HELENA — The Montana Legislature is now well into the second half of its 68th session, and lawmakers are starting to take a closer look at proposals to amend the state constitution.
When the Republican Party took a 102-seat supermajority in the Legislature last year, it gave them the power to propose changes to the Montana Constitution without support from Democrats. So, it was widely expected that amendments would become a big topic at this year’s session.
For a constitutional amendment to move forward in the Legislature, it has to receive 100 votes between the House and Senate – two-thirds of all lawmakers. After that, it goes before Montana voters on the next general election ballot.
The House is directing all amendment proposals to the House Judiciary Committee. They’ve already held hearings on four this week.
“Anytime we can give the opportunity to the people to be able to decide, I’m all for that,” said Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County, during a Wednesday hearing on House Bill 551.
HB 551, sponsored by Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, would expand the constitutional right to bear arms – removing a section currently in the state constitution that says “nothing herein contained shall be held to permit the carrying of concealed weapons." The Legislature already allowed permitless concealed carry in 2021, and this change would incorporate that policy into the constitution.
Other bills up for hearings this week include House Bill 372, sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, which would add a constitutional provision guaranteeing the right to “hunt, fish, trap, and harvest wild fish and wildlife, including the right to use current means and methods.” House Bill 517, from Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, would narrow the Montana Board of Regents’ authority over state college campuses, after judges' rulings in recent lawsuits said the Legislature was limited in how it could direct the regents.
Upcoming amendments are expected to include one from Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, that would change how Montana Supreme Court justices are selected – from statewide elections to appointment by the governor and confirmation by the Senate. House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, has requested an amendment that would prohibit public funding of abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is at risk.
Lawmakers have submitted requests for 64 potential amendments, but Regier said leadership has worked with their members to whittle that number down. He expects a dozen or so proposed amendments will get serious consideration.
“A lot of great ideas in those, and we'll see out of those 12, 13, 14, which ones come to the top, and go from there,” he said.
Democratic leaders have opposed constitutional changes, accusing Republicans of using their supermajority to push through amendments that don’t have public support. GOP leaders have stressed that it will be up to the voters to make the final decision on whether any of these proposals are actually added to the Constitution.
Wednesday at the Capitol, advocacy groups like the ACLU of Montana and the Montana Environmental Information Center held a “Rally to Defend Montana’s Constitution,” protesting proposed amendments.
“People are allowed to bring constitutional referenda – it's good, it's a living, evolving document,” said ACLU policy director Keegan Medrano. “But what we're seeing is, again, I think, a flagrant disregard for the existing provisions, and also a desire to use the Constitution as a tool.”
When asked what would be the harm of allowing Montanans to weigh in on these proposed changes, Medrano said the sheer number of amendments could overwhelm voters.
“I think that we're concerned about voter education, voter information and the invite to out-of-state interests and moneyed interests to pour money into the campaigns and really tip the scales and misinform and mislead people,” he said.
Regier said he doesn’t see an issue with the number of amendments voters could be asked to consider on the 2024 ballot.
“I have 100% confidence in them that that they can weigh in and they can make the right choice,” he said. “There are multiple other states that have double-digit ballot initiatives each year on their ballot. And I think it's a good way to get a test on some of these higher priorities, top issues for the state, and let the voters weigh in on that.”
Constitutional amendment proposals have a later transmittal deadline than general bills. They will need to move through their first chamber by April 3 to remain in consideration.