A field of industrial hemp. Credit: ADOBE STOCK

The clock is running down on the legislative session, with some lawmakers hoping it will run out before late bills create any more holes in the budget. This week, committees will see bills on biometric data privacy, on the deregulation of the cottage animal treat business, on the public’s right to know about the state settling lawsuits, on slashing income taxes for veteran pensions, and on the regulation of hemp farming.

Hemp bill burns through both houses

A bill allowing the Montana Department of Agriculture to certify hemp growing looks poised to become law after passing committee and floor votes in both houses almost unanimously.

Although hemp has been listed as a federally illegal drug under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, the 2018 farm bill legalized industrial hemp farming nationwide. Senate Bill 176, sponsored by Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, would create a regulatory environment for hemp to be grown in Montana the same as any other crop.

“We’re a step ahead of the rest of the states by doing certification,” said Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, during the bill’s second reading in the House.

Another hemp bill sponsored by Jacobson, which would remove the criminal background check required to grow hemp, is also progressing through the Legislature.

SB 176 is scheduled for a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Monday, April 8, at 3 p.m. in Hearing Room 102.

Public right to know about government settling lawsuits

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, says a House bill of his now before the Senate would require the state to disclose legal settlements paid out by the state government.

Under House Bill 532, 20 years of information on any public money paid out in the compromise or settlement of a claim and in employment-related claims would be displayed on a public website

“We need to ensure there is a clarity and understanding about what it is that’s leading to those claims and the resolution of them,” Mercer said during a March floor session

Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, opposed the bill on the House floor on March 29.

She said the bill, which came out of the Joint Select Committee for Settlement Accountability, is “a solution looking for a problem.”

She also said the bill threatens to criminalize state employees.

“If you like to expand government and give the Department of Administration a lot of power to settle all claims against the government, then pass this bill, because that’s what it does. It also criminalizes employees, like the staff who are supposed to be entering information, and makes them guilty of a misdemeanor if they do a typo or are a day late in entering information,” Dudik said on the House floor.

HB 532 is scheduled for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, April 11, at 9 a.m. in Room 303.

No income tax for military pensions

Rep. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, says the state budget would not be affected by House Bill 130, his proposed exemption of military veterans’ pensions from state income tax.

According to the U.S. Census, Montana has the second largest percentage of veterans in the state. The governor’s budget office calculated that Fuller’s tax breaks would reduce the state general fund budget for 2020 by $16.5 million, rising to $18.5 million by 2023. After being rewritten in committee to phase in the tax breaks over 5 years, a more recent prediction by the budget office estimates general fund reductions of $1.6 million in 2020 and $7.4 million by 2023.

Fuller disagreed with that assessment, stating in a rebuttal that the increased GDP for retired military personnel would contribute to the budget through other taxes, outweighing the tax cut.

Fuller said before a House floor vote on his bill that he intends HB 130 to attract more retired veterans to Montana, arguing that similar cuts have been done in other states, and are a determining factor in where veterans choose to live.

Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, said before the vote that she supports the concept of the bill but that this late in the session, the budget couldn’t afford it.

“We also heard that there’s a lot of other states that are doing this, so I don’t see how this will necessarily attract more people. We know that people move to states for reasons other than the tax breaks that they get,” Kerr-Carpenter said.

HB 130 is scheduled for a Senate Taxation Committee hearing on Tuesday, April 9 at 8 a.m. in Room 405.

Catfight over dog treats

Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, says a fellow graduate from Havre Public Schools started a successful animal treat business, but overburdensome regulations stifled small businesses like hers.

Bachmeier’s proposed solution is House Bill 607, which would exempt smaller treat businesses from some fees while maintaining regulatory oversight.

Before a March floor vote, Bachmeier called it the best constituent bill he’s ever been asked to carry. He said he worked on it for months with a former classmate and the Department of Agriculture. Bachmeier says HB 607 could affect up to 300 small treat providers in the state, and that other states are looking at it as a model.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Whitefish, said during a floor hearing that having small treat providers self-attest to the ingredients in their products was not enough regulation.

“Which agency is gonna go around and check these folks,” he said. “This is an easy no.”

Bachmeier said the ingredients must still be listed and sent to the Department of Agriculture.

HB 607 passed the House 59-40, and is scheduled for a Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee hearing on Tuesday, April 9 at 3 p.m. in Room 335.

Biometric data privacy

There are currently no federal laws governing what companies can do with the biometric data of their consumers, such as fingerprints, retinal scans, DNA and facial recognition. Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, wants Montanans to have stronger ownership over their biometric data and privacy protections.

House Bill 645, sponsored by Sullivan, would establish consumer protections for such data, requiring companies to comply with consent laws to inform Montanans when they are acquiring their biometric data, to ensure they protect it, and to prevent them from selling it, as they can now.

“You only have one biometric identifier on your body. It’s not like a social security number. If it is hacked or stolen, that’s it for you. You can’t get another one. You can’t replace it,” Sullivan said during a March House Judiciary Meeting.

Rose Feliciano, a representative of the Internet Association, an industry association representing the world’s largest tech companies, spoke in opposition to the bill. Feliciano said the bill’sits definitions were imprecise and overbroad and could confuse consumers and interfere in business.

HB 645 cleared House committee and floor votes and will have its first Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, April 9 at 9 a.m. 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.