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Montana Legislature

State legislators gather on the House floor Wednesday during legislative orientation. The 2019 legislative session starts on Jan. 7.

Beer, infrastructure and health care: Montana lawmakers took up a broad range of bills in Helena as the legislative session entered its fifth week.

Late(r)-night drink?

Breweries from around the state packed a hearing to advocate for allowing their tap rooms to stay open an extra two hours, to 10 p.m. Staying open later would let customers enjoy a beer when it's still light out in the summer, bill sponsor Rep. David Fern, D-Whitefish, said.

Brewers said taprooms are a critical public-facing part of their businesses that enable them to bring in money that is reinvested in operations and creates economic opportunities in local communities.

Opponents, including the Montana Tavern Association, said the change would give breweries another advantage and let them operate more like bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, but without having to buy the expensive licenses those venues must purchase.

Roads, sewers, bridges

The main part of Gov. Steve Bullock's infrastructure package took a step forward this week, but with a big nod from Republicans that it will likely face a steep uphill battle in coming weeks.

House Bill 14 wraps up $160 million in bonding projects, which Bullock and other Democrats argue is a good way to pay for projects the state can't do in cash. It ties together controversial projects like $32 million for Romney Hall in Bozeman and $32 million for the Montana Historical Society in Helena with the types of water, sewer and wastewater projects that reliably pass each session. 

It also has $44 million for smaller communities affected by oil, gas and coal projects. Democrats argue these projects should move together so a broad range of interests are represented, but Republicans have said they want to segregate the local projects from the large bonding proposals. 

Republicans did strip out a plan to transfer up to $17 million from an infrastructure program funded by cash from the state coal trust and use the money in the state's general coffers. 

Paying for Medicaid expansion

Montana hospitals this week indicated they'd be willing to pay an additional fee to help support Medicaid expansion, which lawmakers are debating how to continue.

During the 2018 election, hospitals supported a ballot initiative that would have increased the tobacco tax to pay for the program that brings health insurance to about 95,000 Montanans. But that measure failed. Hospitals have backed expansion since it passed the Legislature first in 2015, and uncompensated care around the state has dropped by half under the program.

Competing Democratic and Republican proposals to extend the program beyond a sunset date of this summer include a fee of 0.95 percent on hosptials' outpatient revenue, which would generate about $30 million over two years.

In other news

Lawmakers also debated the death penalty, which public employees should pay union dues and what can be called "meat." Read the rest of our legislative coverage from the week here.

On the horizon

MEDICAL LEAVE: A bill would create a family medical leave program for people who step away from work for medical or other allowed reasons.

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NO GREENHOUSE GAS REGS: A lawmaker is bringing legislation that would prohibit the state from implementing any federal greenhouse gas regulations.

DRAINING THE FIRE FUND: In 2017, the most expensive fire season in state history, money was transferred from that account to help balance the state budget. A bill would increase the vote threshold to do that going forward to two-thirds of the Legislature. 

PREGNANT WOMEN IN PRISON: A lawmaker wants to establish incarceration standards for pregnant women, including requiring access to prenatal care, treatment for opioid abuse, limiting the use of restraints and setting terms for when a pregnant woman can be held in isolation.

TAPPING TOURISTS: The tax on lodging and rental vehicles would increase under a proposed bill.

SHARE THE ROAD: Vehicles would have to give bicycles a wider berth under a proposed bill.

INCENTIVE PROGRAM: A bill would give $1 million toward a program to help child protection specialists repay higher education loans. The state health department has struggled to hire and retain these positions.

CHILD PROTECTION: A group of bills would overhaul child protection laws, including bill that would say a child can be removed only when they are at risk for seriously bodily injury or harm.

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