By Amy R. Sisk University of Montana Community News Service

HELENA – Tempers in Montana’s 63rd Legislature were on display last week as Montana legislators wrangled over high-stakes subjects from expanding Medicaid to a slew of Republican-backed referendums.

Democrats’ frustrations boiled over Friday in a noisy protest over two GOP referendums aimed at changing the way Montana runs elections. One would ask voters to end same-day voter registration; the other would allow only the top two vote-getters in a primary election to advance, regardless of party.

But earlier in the week, Senate Republicans faced a fight in their own party over a bill to expand Medicaid to 70,000 low-income Montanans.

Senate Bill 395 passed the Senate 26-24 last week, with five Republicans voting alongside all Democrats after a heated debate. The bill implements several reforms to the Medicaid system and accepts $6 billion in federal money over the next eight years to expand the program.

The GOP caucus met to discuss the issue before voting. Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, asked fellow Republicans to raise their hands if they were planning to go against their party’s leaders.

Five raised their hands, including Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.

“I’m going to take this vote and let the postcards come,” he told his caucus.

Other Republicans who voted for the bill made similar statements on the Senate floor, referring to threats that they would be targeted by conservative “dark money” groups during the next election. Those organizations, which do not disclose their political expenditures, are known to send postcards and mailers attacking legislative candidates.

Republicans who sided with Democrats said they did so not because they are for Medicaid expansion, but because they felt they needed to keep the bill alive in order to work on further Medicaid reforms this session.

Higher education

Former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams will no longer serve on the Montana Board of Regents. The Senate last week voted 26-23 against his confirmation.

The vote was largely along party lines, with most Republicans voting no to confirm the former Democratic congressman to the board that governs the state’s university system.

Williams, who was appointed to the regents by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, came under fire in February for referring to University of Montana football players as “thugs” in a New York Times article about the trial of a UM quarterback accused of rape.

K-12 education funding

Senate panels this week will begin to tackle funding for the state’s public schools.

The main budget bill is scheduled to come before the Senate budget committee, and the Senate education committee is slated to hear from the education community on Senate Bill 175.

SB 175 is the session’s major education funding bill, sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. The Senate passed a version that provided an extra $120 million to schools, but that’s likely to change in the House.

Bob Vogel, a spokesman for the Montana School Boards Association, said he expects that amount to drop by $52 million.

“We understand that we need to find ways to shave costs in this bill,” he said.

The original version redistributed oil and gas money while cutting statewide property taxes. If the amendments are approved, statewide property taxes would be frozen at current levels, Vogel said.

He added that school districts with increased enrollment would need to reach a higher trigger in order to receive additional funds.

School choice

As lawmakers hash out the best way to fund schools, three proposals are advancing that deal with options to public schools.

The Senate passed a bill to establish charter schools, albeit a very different version than first proposed. Under the amended version of Senate Bill 374, charter schools would have to comply with state rules and meet accreditation standards.

Meanwhile, the House approved House Bill 213, which provides parents whose children attend private schools a $550 tax credit. The House also endorsed Senate Bill 81 to provide tax credits to people and corporations who donate to organizations that provide scholarships to private school students or grants to public schools looking to start innovative programs.

Abortion

Several abortion measures are headed to the Senate after passing the House with Republicans’ support.

Rep. Jerry Bennett, R-Libby, is sponsoring two identical bills that would require parental consent for a minor to have an abortion. House Bill 391 seeks to do that through the traditional legislative process while House Bill 521 would refer the proposal to the public for in 2014.

Another measure, House Bill 619, sponsored by Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Helena, would also go to the public for a vote if approved by the Legislature. It aims to amend the Montana Constitution to state that nothing within the document specifies a person’s right to an abortion or public funding for the procedure. The bill’s supporters said it would prevent courts from citing the constitution’s privacy clause in rulings on abortion regulation.

Ballot measures

In addition to the abortion referendums and elections bills that caused uproar in the Senate last Friday, several other Republican-backed ballot measures remain alive after the transmittal deadline.

House Bill 423 would require parents to provide written consent for their children to take sex education at school.

Another measure, House Bill 496, would exempt religious organizations from having to disclose political expenditures made in the course of their religious activities.

Those two bills need a simple majority vote in the Senate to go on the ballot in 2014.

Another constitutional amendment, House Bill 631, requires the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers before it can go on the ballot. The measure aims to prevent people who commit a felony from being able to sue victims of their crimes.

Fifty-eight representatives voted for the bill, which means 42 of 50 senators must vote for it in order for it to be sent to voters.

Amy Sisk can be reached at amy.sisk@umontana.edu. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.