Credit: ELIZA WILEY / MTFP File photo

HELENA — April is the final month of this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers are hearing legislation to end suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fees, ban telling people precisely where the best elk are, and let legislators carry pistols on state property. Two other bills aim to study the feasibility of controlling the weather and Native American access to voting.

Hidden pistols for capitol lawmakers only

Senate Bill 304, recently passed by the Senate on party lines, would exempt legislators from a prohibition on carrying concealed pistols on state property, including the capitol. House and Senate sergeants-at-arms and their deputies would also be granted the privilege, but the bill does not extend it to the general public.

The bill would also bar local municipalities from enforcing local ordinances prohibiting senators and representatives from carrying concealed handguns on state property.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, and no proponents spoke in favor during its Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February. Opponents criticized the bill as dangerous and argued it unfairly carved out special privileges for legislators not available to other Montanans. The Senate committee modified the bill to require concealed carry permits.

A similar bill was passed in the 2017 session but was vetoed by Governor Steve Bullock. SB 304 will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, April 3, in Room 137.

A study on making it rain

Fear of drought and low snowpack has led the Legislature to consider studying weather modification, also known as cloud seeding.

There has been effectively no commercial cloud seeding in Montana since 1993, despite weather modification programs in North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and Alberta. According to the North American Weather Modification Council, spraying clouds with chemicals such as silver iodide increases precipitation, which in the winter adds to the snowpack for spring melt, and in warmer seasons can help farmers by reducing hail and drought. Scientists say there’s no consensus on how well cloud seeding works.

In 1993, the Montana Legislature passed a law requiring anyone looking to seed clouds to put up a $10 million surety bond to cover possible damages. That law was in response to a lawsuit brought by Montana against North Dakota. Montana farmers felt that North Dakota, which had been seeding clouds on the Montana side of the border, was stealing their water during drought. The judge in the case found in favor of North Dakota.

House Joint Resolution 40, introduced by Representative Ray Shaw, R-Sheridan, would commission an interim legislative study for presentation at the 2021 legislative session. The resolution has its first hearing in the House Agriculture Committee at 3 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, in Room 137.

Protecting fair chase by banning sales of hunting information

A bill to prohibit the advertising or sale of information allowing a hunter to locate a game animal has reached the House after near-unanimous approval in the Senate.

Senate Bill 127 is sponsored by Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, who said during a Senate Fish and Game Committee hearing that technological advancement threatens the equal opportunity of hunters to hunt game through fair chase.

The bill would require up to six months in jail or up to a $1,000 fine for advertising or selling “geographical coordinates of the location of the animal or any maps, drawings, illustrations, or other documents that show the location of the animal; and photographs, drawings, descriptions, or other information that identify the animal.” Hunting, fishing and trapping licenses would also be forfeited.

The law would not apply to landowners on their own property or licensed outfitters and guides.

SB 127 passed the Senate 43-7. Its first hearing with the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee is at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, April 2 in Room 172.

Studying barriers to voting for Montana tribal communities

In October 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that North Dakota could continue to require that voter IDs include a street address. The state’s Indian tribes say that ruling disenfranchised them, since many tribal communities rely on post office boxes and lack street addresses.

Sen. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, said those problems bring up questions for Montana too, especially if the state moves to an all-mail ballot system as has been proposed in past sessions. Doane introduced House Joint Resolution 10 in January, which would require the State-Tribal Relations Committee to conduct an interim study on barriers to voting by Montana’s Native Americans.

The interim study would examine Montana’s existing deadlines and voting procedures, including “requirements for physical addresses and identification.”

The bill also proposes the involvement of stakeholders, such as election administrators and representatives from Montana’s tribal nations, in the study.

HJ 10 passed easily through House committee and floor votes, and is scheduled for its first Senate State Administration Committee Hearing at 3 p.m. on Monday, April 4, in Room 335.

Prohibiting suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fees

If you ignore traffic violations in Montana, you get slapped with fines that show up in the mail. Ignore those and the court will eventually threaten to suspend your driver’s license. If you ignore these warnings and are pulled over, an officer might inform you your license has been suspended, and you will be arrested.

Groups like the Montana Magistrates Association claim suspending a license is a punishment of last resort for those who don’t pay their fines and serves as a wake-up call. That is why they are opposing a bill, House Bill 217, to prohibit license suspension for non-payment of fines and restitution.

Proponents of the bill, including low-income and civil liberties groups, say suspending licenses is counterproductive because it becomes impossible to legally get to work to make the money to pay back fees.

“It seems like common sense; if you want somebody to pay their bills, you won’t take away their ability to get to work,” said sponsor Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, according to KPAX News.

The bill would also allow those with licenses suspended for nonpayment to petition the court to reinstate their driving privileges. HB 217 cleared the House in March, and is scheduled for a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, April 2, in Room 303.

Hunter Pauli is a Seattle-born, Missoula-based freelance investigative reporter and a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.You can follow Hunter on Twitter.