In a flurry of legislative maneuvers Thursday, major marijuana implementation bills first died and then were resurrected as legislators work against a looming procedural deadline.
The House will consider all three proposals next week, when lawmakers will have the chance to make amendments or blend certain provisions from each bill into a single proposal. It took some last-minute wrangling to get the legislative package out of committee, however.
"There was definitely a plan to have all three at least come to the floor to have the discussion up there," House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, told reporters Thursday. "Then when one went down, there was kind of a domino effect that had to be undone to get 'em going again.”
Voters approved recreational marijuana last fall and the Legislature has been working toward a program to allow for its sale and taxation.
The legislative marijuana marathon derailed Thursday morning when a handful of Republicans on the House Taxation Committee broke with Democrats to vote against House Bill 701, the major implementation bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula.
Republicans and Democrats on the committee said they voted against HB 701 initially because of frustrations with the rushed process; in the past, lawmakers have taken weeks and formed subcommittees to handle changes in the medical marijuana program.
The three bills are different in how they regulate, tax and allocate revenues from recreational marijuana sales.
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, has House Bill 670, which proposes allocating one-third of all revenues to a trust fund, the interest of which would be spent on the "economic and societal costs" of marijuana use in Montana, while spending the other two-thirds on public employee pensions.
House Bill 707 from Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, proposes aiming government tax and oversight on the wholesale transactions, a measure more closely aligned with how the state handles alcohol regulation.
Hopkins' bill proposes the most comprehensive regulatory changes to the legalization initiative voters passed last year and pours $6 million into the governor's proposed HEART Fund to address substance abuse treatment before allocating most of the remaining revenues to the general fund.
A complicated process where two committees heard the three bills over the week led to a collision of voting Thursday.
While the House Business and Labor Committee advanced Skees’ bill and killed Tschida’s, the House Taxation Committee voted down Hopkins’ legislation, generally viewed as the one expected to advance.
Democrats opposed Hopkins’ bill in protest of the rushed process.
Republican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, of Great Falls, said she initially opposed Hopkins’ bill along with Democrats in part because of frustration over the tight timeline, and because she preferred provisions in the other two proposals.
Within minutes of Sheldon-Galloway and three other Republicans joining with Democrats to kill Hopkins’ bill, GOP leadership quickly met to find a remedy.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, and House Speaker Pro Tempore Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, and Hopkins huddled with tax committee members in a hallway.
Meanwhile, the House Business and Labor Committee reconvened and reconsidered HB 707, this time passing the bill near party lines. After a 45-minute break, the tax committee reconsidered their actions and passed Hopkins’ HB 701 along party lines.
Democrats again called for a bill that more closely follows initiative language enacted by 57% percent of the voters last fall, putting tax revenues toward public access efforts. However, only the Legislature can appropriate money and a legal challenge over that part of the initiative is pending.
Still, tax committee Vice Chair Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, likened the initiative to a "road map" from the voters to follow.
"There are several aspects of (HB) 701 we have a hard time with," Fern told the committee. "In reflecting beyond the history of this committee we worked extremely hard on medical marijuana. … I think that's what this bill deserves."
Rep. Mark Noland, a Republican from Bigfork and chair of the business and labor committee, said the more options that reach the House floor for debate, the better.
"Some don’t like one of those bills," he said. "Some have hiccups with the big bill. If we get everything moving then we get to discuss all those bills."
Galt said Thursday he'd purposely cleared the schedule in recent days so the three competing marijuana bills could have a wide-open showdown next week before the April 8 transmittal deadline. He called the prospect of amending the bills separately or together a "roll of the dice."
The bills can also be amended on the Senate side, but that's assuming they make it out of the House; Galt said he didn't know if the "big bill," HB 701, had the House votes to clear the lower chamber.
"It's going to be really interesting what the amendment process is going to be with the short time frame," Galt said.
Galt acknowledged Thursday the compressed committee process to push the marijuana bills out to the House floor before the transmittal deadline had likely caused some consternation among members. But the hustle will continue into next week, where the bills will be heard on the House floor, then the House Appropriations Committee, then again to the House floor to send the proposals to the Senate.
For now, keeping all three bills alive means lawmakers can remain agile in the pressure-cooker environment.
"We’re in such a short time limit right now that I think we need to have all options open," Galt said.