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A measure introduced late last week by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, that would have directed the Department of Justice to investigate environmental groups is likely dead after a free conference committee voted to strike it from House Bill 693. Among other things, Ankney’s amendment would have empowered the Department of Justice to investigate environmental groups’ membership lists, funding, engagement in political speech, and influence on the government’s regulatory or permitting actions.

On Tuesday, April 27, representatives Bill Mercer, Jimmy Patelis and Emma Kerr-Carpenter met with senators Ryan Osmundson, David Howard and Ryan Lynch to hash out differences between the House and Senate on HB 693, a subsidiary of the Legislature’s broader spending bill, House Bill 2. Within 20 minutes, a handful of amendments had been added or pulled from the bill and the committee voted to approve the bill as amended.

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, said he was concerned that the public didn’t have an opportunity to comment on Ankney’s amendment and that lawmakers who’d spent months working on HB 2 and HB 693 didn’t engage in meaningful discussion about the amendment prior to its introduction.

“I think we need to strike it for process reasons, without getting into a discussion about substance,” he said.

With virtually no further discussion, the committee’s six members unanimously agreed to strike the amendment.

When Ankney introduced the amendment during a Senate Finance and Claims Committee meeting last week, he argued that previous administrations have used a similar process to investigate hospitals to determine whether they were acting in compliance with their charitable obligations. He said his amendment would introduce more transparency to “these environmental groups [that] don’t make anything or sell anything other than their rhetoric.” 

Democrats on the committee questioned if the measure would hold up to a judicial challenge and said they were troubled by the lack of a definition for “environmental organization.” Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, wondered aloud if groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation would be subject to investigation. Ankney replied that was not his intention. Earlier in the meeting he’d said that his bill was directed at investigating groups that target natural resources issues with rhetoric.

“It’s asking the attorney general to make sure they’re in compliance with state law, that’s all it is,” he said. “It’s not burning a witch at the stake.”

Environmental groups cheered the removal of Ankney’s amendment from HB 693 while also expressing trepidation about a similar bill that’s still in play.

“We’re pleased to see that cooler heads prevailed and this dangerous idea didn’t gain further traction,” Sue Beug, a Northern Plains Resource Council board member and Red Lodge resident said in an email to Montana Free Press. “I belong to Northern Plains, a conservation nonprofit, to protect this place I love and to protect the livelihoods of everyone who relies on clean water, clean air and unspoiled landscapes. Everyday people working together to advocate for issues we care about is a cornerstone of democracy; it’s what the Legislature is supposed to be all about, especially in a state like Montana. It’s disappointing that some would seek to abuse their powers to harass and intimidate folks like me, but I appreciate those who put a stop to such foolishness.”

The Montana Environmental Information Center said it appreciated the conference committee’s vote on Ankney’s amendment, but still has concerns about Senate Bill 278, which would mandate that groups challenging government actions turn over donor lists to the attorney general. That bill was also amended by a free conference committee Tuesday and will go back before both chambers for another vote.

“While we’re relieved that the Legislature saw reason and decided to not illegally target groups who are defending our constitutional rights, we’re distressed that bills like Senate Bill 278 are still alive,” said Anne Hedges, MEIC’s director of policy and legislative affairs. “We’re distressed that [the Legislature] is trying to intimidate people from belonging to all sorts of organizations.”

Hedges said SB 278’s definition of nonprofit casts a wide net that includes all kinds of groups, not just environmental ones, including “Mountain States Legal Foundation, the NRA, the Safari Club.”

SB 278 would also classify the payment of legal fees associated with the challenge or support of a government action as business income. “Government action” is broadly defined in the measure to include federal, state and local laws as well as ordinances, rules, regulations and policies. “Other action by a federal, state or local government body or official acting in their official capacity” is also included. 

Both SB 693 and SB 278 are slated to go back before the full House and Senate for another vote. The Legislature is expected to wrap up by the end of this week.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.