Primary vote

CA 46 & 47 Ballot access rule Changes

By Emma Smith

Over the past few elections, Montanans have voted to change the rules around medical marijuana, sought to impose a crime victim’s bill of rights and changed how absentee ballots can be collected. All these issues required a specific number of voter signatures to land on the ballot and now that rule is, itself, on the ballot.

This year voters will decide whether to return the language in Article XIV, Section IX and Article III, section IV of the Montana Constitution back to its original language from 2002.

“It’s a clean up bill,” said Montana Representative Steve Gunderson, a Republican from Libby, during the debate about putting the issue to voters in 2019.

The changes started back in 2002 when voters passed two initiatives that changed what it took to qualify for the ballot. One changed signature requirements for proposing constitutional amendments. Instead of saying that signatures are required from “two-fifths of the legislative districts in Montana,” it said “at least ten percent of voters in at least one half of Montana’s counties.” The other revised “one third of legislative districts,” to “at least five percent of voters in at least one half of Montana counties” with signature requirements for initiatives that change state law.

The changes would have forced groups seeking to get ballot initiatives or constitutional amendments on the ballot to find voters in a wider range of counties than originally required, giving more input to more rural counties.

They also prompted the Montana Public Interest Research Group to file suit in 2005, saying the new rules created such an unfair burden that it violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Montana PIRG pointed out that at the time nearly 56 percent of Montana’s population is concentrated in six of the state’s 56 counties. With the 2002 requirements, far fewer signatures are needed to qualify an initiative in a less populous county than are necessary in more populous counties.

The U.S District Court agreed, striking down the changes, but they are still on the books, according to Gunderson.

So, the Montana Legislature voted last year to put the issue to the voters to officially change the language. According to Gunderson, one (C-46) will change the language from back to two-fifths of legislative district for all constitutional amendments.

“(The 2002 rules) actually utilize the signature count to be able to get a voter initiative on the ballot. That’s unconstitutional. That’s why the court found that it needed to be changed back to the original use of ‘two-fifths of legislative districts,”’ Gunderson said.

The other – C-47 -- changes ballot initiatives from “one-half of the counties” to “one-third of legislative districts.”

Although these changes are intended to align state law with the federal court ruling, some legislators still worried about the move. Representative Geraldine Custer, a fellow Republican from Forsyth said that the intent behind the 2002 change in Article III, Section IV, regarding HB-245 was so signature collectors couldn’t go to all the high population areas with the most legislative seats of Montana, such as Missoula and Billings.

During the legislative debate, Gunderson said both articles need to be returned to the original language because that is how the state interprets the law and this should reflect through the Montana constitution.

But no matter how voters decide this year’s changes, Anthony Johnstone, law professor at the University of Montana, said little will likely change.

“The (2002) amendment was void when passed, and should have no legal effect.,” he said. “Legally speaking, it’s not in the constitution anymore regardless of what the published constitution says. Thus, these referenda are much more about what the legislature decides to print in the constitution, rather than what the constitution really means.”

There is not really a debate over the changes – no groups have formed to back or oppose the 2020 changes – but it remains up to the voters to decide if the state constitution will reflect the decision of the federal courts on this question.

I-190 & CI-118 Marijuana

By Addie Slanger

Marijuana is back on the ballot — the third time in the last five election cycles — but this year Montanans will decide for the first time whether to follow other states like Colorado and Washington in legalizing use for all adults.

The issue comes in the form of complementary ballot initiatives I-190 and CI-118. I-190 creates the rules for a recreational marijuana system in Montana, including a 20% tax. It also allows each county the option to prohibit dispensaries in their county.

CI-118 would amend the Montana Constitution to allow the state to set the minimum buying age to 21. If both pass, Montana would join 10 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational marijuana.

New Approach Montana, a group founded in January 2019 by Montana political veterans Ted Dick and Pepper Petersen, is running the pro-legalization effort. After seeing a decline of tax revenue from previous economic drivers like energy production and mining, the two men asked the Montana’s Office of Budget and Program Planning to estimate the benefits of legalized marijuana for the economy. The office estimated that retail taxes on recreational marijuana could generate upwards of $38.5 million a year by 2025.

“This is a substantial amount of funding,” Petersen said, adding the next steps were clear. “We wrote our own law — we have a uniquely Montana approach.”

But before that economic windfall could happen, New Approach needed to succeed where the last effort to legalize in 2016 fell short: qualifying for the ballot. The group pumped over $140,000 into signature-gathering efforts.

Dick and Petersen’s organization plans to pour much more money into the effort, ordering a whopping $2.3 million on advertisements, most of which are set to roll out in late October and early November.

The effort has been funded almost entirely by two donors: New Approach’s national Political Action Committee, which has donated over $140,000, and a DC-based organization called the North Fund, which has given more than $1.6 million. The entire campaign has generated over $2.8 million.

For much of the summer no official opposition had organized to oppose legalization, but that changed in mid-September.

The Montana Contractors Association, a group representing Montana building contractors and suppliers, released a video Sept. 8 outlining its opposition based on safety and workforce issues.

“(Recreational marijuana) is not a recipe for a healthy workplace in the construction field,” MCA chief David Smith said. “And we don’t think something like recreational marijuana is going to help us recruit more employees.”

The next day, a Facebook page titled “Wrong For Montana” launched with an anti-legalization video warning voters about the potential for an increased drug presence in the state. The group pointed to problems in Colorado as cause for concern.

Wrong For Montana was founded by Steve Zabawa, a Billings car dealer who has opposed past marijuana legalization and medical cannabis efforts. Zabawa sees the legalization effort as a threat to Montana.

“Do we want more stoners in our family? If the answer is ‘yes,’ all we have to do is legalize recreational marijuana,” Zabawa said. “I’m just stepping out and saying it’s wrong for Montana. It’s not pristine, it’s not healthy, it’s not productive, and it’s not a good idea for Montana.”

The WFM campaign is launching its opposition with social media ads on Google and Facebook, using the financial help of national anti-legalization outfit Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). Zabawa confirmed his organization would be rolling out ads on Montana television networks in the weeks before the election. He would not comment on how much funding the group had to fight legalization, but the group will need to report its donors at the end of September.

Besides the Montana Contractors Association, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Bankers Association and the Motor Carriers Association have all announced support for WFM and plan to contribute financially, Zabawa said.

Petersen rejected Zabawa’s claims, arguing that by raising the buying age to 21 and mirroring the medical marijuana infrastructure, New Approach was ensuring safety.

“Steve has been a thorn in the side of marijuana supporters for years. For whatever reason, he’s got a personal jihad against them,” Petersen said. “I’m surprised that he actually believes the things that he says. It’s ridiculous. It’s just so objectively out of touch with reality.”

Still, some of those groups Zabawa opposed in the past are also worried about recreational marijuana. Smaller, Montana-based dispensaries worry their business will be swamped by larger, out-of-state companies.

Michaela Schager, owner of Montana Medicinals, a family-owned medical marijuana dispensary in Missoula, said she was grateful for the initiative’s structure. If passed, business licences would be issued Jan. 1, 2022, with registered Montana dispensaries first in line. These dispensaries have one year to sell without out-of-state competition, but she acknowledged the competition would inevitably be a problem in the future.

“These out of state conglomerates are going to provide a lot of competition down the road. At some point that is going to be a formidable concern,” Schager said.

Petersen said there was no cause for concern.

“All the jobs are going to be here. All the tax revenue is going to be here,” he said. “Montana is not this big shining apple for marijuana conglomerates in terms of revenue generated. There may be some bleeding off initially, but that seems to level off, according to Colorado models.”

Petersen and New Approach based much of the bills’ infrastructure on Colorado, one of the only states that correctly estimated its projected tax revenue. He stressed that he thinks Montana is a big enough state for both commercial and medical suppliers.

“I don’t think there should be any angst between recreational and medical dispensaries,” he said. “I mean, it’s like, Burger King is right next to McDonald’s, and they all do pretty well. There’s lots of room in Montana for all of them.”

LR-130 Fire Arms and Local Government

By Alex Miller

So, here’s the question: How much power should local governments have to regulate firearms or prevent their possession by felons, minors, undocumented immigrants or people judged mentally incompetent?

Not much, according to backers of Legislative Referendum 130, the ballot measure sent to voters by Montana lawmakers last session.

Specifically, Legislative Referendum 130 asks voters to remove local governments’ power to regulate the carrying of concealed firearms – or to restrict the open carry of firearms – except in public buildings within a government’s jurisdiction.

The measure, if approved, also would repeal local government’s authority to prevent the possession of firearms by convicted felons, minors, undocumented immigrants and or people judged to be mentally incompetent. The measure doesn’t affect other federal or state firearms restrictions about such possession.

The question is being put to voters by the Montana Legislation after Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill last session that would have accomplished much the same thing directly.

At the time, Bullock said Montana law had long protected “our basic right to keep and bear arms” while trusting local governments to decide “whether the mentally ill may bring guns into schools, or whether a local government can permit concealed weapons.”

LR-130 sprang the passage of a 2016 Missoula city ordinance that would have required that all gun sales within the city limits, including private sales, be subject to background checks. After changes and court fights, the Montana Supreme Court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional last year.

Second Amendment advocates saw the controversy as a step toward a greater patchwork of differing gun control restrictions across the state.

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, was one of the ballot issue’s architects.

He said that Montana already has a preemption law that, when boiled down, effectively prohibits local governments from regulating guns.

“All local governments are creatures of the state,” Marbut said. “LR-130 reinforces the restriction in the Montana Constitution on our right to keep and bear arms.”

Concerns have been raised about the wording of LR-130. Shortly after its legislative approval, opponents challenged the referendum’s language, but Montana’s Supreme Court ruled that LR-130 would appear as is.

Opponents of the measure include the Montana School Boards Association, led by executive director Lance Melton. His organization worried that the measure could make it impossible for schools to regulate the possession of weapons on school grounds, such as parking lots.

“If school districts are construed to be local governments, then it could potentially usurp their authority to regulate the possession of weapons on school campuses outside of school buildings,” Melton said.

Other critics are backing up their opposition with campaign cash and in-kind donations. As of Aug. 2020, one group, “NO on LR-13” reported donations of more $232,000. Money from supporters has come in a comparative trickle. One lump sum cash donation of $16,000 came from the NRA Big Sky Self-Defense Committee.

The Montana League of Cities and Towns, led by executive director Tim Burton, has made more than $9,000 in donations or in-kind services to the “NO on LR-130” group,

Burton said the league’s primary concern is that LR-130 would take away local power to make local decisions.

“First of all, LR-130 would take away local government’s rights to make local decisions,” Burton said. “Our real concern is that LR-130 is bad for Montana. This ballot is poorly written, it’s confusing, it’s unnecessary, potentially unconstitutional and unsafe.”

Despite such opposition, proponents of the ballot measure are confident LR-130 will pass.

State Rep. Matt Regier, a Columbia Falls Republican, sponsored the original legislation. He is confident Montanans will pass that initiative, he said, because it would lessen confusion on concealed carry regulations across the state.

One of the main functions of the ballot initiative, Regier said, is to provide uniformity across Montana for concealed carry permit holders.

“I myself am a concealed carry permit holder, and we want to follow the law,” he said. “If every city and every county has a different ordinance, it would be impossible to even drive across the state,” Regier said.

But the sponsor of the stricken Missoula ordinance, Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg, said LR-130 would limit local officials’ power to serve their communities.

“LR-130 is an attack on freedom,” von Lossberg said. “My job as a local official is to act in the interest of the public safety, well-being and welfare of my constituents. This initiative makes that job much harder to do because it eviscerates local control.”