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Montana 2021 Legislature
The campaign rhetoric, struggles for political power and results of the 2020 election converge in the 67th meeting of the Montana legislature. Join us Monday mornings for The Session -- a breakdown of the latest action we’re watching in the statehouse, produced by Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Free Press.

The Session Week 15: Parental Rights And The Ideological Split Over Recreational Marijuana

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Correction: This story has been updated after a previous version incorrectly summarized the most recent opponent views of Senate Bill 16. YPR regrets the error.

As of mid-day Friday, 1,282 bills had been introduced and at least 153 had been signed into law. This week we’re watching proposed changes to social safety net eligibility, parental rights and the ideological split within the GOP over marijuana taxes.

With Senate Bill 100, Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, proposes changes to the vetting process for public assistance programs. The policy is part of a broader tug of war over how the state should run social safety net programs like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) and Children’s Health Insurance Program. Smith says his proposed change would weed out fraud by increasing the frequency of when recipients are evaluated for eligibility to the program, requiring evaluations every six months instead of the current annual, or continuous, eligibility supported by Democrats. Lawmakers have been mulling over SB 100 since January. It’s awaiting a vote before the House Human Services Committee.

A handful of bills this session focus on child welfare and the extent of parental rights. House Bill 90 from Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, would require district courts to hold hearings within five days of a child being removed from a home to determine whether there is probable cause to continue the removal. Initial hearings are currently required within 20 days. In initial hearings, opponents flagged concerns that courts would not have time or resources to implement expedited hearings, and said the bill conflicted with the required timetable for notifying tribes of upcoming hearings under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The bill has since been amended and has bipartisan support. HB 90 has cleared both chambers and is awaiting final approval of amendments from the House.

Senate Bill 16 from Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, would allow unaccompanied minors to seek shelter without parental consent. Proponents say the short policy would make it easier for minors to access support when they're seeking safe shelter. Opponents say the policy risks interfering with parenting decisions, and could delay a parent’s ability to know where their child is if they leave home. The House Human Services Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on SB 16 Monday at 3 p.m.

Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, is carrying Senate Bill 400, aimed at limiting government entities’ ability to interfere with parental rights to “direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of their children” unless the government can demonstrate the restriction furthers a compelling interest. The Senate passed the policy largely along party lines last week.

Lawmakers in the House last week forwarded several versions of proposed tax structures for recreational marijuana, illustrating an ideological rift within the Republican Party. House Bill 701 from Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, would tax the drug at 20% and funnel revenue toward the state general fund, with smaller slices going to conservation programs and a proposed addiction and treatment program. Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, is offering a 15% tax option, House Bill 670, to fund state pensions, arguing the Legislature should fund existing programs instead of standing up new ones to receive marijuana tax revenue. Other states that have legalized cannabis tax the substance as much as 37%.

House lawmakers moved the suite of proposals last week ahead of a transmittal deadline, with Republicans largely in support and Democrats generally opposed. Given the tax revenue at stake, the bills could change considerably or get combined in some form as they continue through the legislative process.