HELENA —With the special congressional election quickly approaching, Montana lawmakers heard heated testimony on a bill last week that would allow counties to opt for mail-in ballots.
Senate Bill 305, introduced by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, would apply only to the upcoming special election between Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, who are vying for the U.S. House seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, now President Trump’s Interior secretary.
“This election is going to be very expensive, and it’s going to be an incredible burden on your local taxpayer,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said county governments could save as much as $500,000 to $750,000 by using an all-mail system. He also said many places typically used for polling may not be available during the special election, and this could prevent many people from voting at all.
Fitzpatrick addressed the controversy surrounding SB 305, which was sparked when state GOP Chairman and Billings Rep. Jeff Essmann voiced his opposition to mail-ballot-only election, on the grounds that Democrats have an “inherent advantage” in such elections.
“The fact is that’s just not true,” Fitzpatrick said. “The use of mail ballots has no effect one way or the other.”
The bill attracted nearly 60 supporters, many of whom were election officials and county commissioners. Many of them echoed Fitzpatrick, saying a mail ballot election would be a substantial cost-saving measure.
“No man can serve two masters,” said Lewis and Clark County Commission Chair Susan Good Geise. “Who do you serve? Party leadership, or your taxpayers?”
After supporters of the bill ran out of their allotted time to speak on the bill, Helena resident Carole Mackin was escorted out of the room by the sergeant-at-arms when she refused to stop delivering testimony.
Opponents of the bill argued that there was no reason to change the way the state conducts its elections, and that doing so could jeopardize the system’s integrity.
“Not all change is progress,” said Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. “This is not progress.”
Several opponents spoke on behalf of Native American tribes, saying a mail-only system would prevent many tribal members from voting because of often great distances to post offices.
“We don’t have mailboxes at our homes,” said George Real Bird III, Bighorn County commissioner. “We have to drive to town to go to our P.O. Box. If we’ve got to drive, we might as well go to the poll that day, too.”
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.
Seed bill passes both houses
A bill that would prevent local governments from regulating agricultural seeds passed the House last week on a 70-30 vote.
Senate Bill 155, introduced by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, would allow only the state to set regulations on seed sale and production. The bill was carried on the House floor by Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston.
“I support local control, and my only resistance to local control is when there’s infringement on private property rights,” Redfield said. “This bill makes sure that private property rights to plant seeds are lawful.”
Supporters in the House said the bill was a common-sense measure, and that it would prevent counties and local governments from meddling with what farmers choose to grow.
“This bill will give certainty to an industry that doesn’t have a lot of certainty,” said Rep. Walt Sales, R-Manhattan.
The bill drew 10 supporters during its first reading in the House Agriculture Committee. Many of those supporters said the bill would prevent additional regulation an on industry already overburdened with rules.
“Agriculture is already one of the most heavily regulated industries out there,” said Chelcie Cargill, representing the Montana Farm Bureau.
Opponents of the bill argued that counties do not unfairly regulate, and that the bill could have adverse effects on how counties regulate noxious weeds.
“There may be an intent on this bill to do one thing, but it is leaving a potential problem for counties who want to regulate noxious weeds per the listing on the county noxious weed list,” said Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula.
Redfield said the bill would not affect weed regulation because weeds are not considered viable seeds for production. The bill will be sent to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature or veto.
Limited spearfishing debated
A bill that would allow for limited spearfishing in Montana was heard by the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee last week.
Senate Bill 214, introduced by Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, would allow for underwater spearfishing in waters designated by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“This is one of those constituency bills that kind of built up into something different,” Cohenour said. “People were excited about this opportunity, and the possibility of being able to do this in the state of Montana.”
Cohenour said the bill would allow spearfishing only in areas where fish can legally be taken, since spearing a fish would kill it, therefore preventing it from being released back into the water.
The bill also prevents spearfishing near docks and water skiing areas to avoid unintentional injury to swimmers.
The bill passed the Senate 44-6 in February. Eileen Ryce, fisheries division administrator for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, supported the bill.
“[We] will work with constituents to select an appropriate water or waters for spearfishing,” Ryce said.
Bob Gilbert, a lobbyist for Walleyes Unlimited, a sport fishing interest group, opposed the bill. He said he was concerned about spearfishers overfishing endangered species, arguing that they would not be able to determine the breed of the fish underwater.
“When you’re underneath the water, spearfishing happily away, how do you know how long a fish is?” Gilbert said.
The committee didn’t take immediate action on the bill.
Eating-disorder clinics could be licensed
The House Human Services Committee heard a bill last week that would allow for licensure of eating-disorder clinics.
Introduced by Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, House Bill 572 would allow for the licensing of clinics that provide intensive outpatient and inpatient treatment for patients with bulimia, anorexia and other eating disorders.
Redfield said his daughter suffered from an eating disorder and eventually recovered.
“You cannot grasp the seriousness of this until you know someone who’s affected,” Redfield said.
The bill drew no opponents.
Jeni Gochin, program director at the Eating Disorder Center of Montana, said current licensing does not provide for intensive inpatient treatment or partial hospitalization.
Gochin also said many patients must travel out of state to receive proper treatment for their eating disorders, the costs of which can reach into tens of thousands of dollars.
Laurie Thatcher, a Bozeman mental health professional, said she suffered from an eating disorder while she was a competitive athlete.
“Having to go through this experience out of state, away from my normal life, was very difficult,” Thatcher said.
No immediate action was taken on the bill.
Brewery production limits may increase
Nearly a dozen brewers testified at the Montana Legislature last Wednesday on a bill that would raise a small brewery’s production cap sixfold.
Matt Leow with the Montana Brewers Association said raising the 10,000-barrel limit to 60,000 barrels a year for small operations would unleash potential for Montana brewers.
“Wouldn’t that be great if instead of just seeing beer from California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado on our shelves, that we were seeing Montana beer when we go visit places like Seattle?” Leow said.
Big Sky Brewing in Missoula is over the small brewery limit and distributes nationwide. That puts it in a category of brewers that doesn’t allow them to sell beer in their tasting room. So, they give it away there. Co-founder Neal Leathers said he estimates they’ve lost about $4 million over the last decade by offering these free samples.
“We’d actually liked to have captured some of that,” he said.
Other proponents of House Bill 541 said the cap has impeded the growth of their breweries.
Neil Peterson with the Gaming Industry Association, who opposed the bill, said he’s unsure the demand will be there if the limit is raised.
“Just because a brewery opens up, it doesn’t create a whole bunch of new beer drinkers,” Peterson said.
John Iverson with the Montana Tavern Association says he’d support the bill with a caveat: that the Legislature pass another bill that would allow certain beverage license holders to add a brewery or distillery operation to their business.
“We’re saying here’s something that you guys like, and here’s something that we like, let’s put them together and let this industry go for it,” Iverson said.
The bill passed the House 85-14 in February. It’s sponsored by Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, and Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson.
Cole Grant is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.