A look at changes in state laws over the decade

2009-12-31T00:15:00Z A look at changes in state laws over the decadeGazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
December 31, 2009 12:15 am  • 

HELENA — Here is a summary of major state government issues in Montana over the decade:

BUDGET: State revenues have fallen or not met projections during parts of this decade, precipitating budget rollbacks and even some cuts in 2003. Nearly $800 million of federal stimulus money this year helped prevent the Montana Legislature from cutting state budgets in 2009. Actual revenues for the current budget year are falling far behind what the Legislature projected earlier this year.

CORRECTIONS: Montana’s correctional system saw many changes in the last 10 years, most dealing with helping addicts get clean and stay out of the system. The state’s first lockdown alcohol rehabilitation center opened in 2002. Later, prompted by budget cuts and an explosion in alcohol and methamphetamine-related convictions, the state added another alcohol treatment center for women, two meth treatment centers, expanded pre-release and developed programs to help keep people on probation from ending up in prison for breaking the rules of their release.

ENERGY: Soaring electricity prices in the West were a top story in 2001, made all the more critical because Montana’s major utility, NorthWestern Energy, and major industries had to buy electricity on the open market in the wake of deregulation decisions made in the late 1990s. Those prices fell after the Enron scandal broke in late 2001.

Voters in 2002 rejected a proposal to have the state buy the hydroelectric dams owned by private utility companies such as PPL Montana.

Then came the push for development of renewable power, led in part by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. In 2005, Montana became one of the first states in the region to require major utilities to buy a percentage of renewable power, such as wind-generated electricity. Yet renewable-power development in Montana still lagged behind that of other states.

ENVIRONMENT: Although Montana’s 1998 ban on open-pit cyanide leach mining was already two years old when the decade began, the certainty of the ban was still up in the air in 2000. A Colorado company that sought to develop a large mine sued the state for half a billion dollars in what it believed were lost profits. The Montana Supreme Court ruled against the company in 2005 and in 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the company’s appeal, after it lost again in federal district court. The same company, Canyon Resources, launched a mostly self-funded effort to undo the ban in 2004, but voters rejected it.

FISH AND GAME: By the slimmest of margins — 51 to 49 percent — Montana voters in 2000 outlawed game farms, or penned deer and elk held captive either to be raised for meat or for paid, private hunting. Part of the rationale behind the initiative was to stop the spread of a brain-eating disease found in captive deer and elk called chronic wasting disease. To date, the disease has been found in every Rocky Mountain state except Montana. Lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to overturn the initiative in 2003. Federal courts have upheld the voters’ decision.

HEALTH CARE: Voters in 2004 passed an initiative to raise the tax on tobacco products, with much of the revenue raised used to pay for the Children’s Health Insurance Plan. Four years later, they approved an initiative to use insurance premium taxes that would otherwise go into the state general fund to expand CHIP.

LABOR: By a large margin in 2006, voters passed an initiative to raise the state’s minimum raise and to provide for annual adjustments based on a cost-of-living formula. Labor unions proposed the ballot measure after the Legislature repeatedly turned down bills to boost the minimum wage.

SCHOOL FUNDING: In the 2000s, state money for public schools rose to the top of the political agenda, thanks mostly to a successful lawsuit filed by a coalition of school districts, unions and parents that alleged the state had violated the state Constitution by underfunding schools in the previous decade.

The state Supreme Court in late 2004 ruled in their favor, and the 2005 and 2007 Legislatures voted to greatly increase state funding for schools. That funding leveled out in 2008 and the schools went back to court — but lost a ruling late that year.

SOCIAL ISSUES: In 2004, Montanans passed a constitutional amendment declaring that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid — an attempt to prevent the legalization of marriage of same-sex couples. In the same election, they voted to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

TAXES: The major tax development of the decade was when the 2003 Legislature passed a measure to lower the state individual tax rates and provide exemptions for taxes on capital gains. Republicans have said these changes have helped attract more business investment in the state, while Democrats have said the reductions have cost far more than anticipated, with the wealthiest taxpayers getting most of the tax breaks.

Gazette State Bureau reporters Mike Dennison, Charles S. Johnson and Jennifer McKee contributed to this story.

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