It was New York lawyer, politician and newspaper editor Gideon John Tucker who famously noted, way back in the 19th century, that “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.”
And so it is with Montana’s Legislature. With due respect to the many serious matters taken up by our duly elected legislators, each session seems to bring its share of undeniably silly bills as well — and the current session is, unfortunately, no exception.
In past years, legislators have wasted their time contemplating such varied proposals as a measure to prevent foreign laws from taking over state courts, legislation to allow public corporal punishment in place of jail time and a bill condoning the hunting of wild game with spears.
With that precedent in place, this session was bound to see a few head-scratchers as well, especially considering that nearly 700 more bill draft requests were submitted in the first month of 2019 than in the previous session.
Here, in no particular order, are five “silly bills” introduced by legislators this session. This list is by no means comprehensive or definitive, as the silliness of any given bill is, of course, an entirely subjective matter. No doubt the legislators who introduced these proposals thought them deserving of serious deliberation.
Rep. Greg DeVries, R-Jefferson City, for one, thought his bill to eliminate Montana’s education attendance requirements was necessary to “restore freedom to families, taking children back from the state and returning them to sole authority of their parents," as he explained to the House Education Committee. But he also compared public schools to “prison and internment camps.”
In Montana, parents who teach their children at home or enroll them in private or alternative schools are required to track the number of instruction hours those children receive in order to ensure their right to an education is not neglected.
Unsurprisingly, the committee tabled DeVries’ House Bill 303, which came with a fiscal note assuming the bill would result in higher dropout rates.
Every session, at least one legislator forwards some dubious idea that manages to embarrass Montana on a national scale. This year, that distinction went to Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, for his plan to introduce a bill donating $8 million in state money to help fund the construction of a border wall. No, not along the border Montana shares with Canada; rather, the one that separates the United States from Mexico.
Even if Montana was bursting with a surplus of revenue, it’s a safe bet state legislators could find a better use for 8 million taxpayer dollars. While that money would be only a drop in the federal bucket of billions spent on border security, those dollars could go a long way toward state efforts to improve the safety of Montana residents.
Unfortunately, using their state platform to meddle in international matters is a temptation too many legislators fail to resist — a temptation which Ronan Republican Rep. Joe Read gave into not once this session, but twice.
His House Bill 415 would have prohibited Montana from following federal greenhouse gas regulations, and barred state officials from serving on any federal board tasked with crafting rules for greenhouse gas emissions. The bill earned near-unanimous opposition from every corner, including representatives of state agencies, environmental groups, oil and gas interests and others. In fact, Read admitted that the bill missed its intended mark, and offered a lighthearted apology for “offending the whole state” before the Energy, Technology and Federal Relations moved to table it.
That same day, Read’s House Bill 418 met the same fate in the House Natural Resources Committee. This measure would have “clarified” Montana’s official position on global warming and greenhouse gases, and adjusted state policies to suit. Specifically, it would have forced the state to ignore the overwhelming body of international scientific evidence that shows human emissions of carbon dioxide are influencing climate change. It sought to declare certain findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “invalid” and state that another group, the National Academy of Sciences, “is also fundamentally wrong about climate change.”
Like these four proposals, perhaps the silliest bill of the session is one that appears to be dead for the moment. Unlike these others, however, House Bill 392 would not have had any measurable negative impact had it been approved. That’s because it would have merely declared the “Hippy Hippy Shake” the official rock and roll song of Montana.
Never mind that Montana already has at least three other official songs: a state song, a state ballad and a state lullaby. What’s next? An official state butterfly, state grass, state soil? Oh wait — never mind.
Introduced by Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, the HB 392 explains that the “Hippy Hippy Shake” was written in 1959 by Billings-born Robert Lee “Chan” Romero when he was a 17-year-old student at Billings Senior High School, and that the original demo tape was recorded at a studio in Billings in 1958 before it went on to fame and glory as a Beatles tune.
Aside from the obvious problem of the bill stating that the song was written in the year after it was recorded, the text of the measure concludes with an arguable declaration: “WHEREAS, Montanans shake it to the left and shake it to the right, and do everything with all of their might.”
Perhaps quibbling over the truth of this statement is what caused the bill, which received strong initial support in the House Administration Committee, to fall victim to repeated attempts at amendments and divided votes. The first two motions to amend failed, the second two were successful, and on its final reading on the House floor, the amended version of the bill failed on a 63-37 vote, meaning it is likely dead for the session.
But there’s no telling yet whether it — or any number of superfluous legislative proposals — will make an appearance in the next legislative session.