Lawmakers debate vaccines and country of origin labeling
Legislative roundup - Week 8
March 7, 2019
HELENA — The 66th Montana Legislature is at its halfway mark and that means that any general bills that did not make it through their first house before the transmittal deadline are effectively killed.
About sixty bills have passed both houses and have reached the governor’s desk. Gov. Steve Bullock said one of the most impactful laws he’s signed is House Bill 159, which will add about $77 million in funding for K-12 education.
“I’m glad that the education committee got that to me early on,” Bullock said.
Speaker of the House Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said he’s proud of passing bills like House Bill 553, sponsored by Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, which is the infrastructure payment bill that mixes borrowed money and cash to pay for public works projects.
Hertz also said he intends to keep stopping bills that would increase taxes as the session moves forward.
“It’s not just about passing bills, it’s about killing bad legislation for the state and Montana taxpayers,” Hertz said.
About 200 bills will die at the transmittal deadline. That is roughly a fourth of all bills introduced.
Lawmakers give emotional testimony about vaccine rules
Debate got heated in the Montana House of Representatives last week when lawmakers discussed three bills that would change vaccine laws in the state, all of which failed on second reading.
Rep. David Dunn, R-Kalispell, introduced House Bill 564, which would make it easier to obtain a medical exemption for vaccines that are required by schools and some businesses. It failed 38-62.
Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, carried two of the bills. House Bill 574 would prohibit the Montana Department of Health and Human Services from barring families who have religious or medical exemptions for vaccines from being foster parents. House Bill 575 would prohibit the department from mandating that daycare providers require employees or enrollees to have immunizations.
The debate came down to the risk to public health versus violations of personal liberties.
“I’ve already been labeled as an anti-vaxxer, but this is not anti-vax. This is a pro-choice bill,” Dunn said.
Proponents of HB 564 said the requirements to receive a medical exemption for vaccines are too stringent. The bill would have allowed nurses or physicians assistants, not only doctors, to give exemptions and it would change the form that’s required for the exemption.
When Manzella introduced her legislation, she presented a packet of information that claimed vaccines are filled with the cells of aborted babies.
“If this is the first time you’re hearing this information, it’s going to be a wild ride,” Manzella said.
Fetal tissue cells that were harvested in the 1960s from terminated pregnancies have been duplicated and used to develop immunizations, according to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Manzella argued the state’s overburdened foster care system would benefit from her proposed legislation by allowing those with religious exemptions to vaccines to take in foster children.
Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula, stood to speak against the bill, saying that vaccines protect vulnerable populations who have lowered immune systems, like children who are too young to be fully vaccinated.
Keogh said “legislation that undermines immunization requirements” increases risks for foster care kids and other vulnerable populations.
As the debate intensified, House minority leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, stood to object to several comments that he said violated House decorum.
Republican Speaker of the House Greg Hertz responded that legislators need to keep to facts during debate.
The Centers for Disease Control, which says vaccines are effective in preventing communicable diseases and are tested to ensure their safety, reports 10 states have confirmed cases of measles, which it largely attributes to unvaccinated populations.
Lawmakers Consider Country of Origin Labeling Legislation
Montana lawmakers voted last week to table one bill and advance another dealing with country of origin labeling for agricultural products.
House Bill 594, which would require beef and pork sold in Montana to be labeled with the country from which they come, was tabled in committee. Senate Resolution 16, which passed the Senate 46-4 and now moves to the House, would urge the federal government to recognize the importance of country-of-origin labeling laws.
Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, carried HB 594. He says it’s modeled after federal country-of-origin labeling laws, which have been changed in recent years. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, cuts of beef and pork muscle were removed in 2015 from the list of products that are regulated by the labeling laws, meaning retailers are not required to provide information on the origin of beef or pork that they sell.
Hamlett says that change makes country-of-origin labeling a state’s rights issue.
“If you want to send a message to what I would call our dysfunctional Congress back east, you pass this bill,” Hamlett said.
The Montana Farmers Union supports the legislation. Secretary and treasurer of the group Erik Somerfeld spoke in the bill’s hearing.
“Consumers overwhelmingly want to know where their food comes from. Ranchers want the consumer to know where their food comes from,” Somerfeld said.
The Montana Retail Association opposed the bill. President of the group, Brad Griffin told the committee he represents grocery stores across the state that would be responsible for the labeling. He says federal legislation should come before state legislation.
“This is far too complicated for Montana to solve on its own,” Griffin said.
Representatives from the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Stockgrowers Association also opposed the bill, saying the proposed legislation would be burdensome for businesses and that this debate should be had at the federal level first.
Because the bill was tabled it won’t move forward unless 58 representatives vote to “blast” it to the House floor.
Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, is carrying the Senate resolution, and said he was told by Montana’s U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte that passing this language would help pass federal legislation on the issue.
Olszewski had a similar bill to Hamlett’s, Senate Bill 206, that was also tabled in committee.
Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce are reporters with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at email@example.com. Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.