A former water tower in San Jose which has been converted into a cell tower. Cables and cellular antennas/tranceivers cover the tower, which still displays the Mariani Fruit Packing Company's logo. Credit: Will Buckner/flickr

HELENA — The transmittal deadline for general bills has passed, meaning most legislation that remains is one step closer to becoming law. It also means work is piling up for lawmakers at the Montana Capitol. They will hear more than 150 bills in committees over the next six days.

Medicaid expansion, “real meat,” warrants for wildlife wardens, invasive species, and cell phone tower radiation are among the hot topics for Week 10 of the 2019 Montana Legislative Session.

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

Democrats’ Medicaid expansion bill gets its first hearing

Medicaid expansion became the defining issue of the 66th Legislature before the session even began. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, signed the Montana HELP Act into law in 2015. In the years since, the act enabled thousands of low-income state residents to enroll in health coverage, but it’s set to sunset this summer. Voters rejected a ballot initiative in November that would have extended the program and funded it with a tobacco tax. Now the fate of Medicaid expansion is in the hands of lawmakers.

House Bill 425 would leave the HELP Act largely intact and make Medicaid expansion permanent. Democrat Rep. Mary Caferro of Helena is carrying the bill, but Republicans hold a majority in the Legislature. It is unclear whether Caferro’s bill has enough bipartisan support to pass. HB 425 will have its first hearing in the House Human Services Committee at 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 16, in Room 152.

Meanwhile, Republicans are working on Medicaid expansion legislation of their own. The bill with the most buzz is sponsored by Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, and will likely include work requirements, or “community engagement requirements,” and language that would charge a fee for people with property assets over a certain level. Buttrey has yet to formally introduce his bill, but the April 1 transmittal deadline is approaching fast, which means he has only a few weeks to get it through hearings and debate on the House floor.

As of Feb. 1, Medicaid expansion covered 96,182 low-income Montanans.

To learn more about views of Medicaid from both sides of the aisle, listen to the Montana Lowdown podcast’s “Two Visions for Medicaid Expansion” episode.

Bill makes stateline boat inspections mandatory to stop aquatic hitchhikers

Aquatic invasive species are a top concern for fish and wildlife officials in Montana. One of the biggest fears for the Montana Invasive Species Council is zebra or quagga mussels infestation. The bivalves latch themselves to hard surfaces and wreak havoc on hydropower, irrigation and water treatment infrastructure. They also filter particles out of water, which can alter water quality and harm native species. Invasive mussels have spread throughout North America, often traveling to new water bodies as larvae in the ballasts of boats. If they take hold in Montana, the Invasive Species Council estimates it could cost $234 million each year to cover mitigation efforts and lost tourism revenue.

House Bill 608 looks to keep out-of-state aquatic invaders at bay. The bill mandates inspection and decontamination of all boats with ballasts and bladders that enter Montana or cross the Continental Divide into the Columbia River Basin. The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks would charge $50 to decontaminate boats. A fiscal note estimates around 2,000 boats will need decontamination each year if the bill becomes law.

Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, is carrying HB 608. The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the bill at 3 p.m. on Monday, March 11, in Room 172.

Lawmaker wants to reel in game warden authority

Game wardens help enforce Montana’s fish and wildlife laws. If a warden suspects someone of poaching, current law allows the officer to search tents, vehicles, boats, lockers, game bags or fish creels without a warrant.

House Bill 348 would bring wardens in line with other law enforcement agencies. Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, is sponsoring the bill. During a House hearing last month, he said that he believes most wardens behave respectfully, but the legislation is necessary to prevent over-zealous officers from violating citizens’ rights.

“We want our game wardens to be able to do their jobs, but we must ensure our rights as a free society,” Noland said. “Getting a proper search warrant will guide our wardens and restrict an overbearing, ambitious warden from abusing his power.”

Cell phones and wireless technology allow officers to obtain warrants quickly in the field. While no one spoke in opposition of the bill during last month’s hearing, Ron Jendro with the Enforcement Division of Fish, Wildlife and Parks noted that around half the time, wardens are in remote or backcountry areas with no cell service for electronic warrants.

The House approved HB 348 with only three “no” votes. It now moves to the Senate Fish and Game Committee, which will hold a hearing on the bill at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, in Room 422.

Resolution raises concerns about 5G technology

Faster wireless technology is making its way to Montana, but some lawmakers are sounding the alarm about potential health risks.

Cell towers emit radiofrequency radiation, and the science on the towers’ impacts on human health remains murky. As reported by Vox in November 2018, the best available research found cell tower radiation doesn’t cause brain tumors, but there isn’t enough data to call those findings conclusive. And because cell phone technology keeps changing, it’s difficult to study impacts on fertility and on cancer risk to children. Even the Centers for Disease Control hasn’t reached a verdict on cell phone dangers. On the other hand, rates of brain cancer in the U.S. have dipped slightly since the 1990s, even as cell phone technology has become more pervasive.

What tech experts and lawmakers do know is that the kickoff of 5G means more cell towers, since 5G towers are small and can be attached to things like streetlights and traffic signals.

House Joint Resolution 13 is meant to stem a problem Rep. David Dunn, R-Kalispell, sees looming.

“As a citizen of this great nation, I’ve become increasingly upset by the absolute control the telecom industry has over our federal government,” Dunn said last month during a hearing in the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee.

Dunn points to section 704 of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that prevents local governments from regulating where cell phone towers are placed on the basis of environmental radio frequency concerns. HJ 13 urges the U.S. Congress to amend the act and to consider the potential health risks of small 5G cell towers in residential areas.

Lobbyists with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association spoke in opposition of the resolution. A 5G network is necessary to meet the demands of data-gobbling apps and streaming video, they said.

“The FCC goes through a very extensive process before they approve devices,” said Margaret Morgan, a lobbyist with T-Mobile. “Patchwork regulation between states or local governments hinders the opportunity for [companies] to provide affordable services, and certainly the expansion of service customers are wanting.”

HJ 13 passed in the House with 62 “yes” votes.

The Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee will hear the resolution at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, in Room 317.

Act separating “real meat” from lab-grown meat gains steam

Lab-grown meat is among the slew of evolving technologies lawmakers are mulling this session.

Scientists are now able to culture animal cells and produce beef, pork and poultry without slaughtering animals. While those products aren’t commercially available, they’re earning support from activists supporting humane livestock treatment while inducing an “ick” factor in some meat consumers.

“Picture this: Cows grazing on a mountain meadow … then that juicy steak on the grill,” said Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, while presenting House Bill 327 to the House Agriculture Committee last month. “Or picture this burger, or whatever you may call it, coming from a warehouse full of petri dishes.”

Redfield’s bill, dubbed the “Real Meat Act,” calls those lab-grown products “meat” in concept only and requires cell-cultured products to be labeled. It also narrowly defines “hamburger” and “ground beef” as food coming from real livestock.

“We’re not trying to stop this business,” Redfield said. “They can call it ‘healthy protein.’ They can call it lots of glamourous things. They just cannot call it ‘meat.’”

The Real Meat Act sailed out of the House with 86 “yes” votes. The Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee will hold the next hearing on the bill at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, in Room 335.

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.