A grizzly bear at Yellowstone National Park. Credit: National Park Service/flickr

HELENA — Lawmakers will take on prescription drug abuse, pregnant inmates, betting on old horse races, grizzly bears and a slew of other topics in their sixth week of the 2019 Montana Legislative Session.

All committee hearings are open to the public, and anyone can comment in favor or opposition to a bill. Alternatively, committee hearings can be streamed live on the Montana Legislative Branch website.

Here’s our pick of five topics to follow this week, with two bonus bills.

DOJ looks to put the brakes on substance abuse

Montana law enforcement officials will rally in support of two bills addressing prescription drugs.

House Bill 86 requires a patient to show a photo ID before picking up prescriptions. It places a seven-day limit on first-time opioid prescriptions. That limitation wouldn’t apply to chronic pain patients. The bill also requires doctors to use the Montana Prescription Drug Registry, with the goal of preventing patients from “doctor shopping,” according to John Barnes with the Montana Department of Justice. DOJ requested the bill, and Rep. Vince Ricci, R-Laurel, is carrying it.

Attorney General Tim Fox will speak in support of HB 86 during a hearing in the Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Safety Committee on Monday, Jan. 11. The hearing is scheduled at 2:30 p.m. in Room 317.

Also on Monday, the Montana Highway Patrol will hold a demonstration in support of a bill overhauling the state’s DUI laws. Senate Bill 65 requires a blood test for a DUI suspect who refuses a breathalyzer, increases the penalties for DUI offenders, and eliminates a 10-year “lookback” for previous DUI offenses.

Under current law, if a driver gets a DUI but does not re-offend for 10 years, that first DUI isn’t counted in subsequent convictions. The Governor’s Office of Budget and Policy Planning expects the amount of second and subsequent DUI offenses will grow by 10 percent if SB 65 goes into effect. The bill does not change the state’s current blood-alcohol limit of .08 percent for non-commercial drivers.

SB 65 had its first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 22, but has yet to see a vote. Montana Highway Patrol will hold a “wet lab” for committee members at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 11.

“In order to dispel certain myths that often hinder DUI reform, the wet lab event will aim to demonstrate that 1) a .08 blood alcohol level is impaired, and 2) having one or two standard-sized drinks with a meal over the course of an hour or so will not bring most to the .08 limit,” Barnes said in an email.

Barnes said the wet lab will be a “scientific and controlled process,” and that participants won’t be allowed to leave the Capitol without a designated driver or without blowing a zero on a breathalyzer test.

Bill establishes rights for pregnant inmates

Montana has almost twice as many incarcerated women than the national average, according to a 2013 report by the ACLU of Montana. About 6 percent of those women are pregnant.

House Bill 375 would create standards of care for expectant women in detention centers and state prisons. Female inmates 12 to 50 years old would be offered a pregnancy test on admission. Pregnant women would receive routine prenatal care and access to nutrition. Pregnant inmates with opioid abuse problems would have access to treatment. The bill bars the use of restraints on a pregnant inmate during labor and delivery. It also addresses postpartum treatment and breastfeeding.

Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, is carrying the bill. HB 375 will have its first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 12, in Room 137.

Montana lawmakers bet on historical horse racing

A trailblazing type of gambling could come to Montana in the next few years. Senate Bill 183 would authorize historical horse racing games in the state starting in July 2021. Historical horse betting uses video gambling machines. The bill allows pari-mutuel betting, where players pool their bets and top winning competitors take the pot, with a percentage going to the house.

Players bet on the winning horses of more than 100,000 races. The dates of the races, names of the horses and locations aren’t included, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Wyoming is one of a handful of states where historical horse race betting is legal.  

Five-hundred historical horse racing machines could generate more than $137 million annually in Montana, according to a fiscal note from the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning. One percent of that revenue would go to the Montana Board of Horseracing. The board would also receive $240 in licensing revenue per machine. Those funds would be channeled to help boost Montana’s horse racing industry by building and maintaining tracks and upping the bonuses for horse trainers and breeders.

SB 183 was requested by Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, and is sponsored by Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell. The bill will have its first hearing in the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 13, in Room 422.

Winter roads could get less salty

Montana Department of Transportation clears snow and slush from 25,000 miles of highway each winter. Spreaders drop magnesium and sodium chloride — salts — to prevent slick conditions, but that salt eventually melts off roads and runs into Montana streams and soils. Those salts aren’t biodegradable, and they can impact vegetation, groundwater and fish.

The department currently drops more than 9 million gallons of chloride-based deicers each year.

Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, is carrying a bill that could help save both the environment and cars from road salt corrosion. Senate Bill 117 would reduce the amount of chloride deicers used by highway crews by 10 percent each year, either over the next 10 years or until only 6.3 million gallons of the chemicals are applied annually.

Implementing the bill wouldn’t be cheap. The department would have to phase-in more liquid potassium acetate instead, which would cost more than $16 million in the 2021 biennium and $27 million in the 2023 biennium, according to a fiscal note.

Brown has brought the road salt bill to the Legislature in sessions since 2013 without success, but she signaled her optimism last month in the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee.

“Each session, I get more traction with this bill,” she joked at the hearing.

SB 117 passed favorably out of that committee on Jan. 29. It now moves to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, which will have a hearing at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, in Room 303.

Proposed resolution urges Congress to take action on Montana-area grizzly bears

When a federal judge put Yellowstone-area grizzly bears back on the endangered species list last fall, it continued a swirl of conflict among wildlife advocates, Native American Tribes, hunters, Yellowstone locals and some state lawmakers.

Montana includes all or part of four grizzly bear recovery zones, created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993.

Last June, former Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke signaled he’d remove federal protections and allow grizzly hunting in the Greater Yellowstone zone. But wildlife advocates filed a lawsuit, arguing the Yellowstone bears don’t mix with more robust populations near the U.S.-Canada border. The federal court agreed, ruling delisting left Yellowstone grizzlies at risk.

Senate Joint Resolution 6 urges Montana’s Congressional Delegation to delist all grizzly bears in the state. The draft resolution argues that enough genetic interchange exists among Montana’s other grizzly recovery zones that they should be considered a “large interbreeding distinct population.” The resolution also argues that both the North Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone grizzly recovery zones have met their recovery goals.

Under the Endangered Species Acts, listed animals are managed by the federal government. Delisting Montana’s grizzly bears would return management of the animals back to the state and open the possibility of grizzly hunting.

The Senate Fish and Game Committee will hear SJ 6 at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, in Room 422.

BONUS: Liquor and hemp make another appearance

Last week, a Senate committee considered two bills looking to boost Montana’s industrial hemp industry. This week, the House will mull a bill looking to boost the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, allowed in Montana hemp. THC is the psychoactive chemical that causes a high.

House Bill 381 would bump the THC limit from .3 percent to 3 percent. The bill would also put Montana’s hemp production in conflict with federal law. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp production in the U.S., but any products with more than .3 percent THC are still illegal controlled substances. Rep. David Dunn, R-Kalispell, is sponsoring HB 381. The House Agriculture Committee will hear the bill at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 12.

The Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee also passed a bill about liquor last week, which would change a micro-distillery’s production cap from 25,000 gallons to 200,000 gallons.

In the House, a lawmaker is looking to boost the volume of samples and bottles those businesses can sell. Unlike larger liquor producers, micro-distilleries can sell drinks and samples onsite. House Bill 362 would double the volume of alcohol allowed per customer, bumping it to four ounces. The bill would also allow small distillers to sell nine liters of spirits to a customer, changing the current limit of 1.75 liters.  

The House Business and Labor Committee will hear HB 362 at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 13, in Room 172.

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.