Montana Lawmakers Brake State's Speedway Image
By Charles S. Johnson, Special to Stateline
HELENA, Montana - After being ridiculed nationally for more than three years, fiercely independent Montana has finally enacted a daytime speed limit on its highways, bringing "Montanabahn" -- word-play on the German speedways called autobahns -- to a screeching halt on May 28. Adoption of the 75-mile per hour speed limit for cars and light trucks (70 mph on two lane highways) topped the mid-session deeds of the Montana legislature, leaving tax relief and ballot issues as the major pieces of unfinished business.
After a short break, members of the Republican-controlled House and Senate returned to work Monday for the remaining 45 days of the biennial session. Legislators had been back in their districts holding town meetings to hear directly from constituents.
Among the major issues remaining for the lawmakers to resolve are determining how to allocate millions of dollars in tax relief and considering proposals that would make it tougher to qualify and pass ballot issues.
Montana joined the other 49 states with daytime speed limits when Republican Gov. Marc Racicot last week signed a bill setting a daytime limit for cars and light trucks of 75 mph, day and night, on interstate highways, and a 70 mph daytime limit on two-lane highways, dropping to 65 mph at night. Speed limits for large trucks would be lower.
"It is now the law," Racicot said in an uncharacteristic understatement. However, the new law doesn't take effect until before the Memorial Day weekend to provide time for workers to erect new speed-limit signs throughout the vast state.
From the time Congress repealed national speed limits in December 1995, Montana had stood alone, relying on only its "basic rule" that required people to drive in a reasonable and prudent manner that varied with weather and road conditions.
Two years ago, the Legislature killed a proposed daytime speed limit, despite rising traffic fatalities in 1996. National commentators and late-night talk show hosts had 'field days' mocking the lack of speed restrictions in the nation's geographically fourth-largest state.
Sports car clubs inquired about coming to Montana to test drive the state's long, flat stretches of roads and mountain passes, but were strongly discouraged by state officials.
The final blow to the state's free-spirit attitude toward speed on the highways may have come last December when the state Supreme Court declared the basic rule unconstitutionally vague, leaving Montana with nothing on the books except careless and reckless driving charges intended for more serious infractions.
The chief sponsor of new law, Sen. Arnie Mohl, R-Kalispell, a contractor, helped lead the opposition to the 1997 attempt to pass a speed limit. He changed his mind, explaining, "I think the people wanted a couple of years to think about it, and they did, and I think they felt if we had a good and reasonable speed limit, then they'd go for it."
With the speed limit issue disposed of, lawmakers are now looking at providing up to $75 million in property-tax relief to homeowners, vehicle owners and businesses, ranches and farms something that is possible because the state treasury is in the best shape in nearly two decades.
The chief issue is which groups get how much in tax breaks, with Democrats demanding "homeowners first," and Republicans trying to funnel more to business in hopes of jump-starting Montana's stalled economy. A looming issue is how Montana will deal with a $168 million 'black hole' or projected deficit in 2007 from the business tax cuts.
An hour after lawmakers left for their midterm break, the state's highest court unanimously nullified a constitutional amendment narrowly approved by Montana voters last fall that required public approval to impose new state or local taxes or mandatory fees or raise existing ones.
The court ruled that the proposition amounted to at least three constitutional amendments that should have been presented as three separate ballot issues. This decision is expected to lead to an even greater push by some to cut taxes.
The passage last fall of the tax-vote measure and a statutory one to ban future gold and silver mines using the cyanide-heap leach process have spawned a host of proposed constitutional amendments by legislators to restrict the ballot-issue process.
One would raise signature-gathering requirements, while another would require a two-thirds majority of voters, rather than a simple majority, to approve a constitutional measure. What kind of reaction legislators heard from their constituents, who generally seem ill-disposed toward the measures, will likely determine their fate in the six remaining weeks of the session.