HELENA — Montana’s 62nd Legislature opened for business this week, with lawmakers offering more than 1,900 ideas for bills so far. Most won’t survive the journey into law, but they do show what’s on legislators’ minds.
High on the list is regulating Montana’s booming medical marijuana industry, cracking down on repeat DUI offenders, cutting business taxes, scaling back environmental regulations and cutting the costs of Montana’s health care and worker’s compensation systems.
That list reflects the agenda of many Republican lawmakers who campaigned last year on promises to boost Montana’s economy. The GOP won a 68-32 majority in the state House and a 28-22 edge in the Senate.
That gives Republicans the clout to pass most bills but not enough to override vetoes of Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose own wish list includes spending more on education and on Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care for the poor. Clashes over spending are sure to shape the session’s politics to the last day.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty to follow as the session gets rolling.
TAXES — Gov. Schweitzer wants to cut property taxes for businesses and homeowners, and so do most Republicans. Other ideas in the works range from allowing the deductions of medical expenses to abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a sales tax.
HEALTH CARE — The governor wants to increase Medicaid spending, a response to hard economic times. But some Republicans are pushing back over funding the voter-approved Healthy Kids Montana initiative, which expanded the state and federal health insurance program for children from low- and moderate-income families.
Meanwhile, look for battles over the state’s compliance with the new federal health care reform law, or “Obamacare,” as GOP critics call it.
EDUCATION — The governor wants increases in state spending on public K-12 schools and the university system. But there’s serious opposition to his plan to pay for part of the K-12 increase by siphoning tax money from oil producing counties.
Meanwhile, several bills are in the works to reduce the state’s high school dropout rate, including one that would raise the mandatory attendance age to 18. Other ideas would establish charter schools, limit sex education, discourage bullying and provide tax help for parents who home-school their children or want to send them to private schools.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA/DUI – Voters approved the use of medical marijuana in 2004, but the law’s vagueness and the surprising demand for prescriptions has caused headaches for police, prosecutors and communities trying to regulate the fast-growing industry.
Changes under consideration include limiting how much marijuana patients can get each month, spelling out the requirements physicians must meet in certifying a patient’s need, and prohibiting the use of medical pot in public. Other ideas range from repealing the law to creating better ways to monitor and tax suppliers.
Lawmakers also expect to consider harsher penalties for repeat DUI offenders and new ways of tracking their compliance with judges’ orders that they quit drinking. Other bills would encourage programs and incentives for treatment.
ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT — Several bills aim to stimulate Montana’s prospects for developing and exporting energy by limiting reviews under the Montana Environmental Policy Act. In the background is the state’s decision to lease vast coal reserves in southeast Montana, the development of which would require massive private investment.
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION —Montana businesses are looking for relief from some of the nation’s highest premiums for covering injured workers. The causes, including high injury rates, are complex but look for bills that would limit payments to medical providers, combat fraud, and encourage on-the-job safety and employment during rehabilitation.
ABORTION – Bills in the works would require an ultrasound before the procedure and alter the state’s law requiring parental notification. Another would allow Montana to opt out of federal health insurance coverage that would cover the cost of abortions.
BALLOT ISSUES — Lawmakers are considering several potential referendums on questions ranging from dumping daylight saving time to capping state employees’ pay, abolishing term limits, and revising the rules for getting initiatives on the ballot.
Those are just some of the ideas kicking around Helena so far. To follow them yourself, check out the Legislature’s bill tracking service athttp://laws.leg.mt.gov/laws11/law0203w$.startup.
(Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at 208-816-0809 or by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)