Sponsors of at least 2 initiatives turning in signatures

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA, MONT. — The sponsors of at least two Montana citizens’ initiatives say they’ve collected enough voter signatures before Friday’s deadline to qualify their measures for the Nov. 6 general election, once they are verified by state and county election officials.

Two other initiative sponsors say they fell short of the requirements. The sponsors of a fifth measure, one to require transgender people to use public bathrooms and locker rooms of their sex at birth, did not return a call or email for comment on Thursday.

The sponsors of a proposal to raise Montana’s tobacco tax planned to turn in more than 40,000 signatures at six county election offices on Thursday, according to the ballot committee’s communications director, Kathy Weber-Bates.

The required number of signatures for a statutory initiative to qualify for the ballot is 25,468 — and must include at least 10 percent of the registered voters in 40 of 100 legislative districts.

The measure would increase cigarette taxes by $2 to $3.70 per pack and tax e-cigarettes and vaping products for the first time. That money would help fund the state’s costs of its Medicaid expansion program, which enrolls nearly 100,000 people but faces an uncertain future before state lawmakers next year if the initiative fails.

Money from the increased taxes also would go to other health programs, veterans’ services, care for the elderly and disabled and to smoking prevention programs.

Sponsors of another initiative to tighten regulations on future hard rock mines say they also have collected enough signatures to qualify. David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said sponsors have been turning in signatures to county election officials all week.

The measure would require future mines to provide evidence that their work won’t require the perpetual cleanup of contaminated mine water after the mine closes.

If those two citizens’ initiatives are certified, they will be added to the ballot with two legislative referendums passed by state lawmakers: One that would extend a property tax to benefit the Montana University System, and another that would prohibit one person from turning in another person’s ballot, with some exceptions.

Still unclear is the anti-transgender initiative that is sponsored by the Montana Family Foundation. The group proposed the initiative, which is similar to a controversial law passed and then repealed in North Carolina, after state lawmakers failed to pass a bill last year with the same restrictions.

However, the sponsors appear not to have done much to gather signatures, according to records filed with the state commissioner of political practices. The ballot committee, Montanans For Locker Room Privacy, had just $205 in the bank at the beginning of the month after neither raising nor spending any money since February.

One initiative that won’t make it called for investor-owned utilities to use more renewable energy that would make up 80 percent of their generating portfolio by 2050. One of the sponsors, former state lawmaker Russ Doty, said the committee’s board will convene to decide whether to pursue the measure again in 2020.

Sponsors stopped gathering signatures for a proposed constitutional initiative to ban non-citizens from voting in May, said organizer Chris Gallus.