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A breakdown of the latest action we’re watching in the Statehouse, produced by Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Free Press. Find new episodes every Monday when the 2023 legislative session kicks off in January.

The Session Week 13: Judges, Elections And Recreational Marijuana

As of mid-day Friday, 1,237 bills had been introduced and at least 74 had been signed into law. We’re hitting the time of the session when more are on the way. This week we’re watching the legal marijuana bill take shape, lawmakers consider the former governor’s district court judge nominees, and proposals to change elections in the state.

The Senate Judiciary Committee this week will hold hearings on former Gov. Steve Bullock’s nominees for three district court judges for Cascade, Gallatin and Lewis and Clark Counties. If these nominations don’t get through, it will open opportunities for current Gov. Greg Gianforte to use powers under a new law to appoint judges. Senate Bill 140, which Gianforte signed into law in mid-March, has already been challenged in court. At least one of these Bullock appointees, Michele Reinhart Levine in the 8th Judicial District in Cascade County, has a tough road ahead due to her background in Democratic politics.

The bill outlining how recreational marijuana will be regulated and how tax revenue will be allocated is expected to be introduced this week. The House Business and Labor Committee held an informal work session last week to go over the latest draft of the recreational marijuana bill, which, as of Friday at noon, still hadn’t been introduced. Committee Chair Rep. Mark Noland said that he’s seen three different drafts of the 360-page bill so far and he wanted committee members to get a jump on understanding what the bill does before it has a hearing. It's unusual for a committee to discuss a bill before it’s introduced, but the recreational marijuana bill is more complicated than most.

The policy is generating a bevy of questions among lawmakers. House Business and Labor will be in charge of the regulatory side of legalized recreational marijuana, and the House Taxation Committee will consider how to tax sales of it. Lawmakers have expressed concerns about how law enforcement should deal with consumers carrying marijuana in their vehicles, how the state might root out people violating regulations of the recreational marijuana program and how new restrictions might affect the medical marijuana program. In 2019 lawmakers voted down a proposal that would have studied implementation of a recreational marijuana program.

Lawmakers are also considering several bills that would change how and when Montanans vote. Three controversial ones that saw movement last week would alter polling place hour requirements (SB 196), end same-day voter registration (HB 176) and limit absentee ballot collection in Montana (HB 406). A bill to tighten voter ID requirements, so that a college ID by itself wouldn’t be acceptable to register or vote, for example, also passed the House largely along party lines last week (SB 169). That bill was requested by first-term Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, who made election security a major talking point on the campaign trail last year.

The proposals by Montana Republicans align with a national push among state and federal Republicans to propose so-called election security measures, though in Montana there’s been no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.
Mara Silvers - Montana Free Press