Montana Legislature 'swirlies' to the right


HELENA, Mont. - Montana's Republican-dominated Legislature has taken such a sharp turn to the right, its critics say, that it will take moderate Republican Gov. Marc Racicot to keep it from going off the deep end.

A slew of bills have been introduced that would weaken environmental protection or make citizen redress more difficult. A "takings' bill, for instance, would require the state to pay property owners if any government rule or ordinance reduces the value of their property by 5 percent. Another proposed bill would double the number of signatures needed to qualify a citizens' initiative for the ballot. One bill, dubbed the "be kind to mines bill," says that if someone sues to enforce mine reclamation laws, the suit must be filed in the home county of the mine involved.

Early bills introduced would increase spending on prisons and sanction forced labor for prisoners. A bill to reintroduce corporal punishment in public schools made national newspapers after at least seven former students of its proponent, Casey Emerson of Bozeman, accused the legislator of excessive force when he worked as a teacher. One woman said Emerson had pushed her down a flight of stairs in the 1960s, and another told of having his head pushed into a toilet while Emerson flushed it.

One of the wackiest bills introduced would have required that vandals be bare-bottom spanked in public. It was withdrawn. Another bill would have removed the press office from the state capitol building and replaced it with a men's restroom.

Meanwhile, legislators have quietly introduced legislation that would take the teeth out of Montana's Human Rights Commission and make it more difficult to enforce laws against discrimination.

Anne Hedges, one of six full-time environmental lobbyists at the legislative session in Helena, says this session, which ends April 26, "is much quieter than the last one, so it looks like some of these dangerous bills could make it into law without much public input."

One bill that observers say has a good chance of passage would make the every-other-year session an annual one. The cost so far for this year's deliberations is $4.9 million.

George Everett lives and writes in Butte, Montana.

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