The vote panel on a lawmaker’s desk in the Montana House of Representatives. Credit: JOHN S. ADAMS / MTFP

HELENA — The Montana Legislature is about to hit its hump day — on Saturday, March 2, the session is officially halfway through. Lawmakers will discuss a slew of hot-button issues in the week ahead, including sales tax, corporate media ownership, campaign mailers, surprise medical bills, and international trade wars. Here’s what to keep an eye on for Week 8.

Legislators continue the crusade against misleading campaign mailers

An old version of Montana Code required campaign mailers that attack a candidate’s voting record to provide more specific information, including the candidate’s contrasting votes “on the same issue if closely related in time,” and a signed statement declaring the accuracy of the opponent’s votes. In 2012, a district court found those provisions constitutionally vague. Montana legislators have tried multiple times in the years since to revive the law while making sure it’s enforceable.

This session, Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, tried to bring back the campaign mailer disclosures with House Bill 139. Her bill removed the sections of code deemed unconstitutional, then added sections requiring a mailer that attacks a candidate to provide context on where and when quotes were made. When attacking voting records, the mailers would have been required to print where and when the vote was made and the short title of the bill or resolution.

“We see a glut of mailers and advertisements during the campaign season that seem either false or misleading, and we never know what they’re based on,” Dudik said. “As a candidate, I’ve been attacked with untrue information, and there’s no way for voters to know what the truth is.”

Dudik’s bill failed to garner enough votes on the House floor and died there.

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, has since introduced Senate Bill 284, which would remove the same unconstitutional sections and require similar context on voting records for mailers. It doesn’t, however, include requirements about candidates’ statements. SB 284 has been dinged with a legal review note. Legislative attorneys point out that, as with past mailer disclosure efforts, the bill could be challenged in court for violating the freedom of speech. But Gross’s bill also includes a lengthy preamble — it has 22 “whereas” clauses making the bill’s case, should those future legal challenges materialize.

“I think it’s important the ‘whereas’ clauses are there so the body knows we’re addressing issues that have arisen in the courts, and so we’re clear about legislative intent,” Gross said. “[We] have to show there’s a compelling state interest that’s narrowly tailored.”

The Senate State Administration Committee will hear SB 284 at 3 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, in Room 335.

Lawmaker wants newspapers to report their corporate owners

When Lee Enterprises bought the Missoula Independent in 2017, then shut down the weekly a year and a half later, it perturbed Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan.

“I’m not a fan of the Missoula Independent. I’m pretty conservative, but it’s one you love to hate,” Read said. “I did like to read it because it gave me a whole different perspective. Now Missoula only has one paper, and only one voice.”

Read said he’s troubled by out-of-state ownership of newspapers in the state, and he’s especially concerned about Lee. The company, headquartered in Iowa, owns five of Montana’s 10 largest papers, including the Billings Gazette, the Missoulian, the Montana Standard, the Helena Independent Record, and the Ravalli Republic.

“I want people to know the paper they’re reading is not locally owned,” Read said.

He’s carrying House Bill 504, which would require any newspaper, magazine, broadcasting company or other communication company owned by a “foreign corporation” to identify where its main headquarters is located. Montana code defines foreign corporations as for-profit companies that incorporate under laws other than Montana’s, including in other states and American Indian tribes.

If HB 504 passes, those companies would have to post their corporate headquarters on the front page or cover of their publications in 48-point font. They’d also need to prominently post that information on their websites.

While the bill targets a broad range of media corporations, Read said he specifically had newspapers in mind when drafting HB 504.

Matt Gibson, executive director of the Montana Newspaper Association, said the association opposes the bill.

“The bill appears to single out a particular industry or group of news sources — media — for a regulation that doesn’t appear to serve any substantive purpose,” Gibson said. “As far as I can tell, the purpose is to stigmatize those [media] owners.”

Gibson formerly owned the Missoula Independent, but sold the publication to Lee Enterprises.

The House State Administration Committee will hold a hearing on HB 504 at 8 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, in Room 455.

Two resolutions highlight the importance of trade with neighboring nations

President Donald Trump made trade one of the signature issues of his administration. He imposed steel and aluminum tariffs, prompting retaliatory tariffs from nations like China and Canada. In November, the president re-negotiated the terms of NAFTA with leaders from Mexico and Canada. The new treaty, called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, offers stronger protections for workers, opens up Canada’s dairy market, and changes some trade provisions for automakers.

Congress has yet to ratify the new trade deal, however, and the trade war drags on.  

Senate Joint Resolution 13 affirms the Montana Legislature’s support for USMCA. It also implores Mexico and Canada to end retaliatory tariffs, and urges Trump to lift the steel and aluminum tariffs he slapped on those nations.

Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, is sponsoring the bill. The Senate State Administration Committee will hold a hearing on SJ 13 at 3 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, in Room 335.

Meanwhile, House Joint Resolution 22 honors Montana’s “outstanding” trade relationship with Canada and recognizes the importance of military cooperation between the two countries. The resolution makes no mention of Mexico. Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, is carrying the measure. The Energy, Technology, and Federal Relations Committee will hold a hearing on the bill also at 3 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, in Room 472.

Bill aims to help Montanans avoid surprise medical costs

A bill introduced by Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, is designed to increase transparency around medical billing, making it easier for patients and their representatives to request information about how much procedures will cost.

Among other provisions, House Bill 499 would require medical providers to inform patients of their right to request a written estimate of charges for procedures, including information about which insurance networks the providers participate in. Hospitals and doctors would also have to give patients the opportunity to opt out of using out-of-network providers, who can charge at higher rates.

The bill is set for an initial hearing in front of the House Human Services Committee at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, in Room 152.

Another sales tax measure gets its day in committee

Legislators have already scuttled multiple sales tax measures aimed at helping high-tourism communities handle the influx of visitors, but another one is getting its day in committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, House Bill 435 would let voters in “tourist impact zones” near national parks create a sales tax of up to 4 percent. The tax would be limited to luxury items and tourism-related businesses including lodging, restaurants, ski resorts, outfitters and art galleries. Between 25 and 50 percent of the revenue would go to reducing local property taxes.

Earlier in the session, Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, pitched a measure that would have let local governments ask voters to approve a luxury goods sales tax to help with infrastructure costs. Another measure, by Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, would have provided for a local tax option on accommodations and rental vehicles in high tourism areas. Both measures died in committee. A bill by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, to replace most state property taxes with a sales tax had a hearing in the House Taxation Committee on Feb. 6 and was still awaiting a committee vote as of Feb. 22.

Bishop’s bill is set for an initial hearing in front of the House Taxation Committee at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 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.