Housing, Headlights & Hemp 

State pols begin defining the issues of the 2001 Legislature

Lawmakers are getting a jump on the 2001 legislative session by filing hundreds of bill requests even before the dust settles on the Nov. 7 election.

Proposals to allow industrial hemp production, prohibit flag burning, sharply limit political campaigns, regulate gasoline prices, and repeal utility deregulation are among the scores of bills already piling up for the Legislature, which convenes in January. Next week’s polling will determine who occupies 126 open seats in the 150-seat Montana statehouse.

One of the most prolific bill drafters is Sen. John Bohlinger (R-Billings), who holds one of only 24 state Senate seats not up for re-election this fall. Among other measures, Bohlinger proposes that the Legislature begin meeting in annual, instead of biennial, sessions. He also wants the state to develop control plans for sulfur-dioxide emissions, thinks motorists should be required to drive with their headlights on at all times, and wants to allow police to stop motorists who aren’t wearing their seat belts. In addition, the first-term senator is calling for a 2 percent increase in the state’s current lodging tax to help fund local governments, and wants authorities to crack down on purveyors of prostitution. To keep state prisoners busy, Bohlinger wants inmates to help fabricate low-income housing.

Also vying for top honors in the bill-request category is Sen. Al Bishop, another Billings Republican.

Bishop wants the Legislature to mandate uniforms for public school students, instate a dress code for educators and school administrators, limit political campaigns to 60 days before a primary election and 45 days before a general or special election, and to prohibit the placement of automatic teller machines inside gambling establishments. Also on Bishop’s agenda is a proposal that requires counties and cities to ensure that all bridges within their jurisdiction are “free of significant dips, troughs, bumps, abrupt edges or other major surface defects.” In addition, he wants the state Public Service Commission to regulate the price of gasoline.

Bishop joins several other legislators, including Sen. Mike Halligan (D-Missoula) in drafting proposals to change utility deregulation approved in the 1997 session. Some lawmakers believe the regulatory rollbacks should be repealed, while others appear content to merely tinker with existing policy.

In the patriotism category, Sen. Ric Holden (R-Glendive) wants a law that would make the burning of an American flag illegal if the act “urges other people to riot.” Despite continual pressure, Congress has for years resisted attempts to approve similar legislation.

Regarding workplace issues, Sen. Duane Grimes (R-Clancy) wants to revise state laws governing defamation and “blacklisting” by former employers who provide worker references. His proposed legislation puts specific timelines on employers to provide fired workers with written reasons why they were dismissed. Grimes, a staunch anti-abortion activist, also wants lawmakers to approve a measure that would further restrict the procedure in Montana.

Under a bill requested by the Montana Department of Administration, all state-owned and state-occupied buildings would be deemed smoke-free by 2002. The state’s Legislative Council also wants to establish a policy about what types of electronic mail are public records, as well as prohibit the out-of-state direct sale of beer and wine to Montanans. Sen. Chris Christiaens (D-Great Falls) thinks people who use cellular phones while driving should keep both hands on the wheel. His bill would require motorists using hand-held phones to pull over before answering or dialing. Christiaens also wants industrial hemp to be authorized as an agricultural crop in Montana. The authority would not extend to growers cultivating the plant’s illegal relatives.

Rep. Sam Kitzenberg (R-Glasgow) wants to boost tourism by requiring the state to expand U.S. Hwy. 2 into a four-lane expressway from the North Dakota border to Idaho. Under a separate bill, Kitzenberg calls for the state to require filling stations to sell ethanol as an alternative fuel.

Sen. Jack Wells (R-Bozeman) wants state-funded charter schools added to the educational landscape. Rep. Carol Juneau (D-Browning) has reintroduced a measure to instate hiring preferences for Indian teachers on reservation schools, while Rep. Bob Lawson (R-Whitefish) wants to raise the maximum age of high school students to 21, a move he believes will reduce drop-out rates. Lawson also wants to create a system where citizens can register to not be bothered by phone solicitors. Fellow Whitefish Republican Sen. Bob DePratu thinks the state should make special license plates available for various organizations. The Legislative Finance Committee has drafted a bill to create a new state department of information technology that would coordinate data collection and dispersal. Sen. Glenn Roush (D-Cut Bank) wants all 9-1-1 dispatchers to be certified, and the Law, Justice and Indian Affairs Interim Committee has asked that the term of a state-tribal economic development commission created in 1999 be extended to 2005.

In the environmental arena, measures already in the hopper include a series of bills that would revise the state’s eminent domain laws, change the Major Facility Siting Act and toxic-waste laws, and extend an ongoing study of the Montana Environmental Policy Act. Sen. Ken Miller (R-Laurel) has requested a bill that would reduce the state’s coal severance tax for sales to new in-state generating plants.

The main wild card to all of the proposals, of course, is how the 2001 Legislature will be controlled. In the 1999 session, Republicans held a 32-18 edge in the Senate and a 59-41 advantage in the House. With the governor’s seat and so many legislative seats up for grabs, no one’s yet predicting how incoming lawmakers will ultimately react to any of the issues they’ll be facing.

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