge to a ballot initiative's constitutionality. The only instances in which the Supreme Court may exercise such original jurisdiction over initiatives is when there is a challenge either to the proposed language on the ballot or to the attorney general's legal review of the measure.

"Even were there authority to exercise original jurisdiction here, this court is not eager to rush consideration of constitutional questions of public importance in a hasty pre-election review of an idea that is not, and might never become, a law," Justice Beth Baker wrote in the court's opinion.

The initiative would create a Montana Biomedical Research Authority that could request up to $20 million a year for 10 years through state general-obligation bonds. The money would go into a fund to provide grants for brain research.

"Through their vote on the initiative, the people of Montana will affirm that promoting and developing therapies and cures for brain diseases and injuries, mental illness and other chronic diseases is a vital public purpose," Ben Kappelman, an attorney for initiative sponsor Montanans for Research and Cures, said in a statement to the court.

Three labor unions, a taxpayers' group and three state legislators had asked the high court to rule Initiative 181 unconstitutional. The plaintiffs say the measure violates the state constitution's provision barring state appropriations made to private groups that are not under the control of the state.

The plaintiffs also say the law requires investments of public funds to be administered by the state Board of Investments, and the ballot initiative would give the research authority independent investment power. Further, the initiative allows private individuals to control and manage public funds outside the state treasury in violation of a constitutional requirement that the state Legislature ensure strict accountability of all money received and spent by the state, the plaintiffs claim.

In response, the initiative sponsors said there would be legislative oversight of the funds, because lawmakers would have to appropriate the bond proceeds to the research authority.

The head of the Montana AFL-CIO, which is the lead plaintiff in the case, said the Supreme Court ruling was expected. If voters pass the initiative, however, the labor union will challenge it again in court, said Executive Secretary Al Ekblad.

"We believed, and still are confident, that this initiative is structurally unconstitutional and sets a bad precedent that would allow deep-pocketed special interests to determine Montana's budget policy through the initiative process," Ekblad said in a statement.

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