While Montana’s 60th Legislature was an unmitigated disaster at reaching compromise on the session’s biggest issues, many bills were successfully passed that could change how Montanans live in ways small and large. What follows is a breakdown of the bills I covered throughout this session, many of which have been signed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer or will be in coming days. The governor may veto or amend bills as he sees fit. Some bills, like Schweitzer’s “Clean and Green” energy initiative, may turn up in the special session as well. This list is focused on the bills I covered; there were certainly more bills on topics like water and growth than I was able to tackle. The best place to keep up with the progress of any bills that have not been signed is the state website.
Senate Bill 51 passed the Legislature and heads to Schweitzer for signing. Sponsored by Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman, the bill provides incentives encouraging counties to craft fire policies for their Wildland Urban Interface. If a county’s fire plans follow state guidelines, the DNRC has funds from the federal government’s Healthy Forest Initiative to provide aid to local fire departments.
Senate Bill 103, by Sen. Greg Lind, D-Missoula, passed the Legislature on Day 90 and now goes to the governor. It allows certain cities and towns to be included in rural fire districts and sets new guidelines for how rural fire districts may combine.
Senate Bill 404, also sponsored by Lind, requires the DNRC to provide legal representations to protect its firefighters from lawsuits or criminal prosecution over property damage while fighting fires, unless it can be proven that criminal intent is involved. Schweitzer signed it April 25.
Senate Bill 145 and 147, both sponsored by Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, put into law much of what is already de facto fire fighting policy for the DNRC. SB147 clarifies the authority of the DNRC and County Commissioners to restrict and close down Wildland Fire Protection Zones when necessary. Both bills head to the governor for signing.
House Bill 66, sponsored by Rep. Ray Hawk, R-Florence, was tabled in House Appropriations March 24. It would have set up a $25 million-per-year fire suppression fund.
House Bill 61, which would have increased the fire assessment rate collected by the DNRC to fight fires on private land, was tabled in the House Appropriations Committee March 21.
Senate Bill 78, the session’s main stream access bill clarifying how property owners can attach fences to county bridges so that they don’t unnecessarily restrict anglers trying to reach the water, was tabled in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee April 4. Numerous attempts by Democrats to revive the bill on the House floor failed. Gov. Brian Schweitzer then amended stream access provisions into an unrelated House bill funding county roads and bridges. The House adjourned without taking action on the bill. The next chapter in the stream access saga is likely to come from a court decision on the lawsuit over Ruby River access in Madison County.
Groundwater Development in Closed Basins – Sidney Republican Walter McNutt’s session-long effort to hammer out a bill setting forth guidelines for groundwater development permits is one of the Legislature’s quiet triumphs. House Bill 831 allows the Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation, for the first time since a 2006 Supreme Court decision, to issue permits for wells in closed basins as long as the new user takes steps to compensate for harm, if any, to senior water rights holders. McNutt, a moderate and Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, drafted three separate bills on the issue and battled a member of his own party who opposed the level of hydrologic testing McNutt’s bill requires. HB831 goes before Gov. Brian Schweitzer for signing.
House Bill 304, which sets up a committee to study Montana water policy, by Rep. Kevin Furey, D-Missoula, also heads for the governor’s desk.
ALTERNATIVE FUELS AND ENERGY
Schweitzer’s Clean and Green Energy Initiative: This bill would have provided property tax breaks for transmitters and producers of alternative energy or coal energy that sequesters carbon emissions. The initiative’s original vehicle, Senate Bill 562, failed to make it out of the Senate. The content of the bill was then amended into Senate Bill 220, and became part of the Senate Democrats’ omnibus tax cut package, House Bill 833. The Legislature adjourned without taking action on that bill, but look for the contents of the “Clean and Green” initiative to wind up in energy policy the special session may take on.
Senate Bill 432, by Sen. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, would mandate that diesel fuel in Montana contain a portion of biodiesel. It was tabled in the House Transportation Committee April 2.
House Bill 822, by Rep. Michele Reinhart, D-Missoula, creates a tax credit for people or businesses that spend up to $500 a year on biodiesel. It passed the Legislature and heads to Schweitzer for signing.
House Bill 753, by Rep. Betsy Hands, D-Missoula, would have required Montana to adopt a global warming program and bring its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. It was tabled by House Natural Resources March 31.
Senate Bill 544, by Sen. Ken (Kim) Hansen, D-Harlem, sets forth standards for ranchers who wish to raise and sell natural beef. Schweitzer signed it April 26.
Senate Bill 328, by Sen. Don Steinbeisser, R-Sidney, encourages state institutions like prisons, schools and hospitals to purchase Montana food products even if the price is slightly higher. State institutions are currently obligated to purchase from the lowest bidder. Schweitzer signed off on it April 5.
Senate Bill 479, by Sen. Jim Elliott, D-Trout Creek, cracks down on products that purport to contain solely Montana Huckleberries, but in fact contain imported blueberries from Canada. The bill imposes misdemeanor penalties on false-labelers and requires commercial Huckleberry pickers to register in confidential documents to the Department of Agriculture the area where they pick wild Huckleberries. Schweitzer signed it April 5.
Senate Joint Resolution 13, by Sen. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, sets up an interim committee to study how Montana can add value to the food products it produces. The governor doesn’t sign off on resolutions, the bill was filed with the Secretary of State April 23.
House Bill 391 and 396, by Furey, would have allowed the use of food stamps or vouchers at farmers’ markets. Both bills were tabled by the House Agriculture Committee.
Senate Bill 201, by Sen. Rick Laible, R-Darby, would create a voluntary city-county planning process that encourages zoning and assesses a fee on developers to pay for it. It passed the Legislature and now heads to the governor for his signature.
House Bill 287, by Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman, was signed into law by Schweitzer April 17. The bill rejects the federal Real ID act, which seeks to crack down on illegal immigration by requiring proof of residency as a minimum standard for states to issue drivers’ licenses.
House Bill 797, by Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, was tabled in the Senate State Administration Committee April 11. It would have allowed Montana’s presidential primary to be held February 1.
Senate Bill 19, sponsored by Shockley, clarifies the rights and obligations of landowners on split estates, when oil and gas developers own the land underneath a property. Schweitzer signed the bill March 27.
Senate Bill 513, by Sen. Lynda Moss, D-Billings, would have set up public-private partnerships to encourage wireless internet access in rural areas. It was tabled in Senate Natural Resources and Energy February 23.