HELENA – The 68th Montana Legislative Session kicked off on Monday, Jan. 2, in Helena. Senators and Representatives took an oath to uphold the constitution and were sworn in during simultaneous ceremonies in their respective chambers at the state Capitol.
Republicans hold a so-called “super majority” with 68 of the possible 100 seats in the House and 34 of the 50 Senate seats.
Republican Representatives chose Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, to be the Speaker of the House for the session.
“I do not want us to shy away from debate. That is the one job we were sent here to do: To speak for your 10,000-plus constituents,” Regier told the House the first day. “The bills that pass through this chamber will inevitably affect some of us as well as many Montanans across this great state.”
Republican Senators selected Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, to be the President of the Senate, along with Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, as the Senate Majority Leader.
Democrats selected Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, as the Senate Minority Leader. Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, will retain her position from 2021 as House Minority Leader.
“Speaking on behalf of my caucus, we represent over 300,000 Montanans, and we’re here to come into the building and get to work every day to support our constituents,” Abbott told House members..
Fitzpatrick said the key goals for Republicans will include: Addressing inflation and expensive housing, reducing legislation on businesses, continuing with tax relief, and reducing government regulations on businesses.
“Montanans made it clear they like our conservative leadership,” Fitzpatrick said. “As we head into this session, we need to recognize that there is still more work to be done.”
Abbott said Democratic priorities will include affordable child care, affordable housing, creating a fair economy and holding onto the rights within the Montana constitution, including the right to privacy and a clean and healthful environment.
Steps to combat the fentanyl epidemic arrive early in the legislative session
The Public Health, Safety, and Welfare Committee voted 6-3 on Friday, Jan. 6 to table Senate Bill 26 , which would decriminalize fentanyl test strips.
Fentanyl test strips are small pieces of paper that can detect fentanyl in different kinds of drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and more. They are also able to detect fentanyl in different drug forms, such as pills, powders and injectables, according to the CDC. These strips are currently categorized by state law as drug paraphernalia.
Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, proposed Senate Bill 26 with support from the Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s a harm-reduction strategy to decriminalize the fentanyl test strips that somebody may or may not have,” Lynch said. “The ultimate goal here is to make sure we have a safer community as people seek help.”
The fentanyl epidemic has reached new heights in Montana, with anti-drug task forces reporting that they seized 155,000 dosage units of fentanyl in the first three quarters of 2022 – twice as much as the previous four years combined, according to the Department of Justice.
In Montana alone, fentanyl deaths increased from four in 2017 to 49 in 2021, and the state saw 34 fentanyl-related deaths within the first five months of 2022, according to the DOJ.
Maggie Bornstein, spoke in support of SB 26 on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, saying making the strips available could decrease Montana fentanyl overdoses by allowing individual users and family members to screen drugs for its presence.
“This meaningful legislation will truly save lives in our communities,” Bornstein said.
According to Bornstein, the availability of early detection will give people with limited access to health care and others who are unwilling to call for emergency services the ability to be proactive rather than reactive to overdose situations.
Because the test strips are still illegal under state law, they would most likely be distributed by a pharmacy, said Rebecca de Camara, a division administrator at DPHHS.
But Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, raised concerns about the accuracy of the strips and the possible danger of portraying safety.
That’s better than doing nothing, replied Jean Branscum, CEO of the Montana Medical Association. “It’s probably not a 100% safeguard, but at least it gives some warning, whereas before, there was no warning,” she said.