locked gate across road

A bill to increase fines for blocking access to public roads died in the Legislature on Monday.

Brett French, Billings Gazette

HELENA — Last-chance efforts to revive Democrat-carried bills related to public access, increasing the minimum wage and repealing English-only all failed Monday at the Legislature as the deadline to move general bills loomed.

Locked gates

Rep. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, tried to "blast" his House Bill 295 out of committee, where it had been tabled. It would have increased fines for not removing a locked gate from $10 a day to up to $500 a day, as well as let counties issue a permit for encroachments on a county road in the case of something like a structure.

The bill, which was supported by sportsmens' groups and the Montana Association of Counties, failed to pass out of the House Judiciary committee with 10 voting against the bill and nine voting for it to advance.

“This bill really does nothing more than identify locked gates across identified county roads,” Jacobson told the House on Monday. “It just gives more ability for counties to address this and more deterrent for people who just want to keep people out of public lands.”

Opponents said county road supervisors already have the ability to cut locks off improperly gated roads and cases where the ownership of the road is disputed could take years to work through already-overwhelmed district courts.

“This has been very misrepresented to the sportsmen in Montana,” Rep. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, told the House.

Those who support the bill said the bill is only aimed at roads where the ownership is clear.

“This is about identified county roads, this is not about anything else,” Jacobson said. “If you don’t want to get fined then don’t put a lock on it.”

After the vote, Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the bill was needed because across Montana there are cases where improperly gated roads aren’t being addressed.

“This bill was crafted over 18 months in close consultation with the Montana Association of Counties to come up with a solution to the issue of gated county roads,” he said. “Despite the rhetoric, road disputes had nothing to do with this bill.”

Minimum wage

Another bill to raise the minimum wage from $8.15 to $10.10 an hour starting next January also failed to reach the House floor.

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell’s House Bill 169 failed to pass the House Business and Labor Committee with 11 voting not to pass the bill and eight voting for it.

Dunwell told lawmakers Monday that many problems around the state, even the methamphetamine epidemic, can be tied to a low income. She said about 21 percent of the workforce earns less than $10.10 an hour.

Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson and Speaker Pro Tempore, said the increase wasn’t needed because the free market is already doing a good job dictating wages across the state, citing the booming Gallatin Valley and oil fields in northeastern Montana as places with many jobs that pay above the minimum wage.

Hertz also said different wages make sense in different parts of Montana.

“What’s right maybe in Bozeman or Billings or Missoula doesn’t always work in the smaller communities,” he said.

Rep. Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell, said increasing wages would make things like groceries cost more and hurt those on fixed incomes.

“The impact is directly on the people in our community and our districts that have a fixed income that are already right now trying to figure out how to (pay) every bill that comes in.”

Rep. Amanda Curtis, D-Butte, said the bill was an opportunity to boost workers’ spending power and that the money would be spent locally.

“I can’t believe the majority of us would not even talk about putting more money in the pockets of Montanans,” she said.

Primary language

The third bill to fail to be blasted from committee was a bill carried by Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency. House Bill 552 would have repealed the part of state law that says English is the official and primary language of the state and local governments.

In her attempt to blast the bill, Stewart-Peregoy said the law has “become a symbol of intolerance and hostility."

She also cited a Billings radio host who last week suggested that basketball tournaments be segregated by race. “Discrimination is beginning to run rampant,” Stewart-Peregoy said.

“This body needs to take this public policy and really talk about it,” she said.

Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, said the bill had a good hearing in committee. He said he supported learning languages and understanding other cultures, and that Stewart-Peregoy’s bill didn’t do that.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, said the bill is about providing state documents in English and not discrimination. Pointing to a state code book, he said that if Montana didn’t have an English-only law the code book would have to be printed in several languages.

“There is an official single language that almost all of us understand, and that’s how we communicate laws in Montana,” Skees said.

Registering online

Another motion carried by Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, to allow for online voter registration also failed to reach the House floor.

Abbott called online voter registration an “idea whose time has come,” saying 34 other states already allow it.

But Mandeville said the bill was shot down in committee because of concern over costs. A fiscal note that came after the bill was tabled put the cost of implementing online voter registration at $500,000.

Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, disputed the cost of the bill, saying it was an attempt at “death by fiscal note.” He also cited recent national media coverage of a letter written by Montana Republican Party Chairman Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, who sent a letter to party members saying that Democrats would have an advantage in a mail-only ballot.

“Montana needs to send a pretty clear message as to where we stand on voting rights,” Bennett said.

Suicide prevention

The only blast motion carried by a Republican on Monday came from Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula. He tried to move forward a bill that would have emergency medical responders provide suicide prevention treatment to veterans. Opponents said the bill wasn't ready as written.

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.