A ballot issue to create a Montana Biomedical Research Authority that could request up to $20 million a year for 10 years through state general-obligation bonds survived a Supreme Court challenge to knock it from the general election.
Initiative 181, which would raise medical research funding using bonds paid off by taxpayers, will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot as planned. Opponents of the initiative, who say the way the money is spent is unconstitutional, were unable to persuade the Montana Supreme Court to weigh in.
In a 5-0 decision, the justices said they wouldn’t rush to consider the constitutionality of the initiative, nor would they treat I-181 as if it were law. Let the voters decide, the justices said. If the initiative becomes law, then it can be challenged. The ruling was not unexpected.
“I’ve been a lawyer for nearly 40 years. I’ve learned most good judges don’t decide things that don’t have to decide,” said Max Davis, of I-181 organizing group Montanans for Research and Cures. “The other thing is, most judges don’t like things being dumped in their lap at the last minute.”
Opponents to I-181 filed the lawsuit July 28. The Montana Taxpayers Association and other plaintiffs in the case argue that I-181 is unconstitutional because it commits public money to a private group not under control of the state. The initiative would commit Montanans to providing $20 million in bonds each year for 10 years for medical research. A research board would determine who received the money. The state would not receive ownership in any successful research done by private companies who used the state funding.
“We believed, and still are confident, that this initiative is structurally unconstitutional and sets a bad precedent that would allow deep pocketed special interests to determine Montana’s budget policy through the initiative process,” said Al Ekblad, executive secretary of Montana AFL-CIO, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Our petition was denied without prejudice so if this initiative becomes law we will challenge it again.”
AFL-CIO and other plaintiffs worry that the $200 million bond commitment will make it difficult to raise state bonding for roads and schools. Bonds are how Montana pays for public infrastructure projects. If taxpayers are already committed to paying for research bonds, legislators will be reluctant to add the burden of infrastructure funding on top of it, plaintiffs said..
And I-181 opponents don’t like that the initiative lets a non-elected board decide how the money is spent. The Montana Constitution that reads, “No appropriation shall be made for religious, charitable, industrial, educational, or benevolent purposes to any private individual, private association or private corporation not under the control of the state.” The state Constitution also prohibits bond money from being used to benefit private individuals and entities not under the state’s control. I-181 opponents say the initiative violates those constitutional requirements.
Montanans for Research and Cures is primarily funded by Great Falls-based McLaughlin Research Institute for Biomedical Sciences, a private business. MRI research concerns Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other brain illnesses. The research group has put up half of MRI’s roughly $80,000.
The initiative is not breaking trail by leaving it to a non-elected commission to decide how the money is spent, Davis said.
“We got all kinds of non-elected boards that spend money — the Board of Regents,” Davis said. “But, the money is controlled by the Legislature. It has to appropriate it,” to the commission. “There are all kinds of boards appointed by the governor that spend money. That’s a nonissue.”
What would be new ground is spending taxpayer money on private research that doesn’t directly give Montanans a return on their investment. The research funded by taxpayers became a money-making success, Montanans wouldn’t get a share of the profits.
However, Davis said there would be indirect benefits. The research money would be spent in Montana, stimulating the state economy. Any medical discovery useful in treating conditions like Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s, could benefit Montanans with those conditions, Davis said.