HELENA — Legislative supporters of extractive and other industries want to ask voters to change the Montana Constitution's "clean and healthful environment" provision to help aid development.
The declaration in the Constitution's inalienable rights has long been a sore point for those who say it gets in the way of development — while conservationists and others hail it as forward-thinking language that has helped preserve the state.
A Republican lawmaker told the House Judiciary Committee the provision needs to be changed to guarantee a "clean, healthful, and economically productive environment."
Need 100 votes in Legislature
It is not easy to get the required 100 votes out of the 150 legislators to put such a question to voters. Even if all Republicans voted for it, the measure would fall short by four votes.
But both opponents and supporters agreed the bill has a chance to get enough support from Democrats depending how the debate over it and proposed changes to the Montana Environmental Protection Act unfold.
Supporters say that increased recognition of economic considerations needs to be made during court and regulatory battles over development.
"We can have it all. We can have the development of resources with the good paying jobs and we can have the tourism and have all those things at the same time," said Don Allen, the executive director of the Western Environmental Trade Association. "It is not an either/or situation."
Foes predict dire consequences
Opponents argued the phrase will lead to more lengthy court battles because there will be new arguments weighing one person's clean environment right against another's right to make money out of it. They said there is no way to predict the ramifications — arguing it could allow something like a pig farm to trump local ordinances.
They said the provision as it stands has helped create the fishing, hunting and outdoor experiences that attracts tourists and residents alike. The opponents also pointed out that just last fall Montana voters rejected a ballot question on whether the state should call a convention to rewrite the Constitution.
"Montana's Constitution is in my mind, and the mind of many other Montanans, the best that this country has to offer," said David Scrimm of Helena. "The clean and healthful provision has not crippled our economy."
Other proposals being considered
With large majorities in both chambers, Republicans are expected to consider several referendums either to the Constitution or to state law. Changes to state law require just a simple majority in each chamber.
Such proposals range from one asking the voters if they want to opt out of daylight savings time to limiting state employee salaries to dealing with abortion issues.