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Legislature wraps 1st half with surprise killing of broadband bill

Legislature wraps 1st half with surprise killing of broadband bill

The Montana House wrapped up its work Tuesday for the first half of the legislative session, tackling debate on a contentious right-to-work proposal and in a surprise move killing a bill aimed at increasing broadband access that had passed an initial vote by a large margin.

The Senate cleared its docket of bills after pushing to just past midnight the night prior, ending a day that started at 8:30 a.m. with minimal breaks.

The transmittal break runs through Monday at 5 p.m., when lawmakers will briefly come into session before starting back in earnest March 9.

In the waning hours of the first half of the Legislature on Tuesday, a freshman Democratic lawmaker was "shocked" to see his bill, which had soared out of committee less than a week ago and then resoundingly passed the first floor vote a day earlier, die on its final House floor vote.

Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, had expected a tougher fight when his bill got to the floor. He felt the only reason House Bill 422, which would allow local municipalities to construct their own broadband networks, had made it out of committee on a bipartisan 16-1 vote was because of an amendment made by a Republican lawmaker. That amendment would have allowed the local municipality’s broadband build-out to be done in a public-private partnership with internet providers.

The bill passed with more than two-thirds of the vote, 68-32, in its initial hearing on the House floor. 

“It felt pretty bipartisan and agreed upon right up until then,” Kortum said Tuesday.

Then, on the bill's third reading Tuesday, the vote almost flipped entirely, going down on a 35-64 vote. Thirty-one Republicans and two Democrats flipped.

“If a third of the house can change over night there’s some real power dynamics happening in the background,” Kortum said. 

Before the third vote on Tuesday, a flier had arrived at the Capitol from the "Montana telecommunications sector" outlining for lawmakers the group’s concerns about a subsidized broadband network. The flier called the proposal a “waste of scarce public resources” and promised that the most cost effective way to address broadband demand was “to facilitate private investment in broadband infrastructure.”

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, one of the representatives to flip their vote on the third reading, said she had taken more time to digest the matter since second reading.

"The reason I changed my vote was I had more time to study, gave more thought to what I saw as a challenge for local governments who are already challenged in infrastructure and running the things that they have going on in their cities and towns," Vinton said.

Vinton said the telecommunications association's mailer was not a consideration in changing her vote. 

Geoff Feiss, general manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association, said Tuesday his group did distribute the flier and it didn’t list the association because it was a “shared resource” with the broader telecommunications sector.

Feiss said he meant to distribute the flier to lawmakers before the second reading on Monday, but was caught between meetings with association members.

“It was just a matter of timing,” Feiss said.

Kortum disputed Vinton's concerns for local municipalities, emphasizing that the broadband build would have been optional for municipalities.

Kortum's bill wasn't the only one to go down on third vote Tuesday as the House was rapidly approaching its deadline for the transmittal break. House Bill 577, to require local governments to issue a notice if it is using facial recognition technology, passed on its second reading with a 53-47 vote on Monday, but died Tuesday on a 48-52 third reading vote. House Bill 600, which would have given businesses the ability to prioritize military spouses in hiring, also died on a 47-52 vote Tuesday after passing on Monday with a 53-46 vote. Both bills were sponsored by Democratic lawmakers. 

Another bill, House Bill 356, from Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, that would have prohibited the anonymous reporting in of suspected child abuse and neglect, also went down 49-50 on Tuesday after passing a second reading 51-49 the day prior.

As the House finished business Tuesday, lawmakers acknowledged the heavy workload.

"It's been a long couple of days but I'm proud of his body," said Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, on Tuesday as the House adjourned. "We accomplished a lot in a short period of time and everyone has remained respectful to each other."

In the two days leading up to the transmittal deadline, the House and Senate both heard a tremendous amount of bills and at times the rush led to conflict between Republicans, who hold a majority in both chambers, and minority Democrats. That included Democrats not being allowed to vote in a hastily called committee meeting Saturday, actions that were reversed after Democratic objections.

Vinton spoke on the floor Monday addressing that issue and calling for renewed decorum and civility. On Tuesday, Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott said Vinton's message had been effective.

"I think after she set that expectation, things immediately started to go better and it shows action from leadership does make a difference. I think we had a much smoother, more productive day and a half, two days, ... I think directly related to her standing up and setting a new expectation," Abbott said.

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Montana State Bureau Chief

State Bureau reporter for Lee Newspapers of Montana.

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