Montana Legislature Week 3: Vaccine exemption, DUI penalties, infrastructure
(UM Legislative News Service) Lawmakers in Helena are beginning discussions on how to build and maintain the state’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, wastewater systems and state buildings. Again, the debate will come down to which projects get funding and whether that funding comes by way of cash or borrowing.
In 2017, legislators voted to end the session without funding public works projects. Some legislators thought Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s bill did not allocate enough to rural infrastructure while putting money toward renovating buildings like MSU’s Romney Hall. Others took issue with the way he proposed to pay for it.
Bullock wanted to pay for infrastructure through bonds, which is essentially borrowing. Republicans opposed that strategy. This session, he’s adjusted the proposal to pay for public works with a mixture of cash and bonds. In a recent interview, the governor’s budget director, Tom Livers, said there shouldn’t be any aversion to bonding for long-term investments.
“That’s a tool used by state and local governments all over the country, we’re an anomaly,” Livers said.
Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, is sponsoring House Bill 14, which requests $160 million in bonded funds to pay for both critical projects — like bridges and wastewater system maintenance — and buildings.
“All of Montana benefits from the investment in infrastructure, both in the urban areas as well as the rural areas,” Lynch said.
Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, understands the need to borrow funds, but said carefully managing any bonding is essential for funding future projects.
“If you don’t have a framework, it’s always going to be a political debate,” Jones said. “And that seems like a poor way to run a railroad.”
Jones said Republicans are working on a financial guideline bill that would include some bonding for infrastructure projects. The bill would look at cost and need of projects, as well as what funding sources are available.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the new bill will be introduced before any other infrastructure bills move forward.
Increasing Penalties for Aggravated DUI
A bill in the Montana Legislature would change DUI laws, increasing penalties for aggravated cases and making it legal for officers to apply for a blood sample warrant for someone who refuses a breathalyzer on a first offense.
Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is carrying Senate Bill 65 and says there is a parallel between drunk driving and terrorism.
“While DUI offenders don’t intend to kill, they do kill indiscriminately,” Regier said.
The bill would also charge taxi or Uber drivers with DUI if they drive with a blood alcohol level of .04, which is less than the standard for DUI, .08.
Under current law, if a person gets two DUIs, but they are more than 10 years apart, the offenses are not stacked, meaning after 10 years, the first offense cannot be used to harshen penalties for a second offense. Another section of this bill would eliminate that practice.
Other amendments attempt to simplify language and definitions to make it easier for law enforcement to interpret on the road.
Montana Chief Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion testified in support of the bill, referencing a Mothers Against Drunk Driving ranking that identified Montana as having the nation’s “most ineffective drunk driving laws.”
Rebecca Sturdevant also spoke in support of the bill at the Senate committee hearing Tuesday. Her son, Evan Schneider, was killed in a drunk driving accident at 29 years old. Sturdevant has been lobbying for stricter DUI laws for 10 years.
“You have a responsibility to the state of Montana to stop this. This is a totally preventable death,” Sturdevant said.
The only testimony against the bill came from the ACLU of Montana, which opposes the added penalties for an aggravated DUI, like the increase in prison time for a third-time offender from 40 to 60 days. The ACLU also opposed the stricter blood alcohol level applied to uber and taxi drivers.
The bill has a fiscal note of $3.2 million for the added legal fees it would create.
Some legislators asked why there isn’t language in the bill to divert offenders to addiction treatment before other significant penalties are enacted.
Democrats and Republicans have both introduced education funding bills into Montana’s Legislature, but with differing priorities.
Republicans announced their bill in the second week of the session. It would revise school funding and make inflationary adjustments, which is required by Montana’s constitution. Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, said it was important for House Bill 159 to move through the Legislature early because it provides for essential funding that schools need to know to begin budgeting.
“Until recently, this funding bill was often used as a political football late in legislative sessions. The result was our local school districts were handcuffed with uncertainty about their budgets,” Berglee said.
Democrats argue the Republican-backed bill, carried by Rep. Bruce Grubbs, R-Bozeman, does not go far enough in terms of funding additional programs, like teacher recruitment efforts or special education.
House Minority Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, is carrying Democrat-backed House Bill 225, and it includes teacher loan assistance on top of the required inflationary increases. After the announcement of the Republican bill, Schreiner said he disagrees with how the opposing party is trying to sell its bill.
“I think they’re off base on what they think is essential to Montanans regarding the education of their kids,” Schreiner said.
Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said additional programs would be funded later on in the Legislature’s comprehensive funding bill, House Bill 2.
Democrats made clear, however, that they won’t be waiting for programs to be added to HB 2. Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, introduced House Bill 27 on Jan. 23, which would increase special education funding across the state. Funk said this bill aims to supplement the Republican education bill.
“What Rep. Grubbs’ bill has done is put together the framework—but to support that framework, we need to put in the missing pieces,” Funk said.
Montana lawmakers are considering two bills that would change how schools and employers handle vaccine exemptions.
Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, is carrying Senate Bill 99, which would require schools to provide information on legal options for opting out of required immunizations, and to provide the forms to do that, both physically and online. Smith said this bill is meant to address a lack of diligence by schools to provide this information.
Co-leader of the group Montanans for Vaccine Choice, Corrie Meza, spoke in support of the bill, saying she knows parents who have been “bullied” by schools to vaccinate their kids without knowing they could file an exemption form. She asked the committee to not fear being labeled as “anti-vaccination.”
“Parents deserve to be informed about their rights and know what the law says,” Meza said.
In total, six people spoke in favor of the bill. No one spoke in opposition.
In the same hearing, Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, introduced Senate Bill 23, which would mandate that employers offer vaccine exemptions in a “non-discriminatory manner.” It’s aimed at employers who require employees get a flu shot, or other vaccines. The bill would require those employers to provide an accommodation for people who want a medical or religious exemption.
One example of an accommodation would be for an unvaccinated employee to wear a medical mask. Regier said this is often offered to employees who have a medical exemption, but not to those who claim religious exemptions.
“If some accommodations for some employees are OK, then those accommodations should be offered to every employee,” Regier said.
Meza, who has worked as a registered nurse, also spoke as a proponent of Regier’s bill. She cited the 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying that the bill would comply with the act by providing equal rights to anyone claiming religious exemption.
“There is no undue hardship [to an employer] in refusing a vaccination,” Meza said.
Devon Zander from Kalispell, a graduate of Stanford in human biology, spoke in opposition of the bill and said it would put vulnerable people in danger. She disagreed with the assertion of undue hardship.
“This bill is not about equal opportunity, it’s a health issue,” Zander said.
Medical facilities require employees to get vaccinations to protect patients who have lowered immunities, Zander said. She also said alternative accommodations like medical masks cannot provide the same level of protection as vaccines.
“My concern is that this bill takes us back. We as Montanans would be regressing,” Zander said.
Jim Murphy, who works in the public health division of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, spoke as an informational witness and concurred with Zander on alternative accommodations.
“None of these things are as effective as high immunization rates in these facilities,” Murphy said.
Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at email@example.com.