As much of Montana was covered in snowfall, lawmakers in Helena worked through a blizzard of bills before breaking at the midway point of the 2019 legislative session.
While the Senate adjourned Wednesday for a week-long break, the House held an all-day floor session Thursday and came in Friday as well to wrap up its work.
The midpoint of the session is the transmittal deadline for moving any general bills, meaning those that don't contain revenue or appropriations, from one chamber to another. When lawmakers come back next week, they'll start by taking up the main budget bill in the House Appropriations Committee.
The debate over Medicaid expansion, infrastructure and the budget, as well as proposals such as a public preschool option, are expected to dominate the final 45 days.
Infrastructure framework clears House
On a 100-0 vote, the House passed an infrastructure bill that provides guidelines on how the state would go about picking and paying for building, repair and maintenance projects around Montana.
Rep. Eric Moore is carrying the IDEA Act, for Infrastructure Development and Economic Accountability Act. The bill contains no projects or funding mechanism — those are expected to come in March after the transmittal break. What it does is cap the amount of debt the state can take on, as well as limit what debt payments can be during the two-year budget cycle.
The bill also dictates that repair and maintenance work must come before any new projects and dedicates a certain amount of cash for infrastructure each legislative session. It would ask the governor to produce a six-year project plan for lawmakers to consider.
A comprehensive infrastructure package has been elusive for the Legislature, which has clashed internally over how much, if any, bonding is appropriate to take on. Moore hopes his bill eases some of that struggle.
'Compromise' on statute of limitations
After indications that separate bills aiming to eliminate the criminal and civil statute of limitations for sex crimes against children would be scaled back and rolled into one package, lawmakers unveiled that proposal Wednesday.
The bill, at the request of the House Judiciary Committee, preserves the intent of an earlier bill to eliminate the limitations for criminal cases. On the civil side, however, it offers a six-year extension on the amount of time people can bring a claim.
In state law, a person has until the age of 21 to bring a civil claim of sexual abuse from their childhood. The committee bill moves that to 27. The bill does not change the existing state law that also allows for a three-year window from the time when an adult realizes they were the victim of abuse as a child.
It also strengthens laws around who must report suspected abuse and creates a two-year window outside the statute of limitations in the case of someone admitting a crime.
That's what happened in Miles City, where former athletic trainer James Jensen has said he molested teenagers when he worked at the high school decades ago. Jensen began contacting his victims on social media last year when the statute of limitations for his crimes had expired.
Not all legislators were happy with the compromise, but supported it in an effort to get something done this session on the issue.
Elsewhere in the Legislature
The House shot down a trio of bills that would have loosened restrictions on vaccines ... A lawmaker from the Bitterroot wants to make falsely reporting a rape a felony ... A Senate committee killed a bill that would have given money to help tribal communities in Montana create their own system to report missing people ... In the Senate, a bill that would have made evictions in mobile home parks easier was defeated ... Newspapers in Montana won't have to print who owns them in 48-point type on their front pages after a House committee voted down a bill ... An effort to "save Colstrip" is still alive in the Senate.
Lawmakers are off Monday through Wednesday next week. The House Appropriations Committee is expected to meet Thursday and Friday to take up the state budget, which is House Bill 2. The Senate will come back late Thursday and meet Friday and Saturday.
The next big things on the agenda are the two bills to continue Medicaid expansion.
One is from Rep. Mary Caferro, a Democrat from Helena, that proposes to continue expansion in its current form, with a bit more money for a voluntary workforce development program.
Rep. Ed Buttrey, a Republican from Great Falls, also has a bill to extend expansion with the addition of work requirements.
Though there's not a draft of Buttrey's bill available yet, both pieces of legislation are expected to have a hearing in the House Human Services Committee on March 16 in a long Saturday agenda.
Medicaid expansion covers about 95,000 people in Montana and is set to expire this summer unless lawmakers act this session.