By Amy R. Sisk University of Montana Community News Service
HELENA – Three weeks into the legislative session, a number of bills have finally reached the Montana House or Senate for a vote.
Two of those bills drew significant debate last week on the House floor.
A proposal to criminalize assaults on unborn children passed 59-40, with proponents saying they want to appropriately punish people who hurt pregnant women by charging them with homicide when their actions kill a fetus. Opponents to House Bill 104 argued the measure creates a legal definition for “unborn child” in the state code, thus opening the floodgates to anti-abortion measures.
Supporters of another bill said they want to prevent problems related to illegal immigration in Montana. House Bill 50, which passed 61-37, prohibits municipal governments from establishing “sanctuary” policies that do not enforce immigration laws. Legislators who opposed the bill asserted it isn’t necessary because Montana does not have an illegal immigration problem.
Those bills must next pass the Senate and receive the governor’s signature before they can become law.
Here’s a look back at some of the other highlights from week three:
Concealed weapons permits
Montanans’ permit applications for concealed weapons could become confidential under a new proposal awaiting legislative action.
Senate Bill 145 stems from the fallout surrounding a New York newspaper’s decision in December to publish the names and addresses of local handgun permit holders, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Frederick Moore, R-Miles City.
Last week, he urged members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to learn from that event. He argued that the disclosure of permit holders’ personal information does not fall within a compelling public interest.
Doug Nulle, a lobbyist for the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said applications should be made confidential to protect those whose names appear on them.
“This information could be used by the criminal element to locate not only the applicant but also the applicant’s references, and thus potentially subject these individuals to a wide variety of crimes including murder, burglaries, home invasion robberies, theft and identify theft,” he said.
A lobbyist for the Montana Newspaper Association (which partially funds the UM Community News Service) and Jan Anderson, editor and publisher of The Boulder Monitor, opposed the bill, urging lawmakers to strike a balance between an individual’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know. They voiced support for a different measure, Senate Bill 37, which would make public only the names and addresses of concealed weapons permit holders.
“When the local hothead showed up at my office and told me that he had a concealed weapons permit and I’d better be careful about what I wrote, didn’t I have a right to know whether indeed he had a concealed weapons permit?” Anderson asked the committee.
State employee pay plan
State employees could soon see a pay raise, which for some would be the first time in four years.
More than 20 people spoke last week in front of the House Appropriations Committee to give their support for House Bill 13, a proposal to increase the salaries of state employees by 5 percent over each of the next two years. No one spoke in opposition to the measure.
Karen Haubbert, an employee at the state title and registration bureau in Deer Lodge, told the committee that she makes $9.90 per hour after 10 years on the job, which is only $0.85 more than new hires. She said it’s tough to make ends meet when pay has remained frozen for so long, yet the cost of living has steadily increased.
“We cannot afford the expense to go to the movies, to go out to dinner with our families or to make upgrades to our homes or purchase a new vehicle,” she said. “The 5 percent increase in this bill is not going to make us able to go out on a shopping spree. It will only help us to keep our heads above water.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kathy Swanson, D-Anaconda, called the bill “long overdue.”
“This is your opportunity to tell state workers that they have worth – that we, who hold their salaries hostage, appreciate what they do,” she said.
Public land access
Hunters and anglers could gain access to public land currently off limits under a proposal to change Montana’s trespass laws.
The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony last week on House Bill 235, a measure that would allow people to cross from one parcel of public land to another at a corner where public and private land intersect. Currently, crossing corners is considered trespassing on the adjoining private property.
The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, told the committee that 1.3 million acres of public land in Montana are currently inaccessible because they share boundaries with private property. She stressed that under the proposed law, property owners could still prosecute those who set foot on other parts of their land.
Representatives from the United Property Owners of Montana, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana Cattlewomen argued that the bill infringes upon landowners’ private property rights and could set a precedent for more serious trespassing violations.
University system funding
Officials from the Montana University System want legislators’ help to keep tuition levels frozen over the next biennium and increase faculty pay.
Clay Christian, the commissioner of higher education, told an appropriations subcommittee last week that Montana has resisted tuition increases better than any state in the country, and he would like to keep it that way.
“We hope that we are earning the trust of this committee to know that if you can find a way to help fund us, we will be prudent with those dollars, and we will make sure Montana families don’t have to pay more in tuition,” he said.
At the start of the three-day hearing, the subcommittee’s chair, Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, urged the university system to lead the fight to protect natural resource development in Montana. He mentioned his concern over the 2012 Power Shift conference held at the University of Montana, where students attended seminars on climate change and ending society’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Christian addressed those comments, assuring members of the committee that the university system produces workers for energy-related jobs. Nearly 10 percent of last year’s graduates went to work in the Bakken region, he said.
Teaching alternatives to evolution
A proposal allowing science teachers to teach alternatives to evolution drew a number of critics to the Capitol last week.
Opponents of House Bill 183 told the House Education Committee that the sponsor wants intelligent design and creationism taught in public schools. They also disputed the bill’s claim that the scientific community has not reached a consensus regarding the origin of life.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Clayton Fiscus, R-Billings, said the measure encourages critical thinking and does not specify which theories to teach as alternatives to evolution.
Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at (425) 466-6633 or email@example.com. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.