Prairie Lights: In Helena, no lack of puzzling bill ideas

Ole Ed

Ed Kemmick

I’ve been spending a lot of time on the Montana Legislature’s website since the session began almost three weeks ago, mostly looking at bill drafts.

A few days ago, I scanned through the descriptions of all 2,546 introduced and unintroduced bills, wondering whether our esteemed lawmakers had any of the usual crazy ideas in the wings.

I can’t claim to have read every word of every bill description, but I didn’t see anything downright lunatic—no bills about having to pay off debts in gold, no bills urging Montana secede from the Union, etc., the kinds of bills that used to make us famous.

As usual, however, I found plenty of bills that made me scratch my head, including one that said simply, “Revise Montana wool laboratory laws.” Montana has a wool laboratory, or even multiple wool laboratories? Is there a separate cashmere research facility?

Or how about this bill description: “Exclude certain bees from per capita livestock fee.” Wait, does this mean that there is an existing per capita livestock fee on bees? And why are only “certain” bees going to be excluded from the fee? And who in the hell has the job of counting the bees on which this fee is to be paid?

I also look forward to debates over bills to “revise laws related to Styrofoam” and to “extend milk regulations to hoofed mammals.” And thank God someone is finally going to “generally revise laws related to pore space.”

There are some bills whose descriptions are so simple and their intent so apparently noble that it’s hard to imagine anyone voting against them, including “prevent human trafficking,” “enact protections for Yellowstone River” and “providing protections to vulnerable persons from financial exploitation.”

The devil is in the details, though. If protecting the Yellowstone River were to include a ban on out-of-state billionaires building streamside mansions, it might not pass. And in regard to financial exploitation, I suppose there is going to be some debate over the definition of “vulnerable persons.” Bernie Madoff swindled some pretty savvy people.

If you were unfamiliar with Montana, or with the lingo of legislation, what would you make of a proposal to “extend sunset for paddlefish caviar program”? You might think our overly attentive legislators were hoping to create a special daylight-saving time just for fish eggs.

The award for thinking big—make that thinking too big for your britches—goes to the legislator who proposes to “prohibit state contracts to entities that boycott Israel.”

Legislative overreach is apparent in several other bill proposals, including one that would “allow Legislators to conceal or open carry handguns on state property.” Beautiful idea! I would only amend it to include “and allow legislators to menacingly brandish a handgun during floor debates.”

Then there is the proposal to “require students to take a citizenship test.” Fine, as long as legislators themselves are also required to take the test. I wouldn’t insist on this if I hadn’t heard—and I am not making this up—that some of our state legislators were not aware that “Obamacare” and the Affordable Care Act were the same thing.

A somewhat related bill would “allow random inspection of public premises, public schools for illegal drugs.” Fine, as long as police officers in full combat gear with German shepherds make a twice-weekly sweep of the state House and Senate, including all meeting rooms.

Speaking of which, another bill would “establish requirements for police dogs.” Does this mean there are no requirements for police dogs under existing law? That’s probably why one so often sees police dogs lounging around smoking cigarettes and watching TV.

One thing I do love about our Legislature is that House Bill 1, the bill that appropriates the money needed for the operation of the legislative session, is still described simply as “feed bill.” Maybe this is common elsewhere, but I admire the plainness of the phrase, the complete lack of ostentation.

For similar reasons, I like the bill description that reads “create a soda pop tax.” A bill description that sounds almost like a song title is off to a pretty good start.

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