Credit: Chad Harder

Though there are five issues before voters on the 2020 ballot, Montanans are effectively voting on only two changes to state policy: whether local governments can pass gun laws, and the legalization of adult-use marijuana.

LR-130: RESTRICTING LOCAL AUTHORITY TO REGULATE GUNS 

LR-130 is a referendum to ban local governments in Montana from implementing laws regulating firearms, including laws restricting the carrying of concealed weapons and the sale of firearms to felons, the mentally ill, undocumented immigrants and children. The referendum was referred to voters by the Montana Legislature after a similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock at the end of the 2019 session. The governor cannot veto a voter-approved referendum.

The bill and referendum were a response to the city of Missoula’s 2016 passage of a requirement for universal background checks on all gun sales, even those between private parties.

Missoula’s law was thrown out by the Montana Supreme Court last year, and proponents of LR-130 say it will “prevent a patchwork of restrictions by local governments across the state,” according to the bill’s description. The committee backing the measure, the NRA Big Sky Self-Defense Committee, received all of the $16,000 it has raised from the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association.

According to campaign finance reports from the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, opponents of the initiative have far outraised supporters, with nearly $800,000 coming from the political action committee of the state’s largest union, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents primarily teachers and government employees. Another $100,000 came from Everytown for Gun Safe Action Fund, the lobbying arm of the national gun safety nonprofit funded by billionaire and former presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg.

Opponents claim the initiative denies local governments the freedom to pass laws preventing gun violence.

You can read the initiative’s ballot language here.

I-190 and CI-118: LEGALIZING MARIJUANA

To legalize marijuana in Montana, voters will have to pass two related measures. I-190 would provide the actual legalization and regulatory system for adult-use marijuana in the state, while CI-118 adds a few words to the state Constitution to fix a regulatory hurdle. As it stands, the Montana Constitution deems a person to be a legal adult at age 18 for all purposes except the purchasing of alcohol, which requires a person to be 21. New Approach Montana, the group backing legalizing marijuana, proposes a marijuana purchasing age of 21 in I-190, and so to prevent a constitutional challenge, voters will have to amend the Constitution, by approving CI-118, to say that the state can set the “legal age for purchasing, consuming, or possessing alcoholic beverages and marijuana.” Both initiatives must pass for adult-use marijuana to be legalized.

New Approach Montana is affiliated with the New Approach PAC, a national nonprofit funded by liberal philanthropic groups that has spent millions of dollars supporting drug reform laws nationwide. New Approach PAC has donated nearly $2 million to New Approach Montana to support marijuana legalization in Montana, but the bulk of NAM’s money comes from North Fund, a dark money nonprofit organization founded in December 2018 that does not publicly disclose its funders. North Fund has given nearly $5 million dollars to New Approach Montana, and Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan wants to reclassify the group from an incidental committee, which does not have to disclose donors, to an independent committee, which is required to disclose donors. North Fund appealed Mangan’s decision on Sept. 30. Mangan requested more information from North Fund on Oct. 6, and as of Oct. 12 is awaiting the group’s reply.

Opposition to the initiatives comes from Wrong for Montana, a committee set up by Billings auto dealer Steve Zabawa, who led opposition to the resuscitation of Montana’s medical marijuana program in 2016. Zabawa has filed a campaign finance complaint with the COPP echoing the state watchdog’s request that North Fund disclose its donors. According to campaign finance records, most of Wrong for Montana’s nearly $80,000 in funding has come from the Montana Family Foundation and the Montana Contractors Association, and has been spent on anti-legalization billboards across Montana.

I-190’s proposed marijuana legalization program would require the Montana Department of Revenue to regulate adult-use marijuana under a system similar to the one currently used by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services to regulate medical marijuana. State revenues from a 20% tax on recreational marijuana would be split, with half going to accounts for wildlife and parks and recreation, and the other half apportioned between the state general fund, drug treatment programs, enforcement of new marijuana regulations, veterans’ programs and raises for state-employed health care workers. A study by The University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research calculates $236 million in new tax revenue by 2026 if I-190 and CI-118 pass.

You can read the full ballot language of I-190 here. The ballot language of CI-118 is here

C-46 and C-47: UPDATING OUTDATED CONSTITUTIONAL LANGUAGE

The purpose of the two most confusing measures on the ballot, C-46 and C-47, is simple, though the reason they’re in front of voters is not. Both are constitutional amendments referred to voters by the Legislature, which passed them nearly unanimously. The amendments would update language in the Montana Constitution to accurately reflect a court decision regarding requirements for signatures collected to qualify citizen initiatives and constitutional amendments on the ballot. 

C-46 and C-47 would not change current law, but rather would clarify the letter of existing law. 

The background: In 2002, Montana voters passed constitutional amendment initiatives referred by the Legislature that introduced a requirement that a percentage of all signatures be gathered from at least half of Montana’s 56 counties, meaning initiative promoters could no longer collect the necessary signatures solely from cities, where support for progressive measures such as marijuana legalization is often concentrated. Other Western states with Republican legislative majorities and traditionally strong public initiative laws have passed similar laws. In 2005, Montana’s was struck down in federal court as unconstitutional for allocating equal power to counties of unequal population. That resulted in the restoration of Montana’s previous geographic distribution requirements for signatures, based on legislative districts instead of counties.But the ruling didn’t actually change the wording of the state Constitution, and the unconstitutional county-based requirements from 2002 have remained the letter of the law for years. C-46 and C-47 update the Constitution to reflect that signature requirements for ballot measures employ a legislative district-based system, not a county-based system.

There is no organized support or opposition to the measures.

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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.