HELENA — With the 2019 Montana Legislature past its midpoint, much of lawmakers’ activity has shifted from hearing proposals for the first time to taking second, third or even fourth looks at measures that received enough support to clear initial procedural hurdles.

Lawmakers still have plenty of work on their plate going into the week of March 18, including a bill that would clarify the definition of sexual consent, another to make a higher education property tax permanent, and another to revise the legal definition of stalking among others. Legislators will also discuss a resolution that would protest the American Prairie Reserve, and a bill that would put an anti-abortion question before Montana voters.

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.

Bill would make it easier to prosecute stalking

Senate Bill 114, sponsored by Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, would broaden Montana’s legal definition of criminal stalking.

“We need to bring the statute up to date to address some of the technological realities we see today and place the focus on offender conduct,” Gross said on the Senate floor last month.

In a fiscal analysis of the bill, the state Office of Public Defender estimates the change would double the number of felony and misdemeanor stalking cases charged in Montana each year, costing the state an additional $292,000 in legal defense fees.

The bill would also make child sex abuse and human trafficking victims eligible to file for protective orders. Victims of assault and stalking already have access to those protections.

SB 114 passed the Senate on a 39-11 vote Feb. 22. It is set for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in Room 137 at 8 a.m. Monday, March 18.

Anti-abortion measure moves forward with slim prospects

A bill that would put an anti-abortion constitutional amendment on the Montana ballot in 2020 is moving forward, even though its odds of reaching voters are slim.

House Bill 302 is sponsored by Rep. Greg DeVries, R-Jefferson City. It would ask Montana voters to amend the Montana Constitution’s “Due Process” clause to specify that it applies “to all members of mankind at any stage of development, beginning at the stage of fertilization or conception.” That language would have the effect of enhancing legal protections for fetuses.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, the measure needs to secure a two-thirds majority among the 150 lawmakers in the combined House and Senate to pass. It secured 56 votes in the House Feb. 15, meaning 45 of the state’s 50 senators would need to endorse it to put it on the ballot — an unlikely prospect in a chamber where Democrats control 20 seats.

The measure will be heard next in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Room 303 at 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 19.

Bills would clarify Montana’s definition of sexual consent

Sponsored by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, Senate Bill 261 would add to the list of situations Montana law considers sexual assault or rape.

It would make sexual contact explicitly non-consensual between a law enforcement officer and anyone involved in an investigation: a crime victim, witness or a suspect. It would similarly prohibit sex acts between state child protection service workers and parents involved in child abuse or neglect cases.

The Senate passed SB 261on a 46-4 vote Feb. 27. It is set for its next hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in Room 137 at 8 a.m. Thursday, March 21.

Another pending measure, House Bill 173, would explicitly forbid student-teacher sex even in situations where the student has reached Montana’s age of consent, 16. It passed the House 97-2 and was heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee March 12.

University system could get a pass on decennial tax vote

For decades, Montana voters have gone to the polls every 10 years to reauthorize a property tax measure, the “6-mill levy,” that helps fund the state university system.

Following the levy’s renewal for the seventh time last fall, Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, introduced Senate Bill 152, which would repeal its renewal requirement.

“We don’t need to continue polling the public on this particular issue,” Barrett said on the Senate floor last month.. “The six-mill levy has proven popular consistently over 70 years.”

The measure passed the Senate on a 28-22 vote. It’s now set for its next hearing before the House Taxation Committee in Room 152 at 8 a.m. Thursday, March 21.

Anti-prairie reserve resolution heads to the Senate

A Senate committee will pick up a joint resolution passed by the House that asks the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to deny a proposal by the American Prairie Reserve to graze bison on public rangeland in north-central Montana.

Bozeman-based APR, which says it owns nearly 95,000 acres of land and leases more than 310,000 acres, plans to stitch millions of acres of prairie into a landscape-scale conservation effort. The project has attracted opposition from some neighboring residents, who worry it threatens the future of their ranching lifestyle and have launched a “Save the Cowboy” campaign.

House Joint Resolution 28, sponsored by Rep. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown, backs those critics by taking aim at an APR proposal involving fence removal and year-round bison grazing. Arguing that “the denial of the APR grazing proposal would protect Montana farmers, ranchers, and communities,” it passed the House on a 59-40 vote.

APR representative Pete Geddes called the resolution “deeply flawed” in a statement reported by the Great Falls Tribune.

“We are hopeful the Senate will better recognize this for what it is, an unethical attack on the property rights of a landowner,” Geddes said.

HJ 28 will be heard next by the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee in Room 355 at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 21.

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Eric DietrichDeputy Editor

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.