Week 8 of the Montana Legislature brings vaccine exemption and broadband expansion bills as lawmakers rush to meet key deadline

Montana 67th Legislative Session Roundup - Week 8

Lawmakers Race to Introduce Bills Before Key Deadline; House Committee Holds Marathon Hearings

As the Legislature approaches the halfway point of the session -- and a key deadline for general bills -- one House committee heard more than 50 bills in four days, imposing strict time limits on testimony and raising questions about transparency and public access.

That deadline -- called “transmittal” -- falls on Wednesday, March 3, the halfway point of the Legislative Session and the last day for all bills, except those that appropriate state funding, to pass through their first house. General bills that haven’t yet advanced from the House to the Senate or vice versa by the transmittal deadline are effectively dead.

The House Judiciary Committee, already one of the more controversial panels in the Capitol due to spats over decorum and rules, held marathon sessions through the week of Feb. 22, advancing and tabling a number of bills in a rush to meet the deadline, with some bills on contentious subjects being scheduled just a day before their hearings.

Republican Chair of the Judiciary Committee Barry Usher warned committee members of the time constraints, and indicated he’d anticipated the rush of bills.

“It’s going to be a pretty tight day,” Usher said. “I’m going to try to give every hearing a fair hearing. This is what I’ve been trying to prepare for -- I knew it was going to happen.”

The Judiciary Committee met for nearly nine hours on Monday, Feb. 22, interrupted only by a meeting of the full House. In that time, the panel heard and advanced 15 out of 20 bills, including several on controversial issues like gun rights, medical care for people who are transgender and laws governing the relationships between landlord and tenants.

Two gun bills, House Bills 504 and 436, advanced in 12-7 votes down party lines, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats against. HB 504 restricts the ability of the state to confiscate firearms or close gun stores during states of emergency, while HB 436 expands concealed carry rights recently signed into law by repealing penalties for carrying concealed firearms and restricting the ability of local governments to regulate concealed firearms in public buildings.

A bill resurrecting parts of a previous failed measure that would have blocked transgender children from certain healthcare procedures debuted in the committee, this time as House Bill 427, and also sponsored by Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish. This version of the bill prohibits doctors from performing gender transition surgery on a minor, dropping previous language that also blocked the prescription of puberty blockers and hormones.

The committee advanced the measure in an 11-8 vote, and it drew fresh criticism from Democrats during debate in the full House, where it eventually passed on a final vote of 60-38. It now moves to the Senate.

Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, warned of unintended consequences that would result from passing the bill, including dangling liability over the heads of doctors who perform gender transition surgeries until their patient turns 27 and potentially prohibiting non-transitional surgeries from being performed on minors.

“The concern that we heard is you simply cannot make enough exemptions in this bill to not, at some point, cause harm for a family that is in no way trying to change the gender of their child,” Bishop said.

The House voted down the bill’s original form, House Bill 113, in a narrow vote, with a number of Republicans joining Democrats with concerns that the bill went too far in blocking medical treatments for transgender youth. However, several Republicans flipped votes on HB 427, expressing renewed support for the measure with its focus on surgical procedures.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee met for nearly 10 more hours. House Bill 335, a bill from Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, that would have repealed the death penalty in Montana, was added to the committee’s schedule the afternoon before its hearing. The committee tabled the bill immediately following its hearing.

The committee also heard and quickly advanced three bills pertaining to the rights of landlords and their tenants.

House Bill 430, sponsored by Rep. Kathy Whitman, R-Missoula, would prohibit state and local governments in Montana from restricting landlords from collecting rent or evicting tenants during states of emergency. The full House approved that bill on a 66-32 vote and it now moves to the Senate.

Another measure from Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, House Bill 541 would allow law enforcement to remove a former tenant from an apartment if they remain on the premises after a 24-hour notice of their eviction expires. Galloway also sponsored House Bill 439, a partner bill to HB 541 that allows landlords to petition law enforcement to help in removing a tenant following a court ruling in favor of eviction. That bill advanced to the Senate on a 66-32.

The House Judiciary Committee heard an additional 16 bills on Wednesday, Feb. 24, including measures to allow 100-year prison sentences for people convicted of distributing dangerous drugs that lead to a death, increase civil and criminal penalties for protestors who trespass on “critical infrastructure” sites like oil pipelines and refineries and prohibiting state employees from enforcing any potential future federal gun control laws or orders.

The scramble to hear and move bills forward will likely continue right up to the March 3 deadline.

Lawmaker Introduces Bills to Protect Mobile Home Owners from ‘Predatory’ Landowners

Two bills sponsored by a Republican lawmaker would grant new rights to homeowners in mobile home parks, allowing them safeguards against rent increases that some say have been drastic.

Sen. Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls, introduced Senate Bill 269 to members of the Montana Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 24. The bill would require mobile home park owners to give their residents a 90-day notice that they plan to sell the park, and it allows homeowners to come together to purchase their park as a group.

Hoven said the bill was critical to preserving affordable housing in the state, noting that while most mobile home park owners are fair and responsible, some out-of-state buyers have swept up parks and dramatically increased lot rent for homeowners in the process.

One proponent of the bill from a mobile home park in Hoven’s district in Great Falls said their park was purchased just months ago, when lot rent cost $270 per month. Now, he said between fees and rent increases, he’s paying $100 per month more -- and it keeps rising.

“It just continues to go up -- it’s going to be a financial burden on us,” said Jim Burrington, who is retired and living with his partner on Social Security. “It would have been nice to have been offered to purchase as people have talked about.”

Other proponents of the measure included two Montana mayors who said the bill was necessary to keep housing costs low. Billings mayor Bill Cole said as construction costs increase, keeping mobile homes affordable is key, especially in his city where he said one-third of residents are renters.

But opposition to the bill came from mobile home park owners and corporations who said the mandatory 90-day notice would hinder their ability to sell when they desire, and that they shouldn’t be prevented from selling to whoever offers them a “fair market price” for their property.

“This bill was an attempt, probably, to help low-income tenants -- I don’t think it’s going to achieve its stated goal,” said Steve Skinner, owner of an 80-unit mobile home park in Helena. “Courts are complex properties; it takes a lot of planning and foresight, and tenants, I don’t think, have a full understanding of what it takes to run.”

The company that bought the park Burrington lives in also testified in opposition to the measure. Charles Denowh spoke on behalf of Havenpark Communities, which he said owns communities in 15 states, with six parks in Montana. Denowh said the company strives to provide options for affordable housing, and had increased lot rent, at most, by $24 per month on an annual basis.

However, Burrington’s complaint at steep rent increases by the company echoes others filed with the Better Business Bureau from residents of Havenpark Communities’ parks around the country.

Some members of the committee raised concerns that residents wouldn’t be able to handle the difficulties of owning and maintaining their park, which Hoven refuted.

“This isn’t a new concept, as they said in the testimony,” Hoven said. “There are consultants for these people -- they’re not operating out there on their own.”

The committee also heard arguments on, but then voted to table, Hoven’s second mobile home park bill, Senate Bill 268, which would allow residents of a park to petition a local government to condemn the park if they experience rent increases significantly above the consumer price index, a lack of park maintenance or other activities that “reduce the quality of life or value of mobile homes in the mobile home park.” The local government would then be permitted to return the park to the homeowners if they demonstrate available financing to care for the park themselves.

“You think that bill generated opposition, wait until you hear this one,” Hoven told committee members during his opening remarks.

During those remarks, Hoven made it clear the bills were a direct response to the actions of Havenpark Communities, as he read a letter from U.S. Congressional Rep. Cyndi Axne, D-Iowa, written to the company. The letter slammed Havenpark’s steep rent increases in Iowa, some of which saw prices rise from $295 per month to $500 after the company bought out a community.

Hoven said neither of his bills would affect the majority of park owners who are operating their properties in a “prudent and reasonable manner.” Rather, they would support the homeowners being victimized by predatory companies.

“What leverage do the residents have? That remains the question,” Hoven said. “If this was your house, and you saw a 25% increase in taxes, you’d unelect that legislator that imposed those taxes, and if you couldn’t do that, you would downsize and move someplace else. These people can do neither of those. They are just stuck.”

An array of proponents and opponents similar to those for SB 269 lined up to speak on the bill, with supporters saying the measure would add an important tool to the toolkit of financially oppressed homeowners and opponents, including Havenpark Communities, saying the bill would set a dangerous precedent for eminent domain powers that don’t benefit the public.

Bills Seek Solutions to Montana’s Rural Broadband Problem

According to research group BroadbandNow, as of 2020, Montana ranked second worst in the nation for access to high-speed broadband internet, with only Alaska lagging behind. Now, several bills seeking to address the issue are moving through and debuting in the Montana Legislature, with both parties offering their own solutions.

Democrats rolled out their broadband plan the week of Feb. 22 with bills that would expand rural broadband through public partnerships at the local and state levels.

Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, presented House Bill 422 to members of the House Local Government Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 23. The bill would repeal a section of law that currently prohibits Montana cities from owning or partnering with broadband utilities.

Kortum told committee members the move would allow cities and towns to take it upon themselves to expand broadband access without waiting on big internet companies to do so.

“An outdated regulation stands in the way of fixing things the Montana way: ourselves,” Kortum said.

Proponents of the bill included representatives from Montana cities and a local internet service provider who said the bill would open up additional avenues for extending broadband services to underserved communities.

Kevin Hamm owns and operates Treasure State Internet & Telegraph in Helena and told the committee the bill would allow his business to partner with towns to form co-ops, expanding his reach and allowing him to serve more people in more rural areas.

“Being able to partner with communities, counties and tribes would make everything so much better,” Hamm said.

Kelly Lynch, deputy director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, spoke in support of the bill on behalf of the state’s 127 incorporated municipalities.

“I think the best way to put this is that we’re in a situation where we need all hands on deck,” Lynch said. “Our economy, our health, our education -- all depend on reliable affordable broadband internet, now more than ever.”

Large telecom companies like Charter Spectrum and CenturyLink testified against the bill, as did an owner of a small internet service provider in Hamilton, saying the bill would put undue burden on Montana’s taxpayers to foot the bill for city-owned broadband companies.

Geoff Feiss, representing the Montana Telecommunications Association, spoke against the bill, and told committee members the costs of providing broadband to a city of 100,000 people costs upward of $150 million.

“Allowing municipalities to enter the broadband business is risky business at best. It’s a gargantuan waste of taxpayer money at worst,” Feiss said.

Later in the week, Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte, presented House Bill 494 to the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee. His bill would require that the Montana Department of Transportation notify broadband companies when constructing new highways to allow companies to lay fiber optic cable during the digging process.

Harvey told committee members that digging makes up 90% of the cost to broadband companies to lay new cable, and that his “dig once” bill would help the state quickly expand high-speed internet access to rural parts of the state.

“This bill reduces a major barrier to broadband expansion with just simple coordination with the Department of Transportation,” Harvey said.

The bill received no opposition, while proponents from local broadband companies and labor unions said the practice of digging just once to lay new cable would save time and money.

“This is just one of those good, make-sense bills. You’ve got it opened up, so let’s take care of it now,” said Dwight Rose, a representative from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

On the Republican side, Senate Bill 51 promises to exempt newly-installed coaxial and fiber optic cable from property taxation for five years after its installation. In order to remain eligible for the exemption, broadband companies must reinvest the savings into laying additional cable in Montana.

Republicans brought a similar bill in 2019, which passed both chambers but was vetoed by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

During SB 51’s initial hearing on Jan. 19, its sponsor, Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, told members of the Senate Taxation Committee the abatement in the bill was unique because of the requirement to reinvest in broadband.

“At the end of the day, what this does is it allows the businesses to deploy and go to what we call ‘the last mile,” Ellsworth said. “Instead of just down main street, to our more rural areas.”

The committee approved SB 51 in a 7-4 vote, and it passed a final vote in the Senate 35-15 largely down party lines. Democrats raised concerns over whether the bill would actually benefit rural Montanans, given SB 51’s lack of language directing companies to prioritize infrastructure in rural areas.

“Most, if not all of us in this chamber will agree that we need to invest in broadband and uplift our rural communities, but I don’t believe this is the bill that does that,” said Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, during debate on the Senate floor.

The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs committee also heard another broadband expansion bill from Ellsworth -- Senate Bill 297 -- that would establish a program offering $2 million in grants to broadband companies that bring plans to install high-speed cable internet in “unserved” areas.

“The question has always been, ‘what can we do more?’ That’s exactly what this bill addresses,” Ellsworth said during his opening remarks. He added that the grant program would act as a “vessel” for any future federal dollars that Montana receives for expanding rural broadband.

The bill received a flurry of support from large communications companies, medical associations and Montana communities and no opposition.

Lawmakers Consider Bills Preventing Vaccine “Discrimination;” Expanding Exemptions

As the COVID-19 vaccine continues to roll out in Montana and across the country, a series of bills in the Montana Legislature would expand exemptions for vaccinations for children on religious and medical grounds and prevent unvaccinated people from being “discriminated” against.

Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, is sponsoring two of the bills and introduced House Bill 415 to members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

The bill passed the committee in a party-line vote, with 12 Republicans voting in favor and seven Democrats against. But, several days later, the bill failed to pass the full House on a 50-50 vote.

The bill would have restricted the ability of state entities and private employers to refuse service or employment to individuals based on their vaccination status, as well as banned the use of “immunity passports” -- documentation of immunity to a disease.

“You have a right for your medical records to be private,” Carlson said. “We should not be showing an immunity passport to buy groceries at our local store.”

The committee heard arguments from more than 50 proponents and opponents. Many proponents cited common anti-vaccination arguments in support of the bill, including that vaccines cause severe illness. Others expressed support for the measure’s protections for medical privacy.

“When freedom is reduced for some, it’s reduced for all,” said Holly Russell, a supporter of the bill. “Montanans should not be discriminated against based on vaccine status.”

Opponents of the bill included medical professionals who said allowing increased exemptions for vaccines will risk the health of Montanans and potentially allow diseases to spread more easily.

Brandi Thomas, an early childhood education professional, said if this bill passes, the childcare facility her grandson attends would close, rather than be forced to accept unvaccinated children and “risk the health and safety of children they care for.”

“We are already in a severe childcare shortage,” Thomas said. “This is not just a COVID bill. This bill affects every single business, school and child.”

Carlson also sponsored House Bill 334, another vaccination bill, which the House advanced on a 65-35 vote. Under the proposed measure, religious and medical exemptions to vaccinations required by public schools would be extended to children, in addition to the adults who can already claim them.

Carlson said she has a child who was injured by a vaccination, and that this bill would allow parents who have likewise been impacted to prevent further harm to their children. She also attempted to preempt arguments she predicted opponents would make.

“I just want to say something on a personal note: this is not an anti-vax bill. I don’t like the word ‘anti-vax.’ I find it to be a pejorative,” Carlson told the committee. “It’s not applicable to this bill.”

Many proponents cited injuries they believe their children sustained due to vaccines, ranging from fever and digestive issues to eczema and seizures. Data from vaccines.gov indicates that serious side effects from vaccines are exceptionally rare, developing in only one or two people out of every million doses.

Opponents of the measure said it allowed too broad a range of healthcare providers to issue medical exemptions, potentially allowing people who have never worked with vaccines to issue exemptions, like massage therapists or chiropractors.

Jim Murphy, representing the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, also brought up concerns over a portion of the bill that would restrict local health officials from accessing students’ vaccination records -- something he said would disrupt the current relationship between schools and health boards. He also reiterated the data on vaccine injury.

“While adverse reactions do occur, serious adverse reactions are extremely rare,” Murphy said. “The bill does not distinguish common adverse reactions such as redness and swelling at the injection site from more serious and rare events.”

House Bill 332, sponsored by Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, died on the House floor on a 43-57 vote. It would have redefined “immunizing agents” in Montana law pertaining to vaccination requirements for children attending public schools. The revised definition would include children who were infected with an illness and recovered from it, as well as “immunization” caused by immunotherapy or homeoprophylaxis. Opponents pointed out that immunotherapy is a treatment, not a preventative measure, and homeoprophylaxis -- which uses a homeopathic approach to immunization -- is a practice of treating symptoms through methods unproven by science.

Hill said the bill came from his time serving on a school board when he became perplexed by discrepancies between uses of the terms “immunized” and “vaccinated.”

“It’s just modernizing the definition,” Hill told members of the Montana House Education Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

The bill’s sole proponent, Jenna Dodge, practices homeoprophylaxis out of Bozeman, and said the treatment is a valid substitute for vaccinations.

“It has a track record of over 200 years, and most importantly, it can be used to trigger immunity in cases where no vaccine exists,” Dodge said.

But the bill received a flurry of opposition from members of Montana’s medical science community who said the change in definition would endanger children and their families by lowering numbers of properly immunized students, as neither immunotherapy nor homeoprophylaxis produce immunity.

Vicky Byrd, CEO of the Montana Nurses Association, said the bill would authorize substitutes for immunizations that are not FDA-approved, which would welcome the department to issue citations to the state for putting the public at risk.

“Homeopathics are no substitute for vaccines. MNA supports science and evidence-based vaccines to protect Montana’s children,” Byrd said.

Bill Warden, representing St. Peter’s Health in Helena and Bozeman Health, called the bill “simply not good science.”

Hill seemed surprised by the response to his bill during his closing remarks.

“I didn’t think it was going to be this controversial,” the lawmaker said. “I just thought it would modernize the definition here.”

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. He can be reached at austin.amestoy@umontana.edu.


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