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Montana congressional delegates discuss issues in bi-annual address of state legislature

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HELENA — All four members of Montana’s congressional delegation spoke to the Montana Legislature during a joint session of the Senate and the House on Monday, Feb. 20, talking to state lawmakers about the issues facing Congress, including the national debt and the fentanyl epidemic. 

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines spoke to the Legislature first, followed by Montana’s newest Representative, Republican Ryan Zinke and finally Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale.

All four gave praise to the legislators for their service. Rosendale, Tester, and Zinke all served in the state legislature at one point in their careers.

“Now, if you look at the state legislature, legislatures across the country, the structure of Montana’s legislature is absolutely the best. It is based upon how our forefathers envisioned it. Citizens are elected, in this case, you come to Helena every 90 days,” Tester said. “Then after it’s all done, you go home, and you try to make a living under the laws and the budget that you’ve passed. As a citizen legislator, it is a great system and one that I believe in so strongly.”

Rosendale and Zinke compared the Montana Legislature to Congress by raising concerns about the federal budget, and how in the state of Montana, lawmakers have a constitutional obligation to create and work with a balanced budget while Congress often blows by its budget only votes on 28% of the budget while the other 72% is mandatory spending for the government.

“Unlike the Montana Legislature, we don’t have a balanced budget requirement. As you can see by the actions that have taken place over the last several decades. We are at $31.5 trillion and national debt. I don’t know what they would do if they had a $2.5 billion surplus,” Rosendale said. “There’s somewhere between 90 and 140 billion that has not left Washington D.C. yet, that we’re going to make sure is used to cover the debt ceiling.”

Zinke said that with no congressional oversight on the total budget, there will be no true change to the country’s debt problem.

“Some programs have outlived their life and no longer provide the service that they were intended. In some areas, we need more money, we need more funding,” Zinke said. “Unless we take action, we’re going to go bankrupt quickly, and there won’t be Social Security. There won’t be money for defense, there won’t be money for our parks and services. So, it’s time to act.”

The four members of congress also shared strong opinions that the border crisis, along with the fentanyl epidemic, needs to be addressed with a plan by President Joe Biden.

“I have repeatedly stood up to the president when it comes to important issues like securing our southern border,” Tester said. “How important it is to our national security and public safety that we secure our borders. It is why I have demanded that the president drop his administration’s efforts to repeal Title 42 until a real plan is put in place to stop the flow of fentanyl and fix our broken immigration system.”

Tester said he has personally called the president to discuss the needed manpower and technology to keep the southern border secure.

Daines echoed Tester’s sentiments on the southern border and added that even though Montana is a northern state, the impacts of an unsecure southern border has impacts on its communities.

“You look at the numbers and fentanyl seizures in the first three quarters of 2022, Montana law enforcement seized more fentanyl in our state than they did in the last four years,” Daines said, “Combined fentanyl poisoning has now become the leading cause of death for 18-45-year-olds. It’s not suicide, it’s not traffic accidents, it’s not some other health issue.”

Daines said Montanans would be hard pressed to find anyone that doesn’t at least know a person that was directly affected by fentanyl.

Bill would allow charter schools overseen by the Board of Public Education

If a bill in the House Education Committee gets approval, Montana would be able to open public charter schools, which supporters say would give students more academic opportunities in their communities.

Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, is sponsoring House Bill 549, which he said would expand parental choice in a child’s schooling by increasing curriculum and offering classes through charter schools connected to public education.

“This bill is specifically crafted to meet our constitutional requirements. It respects the authority of local school boards and local control provides for a locally elected governing board while honoring the authority of the State Board of Public Education,” Anderson said. “The purpose of this charter bill is to provide parental choice for children while expanding educational opportunities for K-12 students.”

Under HB 549, an applicant or group of applicants would need to submit an application to the local board of trustees with their additional educational requests. The board would then have the opportunity to create additional programs within schools to meet the request. If the board declines the requests, the applicants can then elect to establish a public charter school. 

When a charter school is authorized by the local board, it must make an application to the State Board of Public Education, which would hold the final authority to approve the addition of a charter school. 

The charter school would be on a five-year operating plan when initially starting up.

Anderson said that the charter school would have publicly elected officials in its first year who the school and make sure it’s reaching appropriate academic achievements.

“This bill’s charter schools are focused on enhancing Montana’s system of education to develop the full educational potential of each student,” Anderson said. 

Lance Melton, representing the Montana School Board Association, was one of four supporters of the bill at a hearing on Feb. 20 and said it would maintain the constitutional guarantees that the Public Board of Education has for supervision over all of Montana schools, while creating effective additional resources and opportunities for students.

“This ensures that your qualified electors, your taxpayers who are affected by the decision, are in the driver’s seat of choosing who will exercise, supervision, and control over the education as it’s created,” Melton said.

Elsie Arntzen, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in support of the bill that it would create greater opportunities for students to reach their full academic potential, and it would be a step forward for student success within the state.

There were 15 people who spoke in opposition to the bill and shared sentiments that allowing the Board of Public Education to oversee these schools would be a mistake.

Matthew Roth, a school board member in the Bitterroot Valley, said that he supports the introduction of charter schools into the state and opportunities they bring, but having the state oversee them allows a dynamic of letting public education manage its competitors.

“We don’t want competition. I use the analogy of this. If I’m opening up a Burger King, I need to go to McDonald’s to ask their permission if I can open up my Burger King and then see how to make the burger, which is what HB 549 says,” Roth said. “Competition breeds success. It’s what our country is founded on. It’s a free market system. There’s evidence out there that our public school citizens will improve with charter schools, but they have to have that autonomy not under the guise of school boards.”

McCall Flynn, executive director of the Board of Public Education, was an opponent to the bill, saying he had concerns over implementation of the charter schools and the responsibility of collecting data from the schools.

He said that the board would like to propose several amendments to the bill to make the workload more viable for the board.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

Bill would make sure shed hunters can be prosecuted for trespassing

A bill in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee would add penalties for criminal trespassing while collecting antlers, sheds, or horns.

Rep. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, is sponsoring House Bill 548, which would add language to protect private property owners specifically from hunters trespassing to collect antler sheds.

“It’s essentially saying that we are not going to monetize the location of our great wildlife resources in the state of Montana,” Cohenour said. “It’s good legislation, it’s good ethics, and it’s good for Montana.”

There were three supporters of the bill who shared similar sentiments that oftentimes when individuals are looking for horn sheds, the animals travel down onto private lands. This leads to people trespassing on private property to collect horn and antler sheds, often where ranchers or farmers are managing livestock or running other operations.

Katjana Stutzer, representing the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said in support of the bill that shed hunting can be seen as a form of criminal trespassing, and can lead to a loss of fishing and hunting privileges, but the charges are at the discretion of the court.

“The courts haven’t quite made that connection between those two things as related, and the bill would explicitly do that. In other words, this bill would create a real deterrent for criminal trespass for shed hunters on both private and state-owned land,” Stutzer said.

HB 548 has a non-mandatory sentencing recommendation of a $500 maximum fine or no more than six months in jail.

Joe Cohenour, the spouse of Rep. Cohenour, said in support of the bill that this was an idea he had after he retired from the Highway Patrol. He said oftentimes shed hunters will chase animals around using snowmobiles on private property hoping animals shed. He said this is done for monetary gain because one pound of brown antler can go for $16, so if you find a bull that sheds a 20-pound antler you can profit $300.

“A lot of the people around here have gone out shed hunting just for profit. It’s unfortunate because when I was out hunting, I would love to find a shed. I think it’s a really neat thing to find a shed out in the wild anymore, but you can’t find them anymore because it’s commercialized,” Cohenour said. “My friends who own a large ranch up in the Elkhorns are running people off their ranch.”

Cohenour said the bill would create a deterrent that can be used by the courts to help private property owners with individuals trespassing and running livestock around.

No one testified against the bill and the committee didn’t take immediate action. 

Bill would prohibit the ability of financial institutions to track firearm sales 

The Senate Business and Labor Committee discussed a bill on Wednesday, Feb. 22, that would prohibit financial institutions from using databases to track the sale of firearms, accessories, components, and ammunition.

Sen. Terry Vermeire, R-Anaconda, is sponsoring Senate Bill 359, which would remove the ability for companies across the state to monitor monetary transactions of guns or anything related.

“This is a pro-firearms piece of legislation,” Vermiere said. 

Vermeire said the reason for the bill is that in September the International Organization for Standardization approved a new merchant category code that would allow for financial institutions to track firearms sales across the globe.

Austin Knudsen, Montana’s Attorney General, was one of four supporters of the bill who testified. He said this has been an issue that he has been active in because it would only be used by companies in correlation with governments to track firearm sales.

“That’s something as the Attorney General that I take very seriously. I think that’s a violation of their constitutional rights,” Knudsen said.

Lisa Bennett, a resident of Carbon County who works in the hunting industry, spoke in support of the bill saying that getting support from financial institutions is already hard enough for companies and the addition of the companies being able to tell if you support firearms or are in that industry has made it even more difficult.

“I’m sure you’re aware of legislation in California, and if not, I’ll make you aware of it, that contractors doing business with the state of California had to register if they were affiliated or a member of the NRA. I mean this is not observed that this can actually expand to other things, we need to cut it off right now,” Bennett said.

She said companies such as Bank of America, Venmo, Apple and more can see your political affiliation through transactions, and if they don’t agree with it, she says they will cut you off from their services.

“By allowing these businesses to track these sales you’re discriminating against us. I would ask you to please support this bill, and I would go even further than this bill goes,” Bennett said.

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sport Association said in support of the bill that though he hasn’t seen what Bennett was discussing in Montana he’s heard chatter about it nationally, and believes the state needs to get ahead of it.

Marbut and Knudsen said that he would like to see additions to the bill include an enforcement mechanism or measures that could be used to make the financial companies comply with the law.

There were no opponents who testified at the bills hearing. The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

Bill would give the transportation commission the power to alter speed limits

If a bill in the Senate Highway and Transportation Committee passes, the Transportation Commission would have the authority to change speed limits throughout the state.

Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel, is sponsoring Senate Bill 452, which gives the state’s Transportation Commission thethe ability to reassess speed limits they put in place previously, and alter the speed limits on highways.

“Several times in this committee I’ve talked about the speed limit on Highway 212 between Crow and the Wyoming state line. I’ve complained for years and keep getting the same road block from people in MDOT and Transportation Commission. Anybody I’ve talked to says they’re not allowed to raise the speed limit without permission, and I said well then we need to look at giving you the authority,” Usher said.

The Transportation Commission is an agency of the Department of Transportation that has five members appointed by the governor. They are tasked with allocating highway funds, prioritizing project maintenance and more.

Usher said he knows that there are several roads in Montana that have an outdated speed limit, or simply one that doesn’t make sense.

“Our Department of Transportation, their goal is to be safe, but it’s also to keep commerce moving,” Usher said.

No one testified in support or opposition of the bill, but committee members raised questions about the safety implications that this bill could have.

“One of the things that we looked at, we actually looked at state-wide and did some national review of locations where we have a speed differential. So, a lot of Montana’s highways have a difference in speed between commercial vehicles and passenger vehicles,” Dustin Rouse, the highways and engineering administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, said as an informational witness. “One of the things we found is in locations that have large commercial vehicle, semi-truck use, that mix if you have that speed differential can lead to an increase in crashes.”

Rouse said the specific highway Usher talked about had a safety review done on it and it was originally set as having no speed differential between commercial and passenger vehicles due to the overall safety of the route.

“Through the establishment of that speed limit we did end up lowering the speed of the passenger vehicles to align with the truck speed, and it was to find that balance of where we believed, because behind all this we want to make sure were setting speeds that are also enforceable and that people will follow,” Rouse said

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Caven Wade is a student 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

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