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By Austin Amestoy
UM Legislative News Service University of Montana School of Journalism 

Vaccine Exemption, Anti-Flavored Vape Ban Bills Back from the Dead in Week 15 of Montana Legislature

Montana 67th Legislative Session - Week 15

 

April 22, 2021



Montana Legislature Considers Lengthening Driver’s License Renewal Cycle, Raising DUI Penalties

Lawmakers in the 67th Montana Legislature are debating and advancing a number of bills seeking to revise the way drivers are licensed and increase punishments for repeat DUI offenders.

Members of the House Transportation Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 336 on Monday, April 12, after the bill cleared the Senate unanimously a week earlier. Sponsored by Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, the bill seeks to lengthen the period of time before Montanans have to renew their driver’s license from eight years to twelve years.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen requested the bill, and Friedel told committee members the change would help spread Department of Motor Vehicle resources out over a longer period of time, potentially cutting down on lengthy waitlists for license renewal appointments. Friedel said he had to wait months for an open appointment the last time his license was up for renewal.

“It’s going to save us money by not allowing us to have to hire full-time employees and keep packing more and more people into our DMV,” Friedel said.

A note attached to the bill explaining its financial impact says the change could generate as much as half a million dollars in revenue by 2025, as Montanans will have to pay $60 for a 12-year license as opposed to $40 for an 8-year license currently. However, the note estimates that revenue will stabilize after about 12 years as drivers settle into the 12-year cycle.

SB 336 would change other elements of driver’s license laws, including extending the period a license is eligible for renewal from three months after it expires to a full year. The bill would also allow active-duty military personnel stationed outside Montana to renew their driver’s license online.

One proponent testified in support of the bill -- Laurie Bakri, head of the Motor Vehicle Division in the Department of Justice.

“We feel like this is a great customer service bill for the citizens of Montana,” Bakri said. “It will decrease the amount of face time you have to have with [the Motor Vehicle Division], and I’m sure everybody would like to do that.”

When a lawmaker on the panel raised concerns about potential safety issues from longer renewal periods, Bakri said other states have much longer renewal periods than Montana.

Data from the Insurance Information Institute from June 2020 indicates that only Arizona has a longer licensing cycle at 12 years. If SB 336 becomes law, Montana would join it as one of two states in the nation with the longest period between driver’s license renewals.

With strong support in the Senate and the House Transportation Committee advancing the bill on a 17-0 vote, the bill appears to be on a glidepath to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.

Other bills moving through the Legislature are seeking changes to Montana’s DUI laws. House Bill 155, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would increase penalties for drunken drivers after their fifth and subsequent offences. After a fifth conviction, the individual would be fined between $5,000–$10,000 and be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. Previously, a fifth offense could lead to not more than 5 years in prison.

The bill also adds new sentencing guidelines for sixth and seventh DUI convictions. After six offenses, a person could face up to $10,000 in fines and 25 years in prison, while a seventh offence would mean up to $10,000 in fines and at least five years and not more than 25 years in prison.

During a House debate on the bill in February, Mercer said the bill was “a long time coming,” saying it had taken several legislative sessions to assemble the bill into its current form. Mercer said repeat offences are less and less likely each time a person is cited for driving under the influence, but that those who reach five or six convictions aren’t likely to stop.

“As you’re going door to door and talking to constituents, one of the things that is most shocking to them is the fact that people who have an eighth or a ninth or tenth DUI don’t appear to have ever served any time in a prison,” Mercer said. “And, I’m sure they have said to you as they’ve said to me, ‘This is among the most dangerous cohorts in the state, and it doesn’t seem that the justice system deals with them very well.’”

On the House floor, Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, said his uncle was killed by a drunken driver with five or six previous DUI convictions when Galloway was 14 years old. His uncle left behind four children. Galloway said the state should be less concerned with the price tag on the bill -- which could cost the state $100,000 per year in increased incarceration expenses -- and more focused on the damage done to victims of drunken driving.

“What are the costs to the families? What about their shattered lives? Let’s give judges the tools they need to take care of business and fix this problem. We do not want any more tragedies of this nature than we absolutely have to,” Galloway said.

But opponents of the bill, mostly Democrats, said HB 115 was not the proper way to solve Montana’s drunken driver problem, arguing that increased mandatory minimums focus on “retributive” actions, and that the state should be focused on treatment.

“These bills have a disparate impact on our Native American communities. Native American populations in this state make up 6.5% of the population, yet they’re about 20%–25% of the prison population, and a lot of that is because we don’t provide the resources that those communities need,” said Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena. “If we pass bills like this one, it just furthers that systemic problem of treating those communities disparately.”

HB 155 is awaiting more debate in the Senate, which already advanced the bill on a 31-19 vote. The House also passed the bill 74-25 in late February. If it passes a final Senate vote, the bill will head to Gov. Gianforte’s desk for a signature.

Pair of Bills Seek Prohibition on Discrimination Based on Vaccination Status, Possessing a Vaccine Passport

After the narrow defeat of a similar measure earlier in the session, lawmakers in the Montana Legislature have revived a debate over vaccine passports and exemptions. The bill is drawing supporters who are anti-vaccine and say the legislation would preserve freedoms and opponents from the medical industry who say forcing private businesses to accept vaccine exemptions risks public health and safety.

Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, is sponsoring House Bill 702, which seeks to prohibit discrimination by private businesses or government entities based on a person’s vaccination status or whether or not they possess and immunity passport. The bill comes amid a nationwide conversation about so-called “vaccine passports,” or documents detailing that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19.

On Tuesday, April 13, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte announced he had signed an executive order banning the use of vaccine passports in the state, joining four other states that have done the same: Idaho, Texas, Florida and Utah. If HB 702 passes, that restriction will become part of state law.

The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee held a hearing on the bill on Monday, April 12, where Carlson called the bill a “simple concept,” stating that medical and religious exemptions for vaccinations already exist for students, and that HB 702 is asking for that exemption to apply to adults as well.

The House of Representatives passed the bill on a 62-33 vote on April 6. Carlson’s previous attempt to prohibit discrimination based on vaccination status -- House Bill 415 -- died on a 50-50 vote on the House floor in late February.

During the hearing, proponents of HB 702 made largely anti-vaccination arguments in favor of the bill, saying the government is seeking to exert more control by pushing the COVID-19 vaccine on to the public and that the COVID-19 vaccine is “experimental,” with potential long-term side effects.

All COVID-19 vaccines currently being administered in the United States have been granted emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration following standard clinical testing, according to experts. Analysis from the Los Angeles Times found that of the more than 150 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the United States as of April 6, 0.005% may have resulted in a serious side effect.

Susan Bodner, a 58-year-old former nurse from Raynesford, Montana, said she wished the bill went further in its protections and included wording allowing for exemptions on “ethical and personal grounds.”

“We live in a free country and state,” Bodner said. “We must maintain that freedom or call us China.”

Other proponents compared the use of vaccine passports to the labeling and cataloging of Jews in Nazi Germany. Garret Bacon of Helena spoke against the bill.

“We’re heading from a political power in America to a medical tyranny,” Bacon said.

Opponents from the medical industry testified against the bill and said it could endanger children and hospital patients by forcing private businesses with concerns over the health of their clients to accept vaccine exemptions regardless.

Nanette Gilbertson, representing the Montana Advocates for Children, a coalition of childcare providers and organizations, said the bill goes far beyond COVID-19 vaccines, and could lead to exemptions for whooping cough or polio vaccinations, too, risking the introduction of diseases in childcare settings.

“While I think I understand the intent of the bill, from the childcare perspective, we have concerns about the unintended consequences of the language in House Bill 702,” Gilbertson said.

Duane Preshinger, senior vice president of the Montana Hospital Association, said vaccinations are critical to maintaining the safety of patients in their facilities.

“Protecting employees, patients and community members by confirming vaccination status should remain an option for healthcare facilities,” Preshinger said.

However, several hospital industry opponents applauded Carlson for working with them on amendments to help ease their concerns with the bill.

In her closing remarks, Carlson echoed Bodner’s thoughts that a reason should not be needed to be exempt from a required vaccination “as a sovereign human being.”

“This is not something that we’re going to avoid happening,” Carlson said. “It’s going to happen and we need to avoid discriminating against people who choose not to have [a vaccine].”

The committee also heard another vaccine passport bill sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade. Hinkle said he drafted House Bill 703 to “compliment” Carlson’s HB 702 by being “more specific” as to the circumstances in which a vaccine passport would be prohibited. Hinkle’s bill would bar requiring a vaccine passport to access “common life-sustaining goods and services available to the public” like food, child care products and medication.

Both bills must pass the committee before heading to the Senate floor for additional debate.

Montana Legislature Considers Major Revisions to State Income Tax

Montana state lawmakers are pushing forward bills posing major and minor revisions to state income tax policies, with some of the larger proposals drawing concern from Democrats that legislators won’t have time to fully consider their implications.

Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, has been leading the charge with major tax reform bills, many of them backed by Gov. Greg Gianforte as part of his “Montana Comeback Plan.” The governor’s primary declared fiscal reform goal since taking office has been to cut back on taxes, including the personal income and business equipment taxes.

One newer measure sponsored by Hertz is a bill to “simplify” Montana’s personal income tax structure, eliminating numerous tax credits and reducing liability for thousands of Montanans. After clearing the Senate on a largely party-line, 30-20 vote on April 7, Senate Bill 399 debuted in the House Taxation Committee on April 13 to a hearing packed with proponents and opponents who debated the effectiveness of the proposal.

Hertz told the committee the goal of the bill is to bring Montana’s income tax filings more in line with federal income tax forms, reducing administrative costs and making it easier for Montanans to file their returns. He said he’s had constituents reach out to him with complaints about the state’s “ridiculous” income tax filing system and added he hopes the bill will broaden the state’s base of taxpayers.

Several accountants testified in support of the bill, echoing Hertz in his belief that the bill would simplify income tax filing and increase compliance with Montanans. Bob Story spoke in support of the bill on behalf of the Montana Taxpayers Association.

“The great thing about this bill, we believe, is it gets rid of a lot of the additions and subtractions we believe are in there for political reasons,” Story said.

Among the subtractions the bill makes is a list of income tax credits, including those for adoptions, elderly care, geothermal systems and alternative energy. Hertz said the credits were used by a small number of Montanans, and a note attached to the bill explaining its fiscal impact states the change could generate nearly $5.5 million in annual revenue by 2025.

However, as it is currently written, the bill’s proposed cuts to income tax could reduce state revenue by nearly $42 million annually by 2025, which some opponents pointed to as a reason for concern, as a reduction in state funds could potentially lead to cuts in state-sponsored programs.

Opponents also cited inconsistencies in whose taxes are raised and lowered under the bill. Rose Bender, representing the Montana Budget and Policy Center, said her organization was particularly concerned about a Department of Revenue memo that said 36,000 Montanans making less than $50,000 annually could still see their income taxes increase under SB 399.

Other opponents said they were against cutting certain tax credits, including one couple who said they were looking forward to using the $1000 adoption tax credit after welcoming a daughter later this year.

Democrats say the Legislature hasn’t had enough time to consider the 98-page proposal, which was introduced in late March, even though they generally support broadening the tax base.

“This kind of tax simplification should have started at the very beginning of the session and should have gotten significantly more vetting,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, in a press call.

Another major Hertz tax bill backed by Gov. Gianforte is Senate Bill 159, the “Personal Income Tax Relief Act.” It originally proposed cutting the top income tax rate from 6.9% to 6.75%, and passed the Senate on a 33-17 vote before coming to a halt in the House Taxation Committee. Earlier in the session, the committee amended the bill to further cut the rate to 6.5%, but in a unanimous vote on April 13, the panel tabled the bill. Unless lawmakers vote to reconsider, the bill won’t move any farther.

In an interview, committee chair Rep. Becky Beard, R-Elliston, said they needed to take a step back and consider the “big picture” of income tax revisions bills. Beard said the cuts in SB 159 could be added back to SB 399.

One bill sponsored by Hertz seeks to recover some revenue set to be lost through tax cuts. Senate Bill 376 would revise the multi-state corporate income tax policy, putting more weight on the tax on income a company generates from sales in Montana, and less weight on payroll and property tax. The change would generate an estimated $3.4 million in annual tax revenue by 2025.

SB 376 cleared the Senate on a 36-14 vote. During a hearing in the House Taxation Committee, Hertz said the bill came at the request of Gov. Gianforte, and that it would bring more businesses to Montana by incentivizing companies to operate in the state, rather than just selling there.

“If we want to grow Montana’s economy, we want to attract these other businesses,” Hertz said. “We don’t want to penalize them for just coming to Montana.”

Controversial Bill Prohibiting Local Bans on Flavored Vape Moving Again in MT Legislature

A bill seeking to block local governments from prohibiting flavored vapor products is moving through the Montana Legislature once again after a Senate committee tabled a previous measure earlier in the session.

Senate Bill 398 would block so-called “flavored vape bans” in Montana cities and towns, instead allowing only “reasonable ordinances and resolutions relating to the sale of alternative nicotine or vapor products.” The bill comes after the city of Missoula enacted a ban on the sale of flavored vapor products last November amid concerns about vape use among children and teens.

SB 398 is the second time this session alone lawmakers have attempted to pass legislation that would stop similar bans. House Bill 137 would have had a similar effect, and passed out of the House of Representatives in February before the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee tabled it in March. One day after HB 137 died, Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, took his draft of SB 398 off hold, and he introduced the bill in the Senate a week later.

During a hearing in the Montana House Business and Labor Committee, Ellsworth told the committee he uses flavored vapor products to ease his smoking habit, and said local governments should not be able to make something “illegal” that is currently legal in state law.

“I love local control. It’s an important factor in our lives. At the same time, we have to be careful,” Ellsworth said. “As we’ve seen, especially in this pandemic, local control can sometimes get out of control.”

Ellsworth also attempted to pre-empt arguments he expected from opponents that vaping was dangerous and that local bans on flavored vape were designed to prevent the products from falling into the hands of children. He said “mom and pop” vapor stores are not selling to minors, as doing so is illegal under state law.

Support for the bill came largely from vape store owners and workers who said not passing the bill could risk their businesses and livelihoods. Tommie Dobbs co-owns Liberty Vapor in Missoula and told the committee flavored vapor products make up 76% of her sales. The ordinance in Missoula is currently on hold pending a lawsuit, and is now set to go into effect on May 1, as reported by Montana Public Radio.

“I worry for my customers who have trusted me and the products that I carry. I worry for my employees who have been in business for many years across the board. They depend on me for their paychecks, and I cannot even imagine telling them they no longer have jobs,” Dobbs said.

But opponents argued that local governments were best equipped to deal with issues they deem as potentially dangerous to public health. The majority of opponents came from youth advocacy groups and anti-tobacco organizations and said SB 398 would exacerbate Montana’s rate of underage vape users. The 2019 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered by the Office of Public Instruction found that 58% of high school students said they had used vapor products -- up from 51% in 2015.

Annika Bennion, a 18-year-old from Sidney, Montana and Miss Montana’s “Outstanding Teen” for 2020 testified against the bill and said she did so on behalf of the “teens of Montana.” She said vape shops were using colorful advertising and candy flavors for vapor products to attract teens and children

“Simply because it is illegal does not mean it’s not easy for us to get our hands on vapes. I’m 18, and I know this very well,” Bennion said.

Before the hearing, committee Vice Chair Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, warned witnesses to stay on the topic of the bill, which he assessed as issues of local control and local flavored vape bans. Buttrey told witnesses several times that selling vapor products to minors was illegal in Montana, but said he would allow opponents to explain local governments were implementing bans on their sale.

At one point, Rep. Ron Marshall, R-Hamilton, interrupted an opponent who was testifying about vape use in Montana youth and asked Buttrey to bring testimony “back on the bill.” Marshall, who co-owns three vape shops, sponsored the previous form of SB 398 that died in March.

“We’re talking about children, we’re talking about brain damage and everything else -- this has got nothing to do with the intent of the bill,” Marshall said. “The intent of the bill is simply a prohibition on local regulations to shut down a legal business.”

If the committee passes the bill, 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. He can be reached at austin.amestoy@umontana.edu.

 

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