The Montana Senate

The Montana Senate holds a floor session on Jan. 27 during the 2019 Montana Legislature.

As the second half of the Legislature starts in Helena, about a thousand bills have been introduced this session and about 350 of those have been killed off by lawmakers so far.

Notably, the Legislature has defeated bills that would have eliminated or limited the death penalty. But it has also passed key pieces of legislation such as a K-12 education funding bill and a pay raise for state employees.

Rep. Greg Hertz, a Republican from Polson and speaker of the House, said before the midway point break that moving pharmacy benefit management and other health-insurance related bills through the Legislature was an important highlight of the first half.

A bill that sailed through the Legislature to establish what practices pharmacy benefit managers are and aren't allowed to engage in was sent back to the Legislature on Friday, with an amendatory veto by Gov. Steve Bullock aimed at helping smaller pharmacies.

Also known as PBMs, the entities act as middlemen that insurance companies or employers pay to process claims at the pharmacy and negotiate prices with the pharmacy and drug manufacturer.

Another bill from the state auditor's office to control what PBMs can do by regulating their contracts with insurance companies has cleared the Senate and had a hearing in the House Business and Labor Committee, though the committee has not yet voted on the bill.

Rep. Casey Schreiner, a Democrat from Great Falls and minority leader in the House, pointed to the success of bills related to addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women as a highlight of the first 45 days of the session.

“Our priorities for us to get them accomplished have to be Montana nonpartisan priorities or we can't be successful with them, and I think we have been,” Schreiner said, pointing out the bills, carried by Democrats that are a minority in the Legislature, needed and got strong support from Republicans.

The package of five bills proposed at the beginning of the session to start addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women is progressing and one bill has been signed by the governor.

The hallmark legislation, Hanna's Act, cleared the House on a 99-0 vote and will have a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week. The bill would authorize the Department of Justice to assist with all missing persons cases and hire a missing persons specialist. 

The House Judiciary Committee stripped the $100,000 in funding for the specialist position on an amendment from committee chair Rep. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield.

Doane said the department already has unfilled vacancies on its books so there was no need to add additional money. Workers at DOJ "are already getting paid to do this, so they should do the job they are getting paid for,” he said.

Rep. Rae Peppers, a Democrat from Lame Deer who is carrying the bill, told the Great Falls Tribune she was OK with the change.

Bills that would require the timely taking of a missing persons report, a study resolution on the cycle of runaway youth and legislation that would require the Office of Public Instruction to create and maintain an electronic directory of school photos have all cleared the body they started in.

A related bill that would have established a database for missing Native people, operated by tribes, appears to be dead in the Senate but was revived this week and is scheduled for a vote in a Senate committee next Wednesday.

Services for people with disabilities

That includes a proposal to designate a specific set of tools to assess the needs of people with disabilities. That's moved out of the House and has had a hearing in a Senate committee.

Another bill that would switch reimbursement rates to base them on a daily or monthly rate has also cleared the House and is in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee. Service providers had struggled with hourly rates, which are time-intensive to report and can cause providers to lose money if clients can't make appointments.

A cleanup bill to have the health department review its regulations and rules related to services for people with developmental disabilities has moved through the Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House Human Services Committee.

An increase in the rates paid to those who provide services for people with developmental disabilities was tabled in the House, but it was put into the state budget, instead, to accomplish the same goal.

Finally, a bill that would have created a grant program for community developmental disabilities services was tabled, along with one that would have established a crisis response program for people with developmental disabilities.

Native languages

Two of the three bills heard in the House Education Committee to extend Native language preservation programs and help language learners made it past the midway point of the session.

That includes a bill to extend the Montana Indian language Preservation program to June 2023, which cleared the House and a Senate committee and is now heading to the full Senate for consideration.

A related bill to extend the Cultural Integrity and Commitment Act, which includes language immersion programs, has also made it past the House and is awaiting a hearing in a Senate committee.

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But legislators tabled in the House Education Committee a bill that would have provided funding for school district programs serving English Learners.

Other legislation

• A bill to switch permanently to an auction system instead of a lottery to award liquor licenses in Montana is still alive but moving to a conference committee where the House and Senate can work together on amendments approved by the Senate but rejected by the House. Rep. Ed Buttrey, who is carrying the bill, said he didn't support the Senate change that would require people who bought a license at auction to wait a decade before they could sell it.

• A bill that would provide workers' compensation for presumptive diseases of firefighters has cleared the Senate and its first hearing in the House Business and Labor Committee is set for mid-March.

• A bill to clarify what can be labeled meat and make sure cell-cultured products could not be sold as a meat product has cleared the House and is up for a hearing in the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee next week.

• After being defeated by the Senate in 2017, a bill that would prohibit so-called "revenge porn" has cleared the House and will have its first hearing in a Senate committee next week.

• A bill that would have prohibited texting and driving by minors died in the House.

• A local-option luxury sales tax that would have funded infrastructure died in the House Taxation Committee.

• A study on legalizing marijuana for recreational adult use was defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

• Still alive is a bill to give internet providers a a tax holiday for installing broadband fiber. It is awaiting a vote in the Senate Taxation Committee but is under a later deadline to move to the House because it is a revenue bill.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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