Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Austin Amestoy
UM Legislative News Service UM School of Journalism 

Legislature kicks off second half with bills combating drug trafficking, limiting Gov.'s emergency powers and changes to public education

Series: Legislative Roundup | Story 4

March 18, 2021

Roger Dey

Lawmakers Hear Bill to Combat Drug, Sex Trafficking in Montana

A bill drafted with the help of former Republican state Senator Dr. Al Olszewski would add a new set of signs to Montana's highways and airports greeting visitors with notice of a reward for information leading to the prosecution of drug and sex traffickers.

Senate Bill 333, sponsored by Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, seeks to break down what Molnar called a "culture of trust" in drug and human trafficking circles by offering $50,000 to anyone who gives law enforcement information leading to the arrest and conviction of the criminals. The bill also sets aside funds to pay for signs to be installed along highways entering the state and inside airports, train and bus terminals alerting travelers to the reward.

During the bill's hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 9, Molnar said the purpose of the signage and the reward is to dissuade traffickers from operating in Montana, because, as he put it, anyone they did business with would see the trafficker as having a "$50,000 cashier's check stapled to their forehead."

"Therefore, because you're a savvy businessman -- and these people are -- when you get to your risk analysis, Montana is not the place you should be sending your couriers," Molnar said.

Olszewski, who lost against Gov. Greg Gianforte in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2020, testified in support of the bill and told the committee he came up with the idea through conversations with women in a prerelease center who told him they got into drugs because of the "welcoming" culture, but soon found themselves groomed to "sell themselves and sell drugs for their new family."

"Please support Senate Bill 333 as an opportunity to help break up that trust, so we can try to save future young men and women throughout Montana to avoid this drug and human trafficking family that's developed first through trust and friendliness," Olszewski said.

Dan Brooks, representing the Billings Chamber of Commerce, also testified in support of the bill, and said, despite the large cost of the program, it would be a "solution commensurate with the scale of our problem."

"The Legislature took good steps last session to create a human trafficking enforcement team," Brooks said. "Now we need to take the next step and give them the tools needed to address the terrible problem we face."

In its current form, the bill would cost the state an estimated $4.7 million to implement each year, with much of the cost stemming from an expected increase to drug and sex crime informants and subsequent payouts of $50,000 each if the tip leads to a conviction.

Molnar protested the fiscal note attached to the bill, which estimates the cost of the program, arguing payouts would not reach such an extreme amount because fewer drug and human traffickers would be entering the state due to the posted signs warning them of the reward for their conviction.

Some lawmakers on the committee also raised questions about the way the bill is worded. Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, asked Molnar if the bill could lead to awards issued to informants who turn in low-level drug dealers. Molnar said county attorneys would be responsible for determining who receives awards, but that the bill also only deals with "criminal distribution of dangerous drugs."

Friedel also asked Molnar if he was aware of the quantity of certain dangerous drugs a person had to be in possession of to be convicted of distribution.

"In fact, if I had methamphetamine in the weight of my pen, that could be considered distributing, and that could be any low-level drug dealer walking around with meth, heroin, cocaine," Friedel said.

Molnar reiterated that the bill was aimed at high-level traffickers, and that the reward would not apply to the scenario Friedel described. He also indicated, in a response to a question from Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, that a reward program of this nature has been largely untested in other states.

"This is not modeled after anything other than watching way too much 'Gunsmoke' and realizing that a reward -- $50,000 -- will make you pull over on the interstate and read the frigging sign," Molnar said.

If the Senate Judiciary Committee approves the bill, it will advance to the full Senate for additional debate.

Package of Bills Seeks to Limit Governor's Powers During Emergencies

The Legislature is advancing a number of bills seeking to put new limitations on the powers of the governor and local governments in light of the sweeping regulations brought in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though one is causing consternation with opponents who say it could give religious groups total civil and criminal immunity.

Sen. David Howard, R-Park City, is sponsoring three separate bills that would prevent the government from limiting religious gatherings during times of emergency, restrict the length of time a state of emergency can be declared without input from the Legislature and prevent the governor from suspending statutes that would lead to a person's constitutional rights being violated. The House Business and Labor Committee heard all three bills during a meeting on March 10 after they cleared the Senate on party-line votes, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats against.

Howard presented Senate Bill 172 -- the "Religion is Essential" Act -- as what he said is a necessary affirmation of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion after local health officials limited gatherings in churches throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill declares that, during a state of emergency, it is necessary to "ensure the continuity of religious services as essential services to the welfare of the people of the state."

Proponents for the measure included conservative policy groups and some religious organizations that said religious groups and gatherings are critical to alleviating some of the side effects of the pandemic, like economic hardship and depression.

Chad Hesler, the pastor of Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church in East Helena, said religious gatherings contributed to boosting morale during previous "plagues," and that the same would be true for COVID-19.

"My religion demands the physical gathering of professing believers to encourage one another, pray for one another and minister to one another," Hesler said. "I hope that you will support this bill to clarify, promote and protect the First Amendment right to freedom of religion."

However, one section of the bill drew opposition from legal and medical groups that said it could lead to organizations with religious affiliations being totally shielded from criminal and civil citations.

Laurel Hesse, legislative program manager at the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, said the group's primary concern is with section five of the bill, which says the state may not take "discriminatory action" against religious organizations under First Amendment protections, and defines "discriminatory action" to include taxes, fines, and civil and criminal penalties.

"To put it simply, Senate Bill 172 would have far greater impacts than the stated intent of the bill," Hesse said. "'Discriminatory actions' are defined very broadly."

Lauren Wilson, vice president of the Montana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke in opposition of the bill and said that, under the bill, religious medical institutions could not be denied a license and, depending on interpretation of the bill, could even be shielded from accusations of negligence or lawsuits.

The committee also heard two other bills from Howard: Senate Bill 173, which would limit the time the governor can declare a state of emergency without Legislative input to 60 days, and Senate Bill 185, which prevents the governor from lifting any laws or statutes during a time of emergency that would lead to infringements of constitutional rights.

SB 173 is very similar to House Bill 230 from Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell. That measure would cap the length of a state of emergency at 45 days before the Legislature, if it is not in session, would be polled on whether or not to extend it for 45 additional days by request of the governor.

Howard called SB 173 "a simple bill," and said the Legislature ought to have a voice in how long states of emergency or disaster continue.

Henry Kriegel, representing the libertarian political group Americans For Prosperity, voiced opposition to the bill, but only because his organization prefers HB 230 for its 45-day limit.

"That bill empowers you, in your rightful place, to offer a check and balance on the rather unlimited authority [of the governor] during states of emergency," Kriegel said, addressing the lawmakers. "I believe 45 days is sufficient time."

The House passed HB 230 on a party-line vote and the bill is awaiting a Senate hearing. Howard's bills must be approved by the House Business and Labor Committee to receive additional debate in the full House.

Education Bills Aiming to Codify Gifted & Talented Education, Broaden Local Control for Schools Go Unopposed in Committee

Bills that would codify a requirement for schools to identify and support gifted and talented students and expand control for public school trustees over curriculum and graduation requirements are flying through the Montana Legislature, drawing bipartisan support and no opposition in committee hearings.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 109 on a 48-2 vote before it moved to the House. Sen. Daniel Salomon, R-Ronan, introduced the bill to the House Education Committee on Wednesday, March 10. The bill would align Montana law with a court ruling that determined schools are required to identify "gifted and talented" students, expanding access to accelerated learning for students who meet the criteria. Montana schools previously did not have to identify or serve the needs of gifted and talented students.

Julie Merritt, the legislative chairperson of the Montana Association for Gifted and Talented Students, said the bill was critical to strengthening support for Montana's gifted and talented students.

"It's important that while this bill provides consistency, it leaves open many options for local schools and school districts to implement their own programs," Merritt told the committee.

The president of that organization, Holly Kincaid, also testified in favor of the bill.

"We know and understand this bill is not a new requirement, but our purpose is to make the statute clear," Kincaid said. "Gifted children come from all walks of life. As a high school teacher in Cascade County, I can confidently say we are missing the mark in identifying gifted children in our schools today."

Another bill promising sizable changes to public education law in Montana is House Bill 246. Lawmakers heard testimony on that bill in the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee on Wednesday, March 10. It cleared the House on a 99-1 vote in February.

In the hearing, bill sponsor Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, broke the 16-page bill into three primary areas: a focus on the needs of students and families, improving access to qualified educators and expanding the powers of school board trustees to support students. Some of the specific changes the bill proposes include allowing work-based and experiential learning programs to be officially included in the definition of "pupil instruction," extending credit eligibility to work-based education programs and allowing trustees to waive certain course or graduation requirements for students based on their needs, performance, maturity, or other standards.

Labor and economic organizations like the Montana Chamber of Commerce and the Montana Contractors Association, alongside Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and a representative from Gov. Greg Gianforte's office, expressed strong support for the bill, saying they believed it would diversify educational opportunities for Montana's youth and bolster the workforce coming out of high school.

"One of my middle names is flexibility, and this is what this bill does offer," Artzen told committee members. "This bill puts students in the very center, and moving forward with education is where we need to be: with them in the center."

Alcohol Industry Rallies in Support of Curbside Pickup, Delivery Bills

Curbside pickup and delivery of alcohol could soon be legal if lawmakers approve two bills heard on Friday, March 12 in the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee.

Last year, former Governor Steve Bullock made an exemption that allowed alcohol to be served curbside. House Bill 226 seeks to make that exemption permanent.

Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings sponsored the bill, and told the committee it was partly inspired by conversations she had with a Billings bar owner who said Bullock's removal of curbside pickup restrictions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic made it easier for them to stay afloat. The bill passed the House last month on an 80-19 vote.

"It's my personal belief that if this can work during a global pandemic, that it can work all the time," Zolnikov said.

The bill also updates the definition of "growler" to include so-called "crowlers," which are large, single-use cans of beer. Roth Jordan, who co-owns Montana Ale Works in Bozeman, spoke in support of the bill and said the clarification allows restaurants and taverns to operate crowler canning machines, which he said provided a sanitary solution to filling beer orders during the pandemic. Growlers, which must be brought back to the business to be refilled, did not meet sanitation guidelines.

"This bill is really important to us," Jordan said. "It might not seem like a big thing, but it's going to make a big difference in our industry going forward."

Other supporters from the alcohol industry, including the Montana Beer and Wine Distributors Association and the Montana Tavern Association, said the change would help them stay profitable, even in non-pandemic times. HB 226 drew no opposition in the hearing.

The committee also heard testimony on a new bill that would legalize beer and wine delivery. Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, sponsored Senate Bill 320, and described it as "dovetailing" off Zolnikov's bill. Boldman said SB 320 was originally intended to be part of HB 226, but became a separate measure because it provides only for the delivery of beer and wine, not liquor or mixed drinks.

"Folks like to have less government and more of an ability just to partner with private industry to get products that they need," Boldman said.

The bill had no proponents, but had several opponents from within the alcohol industry. However, all gave "soft" opposition, as the bill in its original form would have created an entirely new licensing system for third-party delivery services, like Uber or Doordash. All opponents said they would support Boldman's amendment to clarify that the delivery licenses would only be granted to drivers from within the alcohol-serving establishments.

John Iverson, representing the Montana Tavern Association, said the amended SB 320 would be a bill that would "make a lot of sense to a lot of people."

"This is about a pizza and a six pack for $25 getting delivered to your house," Iverson said. "That's a business opportunity for the people I represent, and I think it's a convenience that Montana consumers want."

Look What's Law: Starting Teacher Pay Incentive, Repeal of Requirement for Law Enforcement to Enforce Public Health Orders, Hemp Regulation

As the Legislature moves into the back half of its 90-day session, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed a total of 54 bills as of Friday, March 12, including a measure critical to his economic plan, a bill responding to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and one that made motorcycle filtering legal in Montana.

The governor signed House Bill 143 on Friday, March 5 at Sacajawea Elementary School in Great Falls, flanked by Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Artzen and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. The measure puts in place $2 million in financial incentives for school districts that raise pay for starting teachers.

HB 143, also known as the "TEACH" Act -- "Tomorrow's Educators Are Coming Home" -- marks the first big piece of Gianforte's "Montana Comeback Plan" to become law. Other measures from the governor, including fiscal bills lowering the top income tax rate, halving the business equipment tax and providing tax credits for trades education are moving through the Legislature, having all passed out of their initial house.

Senate Bill 67, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, became law on March 8, and repealed a section of law that held law enforcement officers criminally liable for failing to uphold the orders of a public health official. That bill followed the passage of Senate Bill 65, a liability shield for businesses and healthcare providers against most COVID-19-related lawsuits. Other bills proposing changes to the powers of the governor and local health officials in light of the pandemic are moving closer to the governor's desk, including a measure to require local government approval of public health board decisions and one that would limit the duration of a state of emergency to 45 days without an extension from the Legislature.

Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected]


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