Legislative Roundup - Week 2: Concealed carry bill, local health boards face scrutiny in Legislature's second week
Montana 67th Legislative Session
January 21, 2021
Tense Standoff Between Legislators Disrupts First Gun Bill Debate in Montana House
The Montana Senate will now consider a bill that would greatly expand where concealed weapons can be carried in Montana after the House of Representatives passed House Bill 102 along party lines.
The debate over the bill briefly ground to a halt last week as one lawmaker shut down another’s comments as a violation of decorum.
Members of the Montana House of Representatives were debating HB 102 when Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, who opposed the bill, asked Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, if he had ever been shot.
Berglee, who sponsored the bill, which allows concealed carry on college campuses and inside banks, among other places, is a military veteran.
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, was presiding over the House that day and cut Keane off, ruling that his question was irrelevant and a violation of decorum because of its deeply personal nature.
The spat came in the middle of heated back-and-forth testimony from Republicans and Democrats on HB 102.
“The fact is, this bill makes our communities and college campuses less safe,” said Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings.
Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, voiced strong support for the measure. Garner, a former Kalispell Chief of Police, said the bill would allow citizens to properly defend themselves, adding that the only people who carry guns in restricted areas are criminals.
“I’m sorry I don’t agree with all my brothers and sisters on this, but it is time for us to provide the opportunity for law-abiding citizens in our communities [to concealed carry],” Garner said. “Criminals be warned—that’s what we’re doing here today. We’re empowering the citizens of Montana.”
Standard procedure quickly dissolved after Skees ruled Keane’s question was inappropriate. House Democrats in the room rose to their feet to oppose the ruling, and with enough members of the House in opposition, the decision on whether to allow Keane to continue was pushed to a vote on the floor. Keane lost the vote 56-41, and Skees allowed him three more minutes to speak on a different topic.
“In this bill, while it says ‘safety,’ people will die,” Keane said, expressing concern over an increase of gun violence, both deliberate and accidental. “When those issues come up and those things happen, who holds us accountable? No one. No one holds us accountable.”
Ultimately, the bill passed the House directly down party lines, with 66 Republicans voting “yes” and 31 Democrats voting “no” (three legislators were not present).
The bill is far from the last measure on guns coming down the pipeline this session. Skees has a draft of a bill in final review that would establish a “Montana school marshall program,” while Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, is carrying a bill that would allow legislators to conceal carry guns on state property.
But with Republicans commanding a 67-seat majority in the 100-member House and a 31-seat majority in the 50-member Senate, Democrats are unlikely to successfully oppose any firearms bill with strong Republcian support.
Violent Offenders Automatically Removed From State Registry After 10 Years Under Proposed Bill
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would reform the state’s violent offender registry laws by automatically removing offenders from the list after 10 years.
House Bill 91, introduced by Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, would wipe convictions for failing to register after 10 years as a violent offender in Montana.
Farris-Olsen said the bill will bring Montana law into line with a previous state Supreme Court ruling.
“These folks have served their time,” Farris-Olsen said during the bill’s first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Monday, Jan. 11. “They spent their 10 years registering, and they complied with their obligations. It’s time to help them come back to our communities.”
Three people testified in favor of the bill, one of whom is a convicted felon and reformed violent offender.
Lonnie Hubbard testified in support of the bill, noting that he had gone on to receive his associate’s degree in science while maintaining a 3.7 GPA after his arson conviction. Hubbard said he received a “failure to register as a violent offender” conviction when he forgot to register after changing his address at age 18, meaning under current law, he would have to stay on the violent offender list for the rest of his life. HB 91 would remove him from the list.
Hubbard’s friend, business owner Conrad Evarts, also threw his support behind the bill, citing his productive relationship with Hubbard.
“He’s one of the most reliable human beings I know,” Evarts said. “The idea that he would be on this list indefinitely for essentially a clerical error when he was a kid really doesn't help him or other men and women like him become productive members of society.”
A representative from Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office said the bill was unnecessary, citing existing law that allows violent offenders to manually remove their names from the list after 10 years.
But Farris-Olsen noted the bill came at the request of the Interim Law and Justice Committee, a group of lawmakers who met in between Legislative sessions to study specific issues in the justice system, and that HB 91 was determined to be the best solution to problems with the violent offender registry.
“We thought this was the best way to address both sides of that issue—where we look at community safety but also make sure people are able to get off of it,” Farris-Olsen said.
If the bill passes the committee, it will then go to the House floor for additional debate.
Bill to Establish “Handle with Care” Program Goes Before House Education Committee
School districts across Montana may soon have another avenue to provide support for children who experience trauma outside the classroom.
Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, brought House Bill 27 before the Montana House Education Committee Monday. The bill would allow school districts to establish “Handle with Care'' programs, which allow law enforcement officials to inform districts that a student had a traumatic experience, and that teachers should “handle with care.”
“As we learn more and more about the lasting effects that children of trauma experience, we try whatever means we can to mitigate the trauma,” Funk said. “One of the easiest tools that has shown success in communities across our country and here in Montana is ‘Handle with Care.’”
Funk said the program is already underway in a handful of districts in the state, but that her home district in Helena has been unable to kickstart their own program due to a county attorney requesting Legislative approval.
While districts are allowed to implement the program largely as they see fit, Funk said the basic concept is straightforward: when law enforcement officials believe a child has been involved in a potentially traumatic situation outside of school, they are permitted to contact a designated school official with the child’s name and the message, “handle with care.” No other information about the situation can be shared.
Ten people testified in person and remotely in favor of the bill, praising it as a simple and cost-effective measure to help children.
“Really bad things happen to some kids, and if you can give them a little flexibility in that at school, it doesn’t have to impact every part of their life,” said Matt Kuntz, Executive Director of Montana’s chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education.
No one testified against the bill, but some members of the committee raised questions about liability and whether parents would be notified if law enforcement delivered a “handle with care” notice for their child.
Funk clarified that school districts would have the flexibility to tweak the program and that they may choose to notify parents. She also said liability is not a concern, as the only information school districts receive is the phrase “handle with care.”
“This is a small thing that can make a big difference in a child’s life,” Funk said.
The bill must pass the House Education Committee in order to be sent to the full House for consideration.
Republican Lawmakers Look to Limit Powers of Local Health Boards in Slate of Bills
Legislators are considering several bills that would protect police officers who do not enforce orders from local health officials and check the power of health boards to issue mandates during an emergency.
The Montana Senate Judiciary Committee heard Senate Bill 67 Wednesday, which would remove legal penalties for law enforcement failing to enforce the decisions of a local health official.
Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, sponsored the bill, and said it arose from a deep dive into old legislation that became relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fitzpatrick said officers shouldn’t face being charged with a misdemeanor for failing to enforce a public health mandate because they often have to prioritize their time and energies in other areas.
“At the end of the day, we know that law enforcement can only do so much,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t want to diminish COVID, but there are also other things in our community that require law enforcement to work with.”
Two sheriffs of counties in Montana testified in favor of the bill. Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder expressed his support, and Sheriff Jesse Slaughter of Cascade County said the current law is unnecessary and that he has an excellent working relationship with his county’s health department.
“Us law enforcement officials, elected officials, sheriffs—we take this pandemic very seriously,” Slaughter said. “This MCA code is adversarial. It creates an unnecessary adversarial relationship between a government appointee and elected officials.”
But Travis McAdam, a representative of the Montana Human Rights Network, said public health experts should be the ones guiding responses to public health emergencies, and that the bill would weaken their ability to address crises like the coronavirus pandemic. McAdam also said the bill would legitimize the beliefs of some anti-government militias in the supremacy of the sheriff’s position.
“The pandemic has been a great time for the anti-government movement when it comes to spreading their message, and we worry this bill would give them another tool in their toolbox,” McAdam said.
If the bill receives a majority vote in the committee, it will head to the full Senate.
Meanwhile, House Bill 121 would introduce a check on the powers of local boards of health and health commissioners. The House Local Government Committee first heard testimony on that bill on Thursday.
Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton—who announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, Jan. 7—sponsored the bill. It would require local governmental bodies to vote to approve or reject the “directives, mandates or orders” of local public health officials.
“Despite the fears expressed by some, this bill does not limit the power of public health officials to enforce public health regulations, nor does it prevent public health officials from acting during crises when time is of the essence,” Bedey said.
Helena resident Cindi Hamilton said mandates from local health boards hurt her horseback riding business, and that health boards ought to be checked by elected officials.
“Thirty horses no longer have any livelihood to support them because some unaccountable county health officer decided 10 months ago that horseback riding is not an essential business,” Hamilton said. “They make these decisions—they’re power-drunk.”
But Gallatin County Public Health Officer Matt Kelley, representing his jurisdiction and the Association of Montana Public Health Officials, expressed concern that the legislation would create confusion as public health officials seek approval from multiple governing bodies. He said public health officials are exhausted from efforts in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is somewhat painful and discouraging to hear those efforts demonized by people calling us power thirsty,” Kelley said.
Questions from the committee centered on whether governmental bodies would be held liable for the fallout of their votes on public health matters. Bedey said he didn’t believe liability would be any different than currently exists today for local elected officials.
If the bill gets committee approval, it will head to the full House for additional debate.
Austin Amestoy is a 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.