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First week of 68th Legislative Session Sees Legislators Sworn in, Plans to Lower Costs of Inmate Communication and Update Livestock Laws.

Lawmakers Take Oath, Elect Leadership

HELENA – The 68th Montana Legislative Session kicked off on Monday, Jan. 2, in Helena. Senators and Representatives took an oath to uphold the constitution and were sworn in during simultaneous ceremonies in their respective chambers at the state Capitol.

Republicans hold a so-called "super majority" with 68 of the possible 100 seats in the House and 34 of the 50 Senate seats.

Republican Representatives chose Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, to be the Speaker of the House for the session.

"I do not want us to shy away from debate. That is the one job we were sent here to do: To speak for your 10,000-plus constituents," Regier told the House the first day. "The bills that pass through this chamber will inevitably affect some of us as well as many Montanans across this great state."

Republican Senators selected Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, to be the President of the Senate, along with Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, as the Senate Majority Leader.

Democrats selected Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, as the Senate Minority Leader. Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, will retain her position from 2021 as House Minority Leader.

"Speaking on behalf of my caucus, we represent over 300,000 Montanans, and we're here to come into the building and get to work every day to support our constituents," Abbott told House members..

Fitzpatrick said the key goals for Republicans will include: Addressing inflation and expensive housing, reducing legislation on businesses, continuing with tax relief, and reducing government regulations on businesses.

"Montanans made it clear they like our conservative leadership," Fitzpatrick said. "As we head into this session, we need to recognize that there is still more work to be done."

Abbott said Democratic priorities will include affordable child care, affordable housing, creating a fair economy and holding onto the rights within the Montana constitution, including the right to privacy and a clean and healthful environment.

Lawmakers consider measures to modernize livestock laws

The House Agriculture Committee advanced two bills Tuesday, Jan. 3, that would modernize the livestock inspection process and online livestock sales. Supporters of the bills also said they could help trace disease and protect producers from predatory marketers.

Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Townsend, presented House Bill 44, which would remove the requirement that state livestock inspectors would need to produce at least three paper copies on inspections.

"The department's objective moving forward toward more digital methods is for issuing inspections and permits to reduce the redundancy of back office data entry," Dooling said.

Current livestock law makes it so that an inspector must make one copy for themselves, one copy for the owner or shipper of the livestock, and a final copy be delivered to the Department of Livestock within five days of the inspection.

The proposed bill would allow inspectors to use iPads or other tablets to directly upload documents to owners, shippers and the department.

The bill would also allow better tracking of diseases throughout livestock herds, Dooling said.

Software has already been developed through funding that was given in House Bill 10 during the 2019 Legislature.

"This is about the modernization of a very important process. Just like in all of our everyday lives, technology is becoming more and more of something we use every day," said Nicole Rolf of the Montana Farm Bureau Association, who supported the bill.

Erik Somerfeld, a Montana rancher, supported the bill and said the new technology will not be forced on anyone.

"The old guys that are going to be anti-technology and don't want to do it (so) it's not going to be an immediate switchover," Somerfeld said. "They're still going to have the ability to get it done."

Following HB 44, Brandon Ler, R-Savage, presented House Bill 153, which would revise the laws involving online livestock auctions and align them with federal regulations.

Mike Honeycutt, executive officer at the Department of Livestock, supported the bill, saying it would align state policy with that of the Federal Packers and Stockyards Act.

"Livestock marketing is much more diverse today," Honeycutt said. "Laws regarding satellite and video auction sales were written before the internet became a common platform for which livestock was bought and sold."

Currently, payments are not required at the end of a sale following an online auction in Montana. This bill would make payments due right after the completion of a sale.

"This is to protect the interest of our producers from predatory marketers," Honeycutt said.

The bill would also streamline applying for a livestock license, removing requirements to tell the Department of Livestock of other markets within a 200-mile radius when applying for a new market, and eliminating the requirement to estimate the amount of revenue the market would create for the state department.

No one opposed either HB 44 or HB 153 at the committee hearing.

Both HB 44 and HB 153 now move to the full House for debate.

Steps to combat the fentanyl epidemic arrive early in the legislative session.

The Public Health, Safety, and Welfare Committee voted 6-3 on Friday, Jan. 6 to table Senate Bill 26 , which would decriminalize fentanyl test strips.

Fentanyl test strips are small pieces of paper that can detect fentanyl in different kinds of drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and more. They are also able to detect fentanyl in different drug forms, such as pills, powders and injectables, according to the CDC. These strips are currently categorized by state law as drug paraphernalia.

Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, proposed Senate Bill 26 with support from the Department of Health and Human Services.

"It's a harm-reduction strategy to decriminalize the fentanyl test strips that somebody may or may not have," Lynch said. "The ultimate goal here is to make sure we have a safer community as people seek help."

The fentanyl epidemic has reached new heights in Montana, with anti-drug task forces reporting that they seized 155,000 dosage units of fentanyl in the first three quarters of 2022 – twice as much as the previous four years combined, according to the Department of Justice.

In Montana alone, fentanyl deaths increased from four in 2017 to 49 in 2021, and the state saw 34 fentanyl-related deaths within the first five months of 2022, according to the DOJ.

Maggie Bornstein, spoke in support of SB 26 on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, saying making the strips available could decrease Montana fentanyl overdoses by allowing individual users and family members to screen drugs for its presence.

"This meaningful legislation will truly save lives in our communities," Bornstein said.

According to Bornstein, the availability of early detection will give people with limited access to health care and others who are unwilling to call for emergency services the ability to be proactive rather than reactive to overdose situations.

Because the test strips are still illegal under state law, they would most likely be distributed by a pharmacy, said Rebecca de Camara, a division administrator at DPHHS.

But Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, raised concerns about the accuracy of the strips and the possible danger of portraying safety.

That's better than doing nothing, replied Jean Branscum, CEO of the Montana Medical Association. "It's probably not a 100% safeguard, but at least it gives some warning, whereas before, there was no warning," she said.

Bills Would Give Inmates Greater Access to Calls

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill Friday, Jan. 6, that would give detained inmates more access to phone and video calls.

Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Yellowstone County, presented Senate Bill 7 to the committee earlier in the first week of the session.

The bill would allow each individual one free phone call no longer than 10 minutes and one free video call no longer than 25 minutes per week. It would limit charges that state and county detention centers can put on phone calls.

"If you look at county fees before this bill, some are charging 60 cents a minute," McGillvray said, "The goal is to get these fees down, with the primary goal being to enable communication between inmates and their families."

McGillvray said inmate rehabilitation is the major focus of the bill.

"Really, the goal is to help offenders be rehabilitated to get back on track and to go back out into society and be productive, taxpaying members of society," McGillvray said.

The concept of the bill has been around for several years in different capacities and an interim committee worked on SB 7 prior to this session, McGillvray said.

SB 7 allows county jails to piggyback on State Department of Corrections fee contracts that charge inmates for communication.

Current laws put no restrictions on how much county jails can charge inmates for calls. Maggie Bornstein of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana said that can lead to jails agreeing to higher telecommunications contracts.

The limit for call fees would be lowered to 21 cents per minute or the FCC rate of 11 to 14 cents.

Bill would force reports of abuse and neglect at Montana State Hospital

A panel of lawmakers delayed the vote on a bill on Friday that would require reports of abuse and neglect at the Montana State Hospital to the state's federally designated protection and advocacy organization.

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, presented Senate Bill 4 to the Public Health, Welfare, and Safety committee Wednesday, saying it would increase the integrity of patient care at the state hospital by allowing individuals outside the hospital to look over reports.

"One patient had died when the hospital failed to implement safety protocols to prevent falls. That particular patient had fallen 13 times," Gross said, "That could have been prevented and it should have been prevented."

Reports of abuse and neglect have plagued the state hospital in the past year. Gross referred to the hospital losing its federal accreditation and funding in her opening statements on the bill and admitted that while her bill isn't a cure-all, it aims to bring accountability to the situation.

"This bill is not going to fix the problems at the state hospital," Gross said.

SB 4 lays out the timeline of five working days for when these reports have to be submitted to the state organization and gives clear guidance that no report can be redacted by the director.

The protection and advocacy organization would also be added to the Montana State Hospital's list of confidential information exceptions to ensure the state is authorized to receive and view the reports.

Disability Rights Montana is the designated protection and advocacy system for Montanans with disabilities, and they already receive reports of abuse and neglect from the Intensive Behavioral Center, according to one of the bill's supporters, Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana.

"Having an outside set of eyes helps to provide a level of transparency and accountability that I think is necessary," Franks-Ongoy said. "We're already accustomed to receiving reports."

The Montana State Hospital, Disability Rights Montana and the state will be working together to achieve a greater level of care for patients and provide more transparency with the removal of federal oversight.

"We are looking forward to working collaboratively with the state, receiving these reports, and in any way, we can help to improve the services that are being provided at Montana State Hospital," Franks-Ongoy said.

No one opposed SB 7 at the committee hearing.

Caven Wade 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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