HELENA - A group of Republican lawmakers Wednesday formally asked their colleagues to call a special session of the Legislature next month, to consider proposals that could compete with and override two ballot measures this fall, on mining and tobacco taxes.
A poll of all 150 state legislators went out late Wednesday. The session will be convened July 16 if at least 76 lawmakers vote for the call.
The formal call says the Legislature would convene to place two voter referenda on the ballot, either in November or a special election next year, to override initiatives 185 and 186.
I-185 would increase state tobacco taxes and extend Medicaid expansion, which gives government-supported medical coverage to 96,000 low-income adults, and I-186 would require new hard-rock mines to have cleanup plans that don’t require perpetual treatment of polluted runoff.
Neither I-185 nor I-186 has qualified for the November ballot, but supporters last week turned in what appear to be more than enough voter signatures to do so. Election officials are verifying the signatures and likely will certify the measures by next month.
Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, who supports the call for the special session, told MTN News Wednesday that I-185 and I-186, if they pass, will harm the economy and taxpayers, and the Republicans have a responsibility to offer alternatives.
“We get elected to represent the economy and business in Montana,” he said. “Montana businesses are in trouble, they are endangered by these initiatives on the ballot, and it’s our duty to do the right thing. Nothing good happens in a bad economy.”
But not all Republican lawmakers are on board with the effort.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen of Culbertson wrote a lengthy email to fellow Republicans earlier this week, saying the special session is a bad idea and would be politically damaging for the GOP.
“The idea that we would call ourselves into special session to pass voter referenda to `fix’ just-passed voter initiatives will be politically ugly,” he said. “I will be voting `no’ on a special session.”
Republicans hold 91 of Montana’s 150 legislative seats; 76 are needed to call the special session.
Republicans also likely won’t get much help from legislative Democrats.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s office released a statement calling the special session and a special election next year “absurd.” Bullock has said he supports I-185, the Medicaid initiative.
I-185 would raise tobacco taxes by about $50 million a year and extend Medicaid expansion past mid-2019, when it’s set to expire, under current state law.
The tobacco industry and the mining industry already are preparing to fight the respective initiatives, should they be on the ballot.
MTN has learned that a possible proposal to compete with I-185 would be a referendum with a lower tobacco tax, paired with an extension of the Medicaid program, but with tighter restrictions on who’s eligible for Medicaid benefits, such as work requirements and an assets test.
The referendum on mine regulations would “strengthen Montana’s hard-rock mining laws to protect the environment and taxpayers while still allowing for responsible mining activities to occur in Montana,” according to the special session call.