Senate President Scott Sales

In this Nov. 14, 2016, file photo, Montana state Sen. Scott Sales addresses members of the Republican caucus after being elected Senate president in Helena.

A proposal from Republican state lawmakers to come back into a special legislative session July 16 to try to win passage of their own ballot initiatives on mining regulations and Medicaid restrictions is far from a done deal, party leaders said Tuesday.

Democrats and organizing groups have said the special session would be an end run designed to thwart the citizen ballot initiatives on those two topics, both of which appear to have obtained enough signatures to go before voters in November.

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

Some Republicans want to use the special session to pass their own initiatives with the goal, they say, of protecting mining and placing additional requirements on Montanans to be eligible for Medicaid coverage.

"This is an extremely heavy lift to call ourselves into session," state Senate President Scott Sales, a Republican from Bozeman, said Tuesday. "The probability of that happening is less than 50 percent. I'm supportive of it because I think it's the right thing to do, but I'm pretty good at counting votes and I think it's going to be difficult to get to 76 votes."

Legislators need 76 members, or one more than half the Legislature, to agree to call the session. There are 91 Republicans and 59 Democrats.

Lawmakers were sent a poll on the session last week after 17 legislators requested it; 10 were necessary. Polls are due back July 15.

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; the secretary of state has yet to certify results.

Democrats are opposed to calling a special session, taking to social media to share photos of their "no" votes in the poll to hold the special session. Democratic legislators say a special session does not honor the citizen-driven ballot initiative process. 

House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, a Democrat from Helena, said both House and Senate Democrats are united in their opposition to a special session. Eck said Montanans should have the ability to bring their own initiatives through the citizen-driven process.

"We feel strongly it would be an unnecessary, unwarranted and irresponsible use of public funds, using public funds to circumvent the public process," Eck said Tuesday. "The whole purpose of the special session at this point is to try to pre-empt the whole outcome of that election."

Not all Republicans are convinced a special session is the right route. Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, who is termed out and running for Roosevelt County attorney, sent a letter to members of his caucus in June explaining why he opposed calling the session.

Knudsen wrote that the “entire argument’' for a special session to pass referenda is “elitist.” While he said he didn't like the idea of a voter initiative process, he acknowledged it’s in the state Constitution.

Among other points, Knudsen said initiatives passed in the special session couldn't appear on the ballot alongside the citizen-led ballot initiatives. That's because state law requires a referendum to be submitted to the electorate six months before going on the ballot, Knudsen wrote.

That means there’d have to be a special election for the Legislature’s “antidote” referenda, Knudsen wrote, and it would occur sometime during the Legislature's regular session, which will run from January to April 2019. Eck echoed those concerns.

Sales and Sen. Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, said they support a special session because they believe the citizen-led mining initiative presents a danger to the mining industry in Montana. The Republican lawmakers and other critics say they believe I-186 would end mining in Montana.

The initiative leaves it up to the Legislature or Department of Environmental Quality to define terms like "perpetual treatment." Sales and Thomas said the Legislature in a special session would define those terms, as well as present its own options. 

"The mining industry is extremely important to the state of Montana and the nation," Sales said. "We need to have a vibrant and viable mining industry to supply us with the minerals and elements that we need for industry and defense and basically daily life."

Tom Reed, the northern Rockies director of Trout Unlimited, said Tuesday his group, which supports I-186, has made several attempts to work with the Legislature to pass some sort of mining reform and didn't get anywhere.

"That is why we went this route, the ballot initiative," Reed said, adding that the group gathered some 45,000 signatures in just seven weeks, something he said shows the initiative has strong support from the public. Reed countered claims it would end mining in the state.

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"To have the Legislature swoop in at the 11th hour trying to fix something that is already unofficially qualified for the ballot is government overreach, no matter which way you slice it," Reed said.

On the Medicaid issue, Sales and Thomas both said they'd like to produce an initiative from a special session to potentially add work requirements, asset and means testing, and maybe a drug test to the state's Medicaid program.

Sales called those additional requirements "common-sense ideas that will make the program more fiscally accountable and give us some longevity."

Medicaid expansion was passed by the 2015 Legislature and is set to expire in 2019 unless the ballot initiative passes or the Legislature chooses to extend it. More than 96,000 Montanans are covered, more than was initially expected. That has meant a higher-than-projected cost to the state, something Sales criticized.

But because expansion is reimbursed at a higher rate than traditional Medicaid, Montana has saved about $36 million since expansion started. A recent report also shows 81 percent of people covered under expansion live in a household where someone is working; 67 percent are working themselves.

Kathy Weber-Bates, communications director for Healthy Montana Initiative, which supports I-185, criticized the idea of a special session Monday.

"It would be unfortunate to waste taxpayer dollars on an expensive special session over a citizens initiative that has broad support from Montanans in small towns and big towns. And lots of organizations … really do believe it's time we asked big tobacco corporations to pay their fair share to fight cancer and other tobacco-related diseases," Weber-Bates said.

Thomas said a special session is necessary now because he thinks I-186, if passed, would have an immediate negative impact on the mining industry. He also said the Legislature needs to know if some of the "sideboards" Republicans want added to Medicaid expansion are viable before the regular session so they can be accounted for in the budgeting process.

Sales also argued legislative initiatives are the only way Republicans can get what they'd like accomplished because Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock would veto anything they do in a regular session. Initiatives from the Legislature cannot be vetoed.

Sales also said the Legislature isn't trying to bend citizens' arms. "We're trying to provide more information and more options for the citizens to make better decisions on stuff that has huge impacts for the state financially," Sales said.

The 2017-18 Legislature already came back into special session last November to deal with budget issues.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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