Montana State Park license plate.

Free. Independent. News.

COVID-19, economic analysis, in-depth government reporting.
Our local journalists cover Montana for you.
Get updates daily in your inbox.

HELENA — Montana lawmakers will debate a slew of contentious topics in the coming week. Bills will recognize indigenous people both living and lost. One bill proposes a carbon tax and another pushes lawmakers to support Montana coal exports. Other measures take on tourists, trails, and taxes. Here are five things to have on your radar for Week 4 of the 2019 legislative session.

Dueling bills reroute state parks funding

Montana has an optional light vehicle registration fee that supports state parks and fishing access. When a driver registers a car, she’s automatically charged the $6 fee unless she specifically asks to opt out.

Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, would bump the fee to $9 and use the extra revenue to create a trails and recreational facilities grant program. Governments, schools, or clubs could steer the grant funds to trails projects. They could design new trails, repair existing ones, construct signs, install restrooms, or build other trailside structures.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 102, by Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, would raise the $6 fee to $25 and change it from an opt-out to an opt-in choice. There are nearly 900,000 light vehicle registrations in Montana, and 77 percent of drivers pay the state parks fee. If SB 102 passes, the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning estimates only 10 percent of drivers will elect to pay the fee. State parks would lose nearly half of their fee revenue — nearly $2 million.

The Senate Fish and Game Committee will have a hearing on both bills at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 29, in Room 422.

Tourists targeted for infrastructure revenue

The House Taxation Committee will mull whether to allow a sales tax that would help fund local infrastructure projects. House Bill 195 would allow municipalities to impose up to a 2 percent tax on luxury goods and services. The proposal appears to target tourists, since it specifically applies to hotels, rental cars, restaurants, and ski resorts. Essential goods such as groceries, tools, gas, and medical services aren’t included. The sales tax would need to be approved by voters before becoming law.

Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, is sponsoring the bill. Fern introduced a similar bill during the 2017 session; that bill died in committee. The House Tax Committee will hold a hearing on the issue at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 30, in Room 152.

Lawmakers look to honor indigenous people

Indigenous Peoples’ Day could become a state-recognized holiday in Montana. House Bill 219, introduced by Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, would remove Columbus Day from the state’s legal holidays and add Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the day before Thanksgiving. The House State Administration Committee will hear the bill at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 31, in Room 455.

A missing persons bill pays tribute to an indigenous woman who was murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. House Bill 21 would create Hanna’s Act in remembrance of Hanna Harris, a Lame Deer woman who disappeared on July 3, 2013, and was found dead days later.  

Hanna’s Act would create a position for a missing-persons specialist in the Department of Justice. The specialist would investigate and track all of Montana’s missing people, not just members of indigenous communities. The act would also appropriate $100,000 each year from the state General Fund to support Hanna’s Act. Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, is sponsoring the bill. The House Judiciary Committee will hear HB 21 at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 30, in Room 137.

Bill urges feds to secure Montana’s coal exports

Montana has almost one-third of the nation’s recoverable coal reserves, but the state’s coal industry was dealt a blow in 2017 when the state of Washington blocked construction of a port facility that would have shipped Montana coal to foreign markets.

House Joint Resolution 4 would rebuke Washington state for denying a permit to the Millennium Bulk Terminal Port Facility on the Columbia River. It would also urge the federal government to take action, claiming that Washington is violating the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and blocking Montana’s right to foreign trade. The bill calls coal “a critical source of income” to Montana. Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, introduced the resolution. The House Natural Resources Committee will hear HJR 4 at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 30, in Room 172.

Montana considers a carbon tax

In an effort to slow the impacts of climate change, lawmakers are considering a bill that would cut emissions. House Bill 193, brought by Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, would create the Montana Climate Action Act, charging sources that generate large volumes of greenhouse gases a $10 per metric ton tax starting in 2020. The tax would increase by $1 per metric ton each year. The act would also set state carbon-reduction targets. Using 2005 as a baseline, the state would aim to curb its carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2035. By 2050, the state would try to reduce emissions by 50 percent.

Montana is expected to generate nearly 20 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2020, which could create $229 million in state revenue in 2021 if the carbon tax is approved. The House Taxation Committee will have a hearing on HB 193 at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 31, in Room 152.

Leia is an award-winning journalist who has covered the environment and public policy in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.