Montana Legislature

Based on a vote count released Monday, it doesn't look like there is enough support to call a special session of the Legislature this month to address two citizen-driven ballot initiatives voters are expected to see this fall.

So far 52 lawmakers have voted to reject a call for a special session and 31 voted to approve the call, according to numbers from the Secretary of State. 

The Legislature has 91 Republicans and 59 Democrats, for a total of 150. A simple majority, or 76 "yes" votes, would have been enough to call the special session. That means Republicans could have brought everyone back to Helena without any Democratic support. Democratic leaders have said their party is united against the session.

But by Monday, enough Republicans — 19 — had voted against the call to mean the party would need Democrat support to bring a session. The GOP could only afford 15 members voting no. All 33 Democrats who have voted so far cast ballots against the session.

Ballots are due Sunday for a session that would have started the following day. The 17 legislators who signed on to poll the Legislature about the prospect of a special session were hoping to win passage of their own referendums on mining regulations and Medicaid restrictions, arguing the voter-led initiatives are flawed.

Though the Legislature could not overrule what citizens have put on the ballot through a signature-petition process, some members of the GOP proposed to offer their own alternatives through legislative referendum.

The citizen mining measure is Initiative 186 and the Medicaid measure is Initiative 185. Organizers say both initiatives submitted more than enough signatures to appear on the ballot Nov. 6; Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has yet to certify results.

The mining initiative would require new hard-rock mines in Montana to have reclamation plans that assure they will not require perpetual treatment of water. The Medicaid one would increase the tobacco tax to extend the state's Medicaid expansion program, set to expire next year.

Republican Senate President Scott Sales, of Bozeman, wanted another option to the mining initiative because he said he believes it has the potential to “end mining in the state,” something proponents of the initiative dispute.

On the Medicaid side, some GOP legislators wanted to bring a referendum to potentially add work requirements, asset and means testing, and maybe a drug test to the state's Medicaid program. They wanted to do this through a referendum process because referendums are decided by voters and cannot be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, a Democrat from Helena, said last week and repeated again Monday that her count of Democrats in the Senate shows every member of the party opposes the special session.

“By my head count we’re a solid block of noes and unified in our opposition to this call,” Eck said. “I just always thought it was inappropriate and from our prospective this was an effort to circumvent the will of the voters before they even had a chance to weigh in. … At this point to spend a bunch of money and time to call a special session would certainly be unwarranted and I think an irresponsible use of public funds.”

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Last week Sales, who supported the session, wasn't optimistic his party had enough votes to call the session. Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, a Republican from Culbertson, sent an email to his caucus telling them he opposed the move.

Knudsen said though he didn't support the citizen-led initiatives, he thought calling a special session would make GOP lawmakers look like they wanted to overrule voters and that the timing of the session would require a special election to vote on legislation-passed referendums.

Sales on Monday said the session wouldn’t happen.

“I think the idea had merit, but I understand people don’t want to. There’s political risk doing it, there’s people’s travel schedules, it’s summer. People are putting up hay, they’ve got vacations.”

Sales said Republicans will try to implement some of what they hoped to do in a special session during the regular session that starts in January and runs through April, but said there’s always potential Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, could veto their efforts.

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