HELENA — As of Thursday afternoonna lawmakers had submitted 1,700 bill requests.

And the session doesn't begin for another three weeks.

Most of the requests are for small changes in Montana law that won't get much attention from the general public. Others promise to spark fierce debate when they are brought forward. This is a look at a few of the later.

The list was compiled after surveying lawmakers and lobbyists, and is by no means comprehensive. But these bills give insight into trends in thinking on how Montana should craft its budget, protect its environment, manage its wildlife and interact with the federal government.

1. Approve every dollar: Several lawmakers have bill requests that would move Montana toward so-called zero-based budgeting. Generally speaking, state agencies' current spending is automatically continued in the budget submitted to the Legislature. Under a zero-based budgeting system, each agency's budget would be zeroed out and lawmakers would review every line of an agency's budget from scratch every session.

"I think we're going to see a revamping of the budget process so there is more performance review," predicted Carl Graham, president of the Bozeman-based Montana Policy Institute. Graham's group supports this idea and others that he said will help elected officials keep tabs on how bureaucrats are spending tax dollars.

But opponents of the idea say lawmakers don't have the resources to sift through every line of an agency's budget every two years.

"When you have a part-time legislature that looks at a budget every two years, you don't have the time or expert staff to be able to control everything that the zero-based budget people think you can," said Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena.

2. Tax soda pop: While there are dozens of proposals to reform Montana's tax code, few would affect as many people as the proposed tax on sugary drinks, supported by Kaufmann and Rep. Betsy Hands, D-Missoula.

Kaufmann said the tax could help put more money into state coffers as well as encourage people to avoid unhealthy habits.

"The problem of obesity and youth, it's not really a political issue," she said. "Diabetes is really driving health care costs. ... Could we cut down on drinks that are not healthy?

3. Repeal MEPA: Legislators in the past have sought to reform the Montana Environmental Protection Act, but Rep.-elect Champ Edmonds, R-Missoula, wants to do away with the whole thing.

"My take on MEPA is it's an extra layer of bureaucracy that gets in the way of us being able to utilize our natural resources," Edmonds said. "It's more of a hindrance than a help."

Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center said lawmakers "have been picking away at the edges of MEPA for the last 15 years," but said this is the first attempt she's seen to repeal the whole law.

Among other things, repealing the law would strip Montanans of the right to comment and protest mining and other activities they feel will negatively impact the environment around them, Hedges said.

"Talk about taking the public out of the policy-making process," she said. "It's a colossally bad idea."

4. Put physician-assisted suicide on the books: Last session, lawmakers steered clear of a Montana District Court ruling that said terminally-ill Montanans have a constitutional right to seek aid in dying from a doctor, saying they wanted to wait for the Montana Supreme Court to have a say.

The Supreme Court has since found that no law in Montana prohibits the practice. Now Rep. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, wants to establish clear guidelines on how Montanans can use the right, and eliminate the gray areas that make physicians fearful of civil liability if they prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient.

There is also a bill request in to prohibit the practice.

5. Take over the wolves: Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, is bringing back his proposal to assert Montana's states rights and stop cooperating with the federal government to manage wolves.

Balyeat says in order for the bill to go into effect, the state would have to take the federal government to court. However, he argues that wolf management is already determined by the courts.

"Set up a state-rights lawsuit over wolf management. That's our best chance of winning," he said.

Opponents of the bill last session said suing the federal government would actually delay the gray wolf being taken off the endangered species list, citing federal reluctance to de-list the animal in Wyoming because of that state's aggressive stance on wolves.

6. Fight health care reform: Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, wants a bill written that would "nullify federal health-care laws."

It is one of several bill expected to go after the sweeping law passed by Congress earlier this year.

Another bill would ask voters whether the state should sue the federal government over the law.

Graham, of the Montana Policy Institute, says he expects many bills this session to go after federal laws and federal funding that require the state to follow certain guidelines or put up matching cash.

"We're going to see an assertion of states' rights. We're going to give up these funds because it comes with too many strings," Graham said.

7. Cap state salaries: Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, wants to put a referendum before voters to cap state workers' pay at $80,000.

Lewis argues that wages for state workers have become inflated in recent years, citing a study by the Legislative Fiscal Division showing that 46 percent of state workers make more than $60,000 in salary and benefits and 16 percent make more than $80,000 (those figures do not include employees at Montana State University or any other state universities.)

"I acknowledge it's a very unusual step, but we're still way short in the budget." Lewis told reporters. "I'm reacting to what I was told by people."

Eric Feaver, president of the state's largest union, the MEA-MFT, said it was a bad step, as Montana state workers are paid less than their counterparts across the country.

Lewis' plan was also questioned by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who pointed to Lewis' $80,000-plus salary while he sat on the state Board of Investments.

Lewis said the point was irrelevant.

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychroncile.com or 582-2665.


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