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Highest court nixes speed limit law

Doomseekers, live it up while you can. The Montana Supreme Court's recent annihilation of the state's nationally (in)famous "reasonable and prudent" speeding law leaves absolutely no standards on how fast one can ply the state's highways. Cops can still cite wild drivers for recklessness, but speeding-no way, no how.

The Montana Legislature convenes January 4, though, and there's little hope for those who make the Big Sky's two-year-old lack of a numerical limit a point of libertarian pride. In fact, at last count at least five different proposals for new speed laws had emerged from the very busy brains of lawmakers.

Only one, though, has the official blessing of the state Attorney General's office. That draft bill would limit interstate drivers to 75 miles per hour at all times. On the state's vast two-lane highway network, motorists could hit 70 during the day and 65 at night. On Highway 93, the notorious road snaking through the Flathead and Bitterroot valleys, 65 would be the top legal speed at all times.

The bill represents a compromise between the Attorney General's office and Senator Arnie Muhl, a Kalispell Republican who chairs the upper house's transportation committee. Muhl originally wanted more liberal speeding statutes, while the state's law enforcement bureau wanted stricter controls. According to both Muhl and a state lawyer, the two sides met somewhere in the middle in hopes of pushing a solution through the Legislature as soon as possible.

"In large measure, this bill came about because there were so many requests coming through," says Executive Assistant Attorney General Steve Bullock. "As more and more bills came in, we started working to find out what was possible and what was the most likely to get through the session."

Powwowing with Muhl, state officials soon found that their relatively restrictive proposal wouldn't necessarily sit well with some legislators, most of whom represent sweeping stretches of country.

"He was trying to get our numbers up a little and we were trying to get his down," Bullock says of his department's talks with Muhl. "The numbers we've come up with are not so high that we'll have real safety concerns, but they're just a little higher than what we were suggesting."

And they're a little stricter than Muhl's preferred standards.

"I had it at 80 on the interstate and 75 on the two-lane roads initially," he says, but he came around to lowering his numbers without much fuss. "If we've got to have a speed limit, I think this is the way we ought to go. We're right in line with the surrounding states. We're maybe a little higher, but then we've got a lot more road to cover."

Muhl is carrying the resulting compromise bill, which also provides for 65-miles-per-hour zones around cities like Missoula, Butte and Billings and treats most pick-up trucks like cars. He says a number of other legislators are preparing to sign on as co-sponsors, and that Eastern Montana representatives, who speak for the most widely scattered constituents, say they can live with the bill.

According to Colonel Craig Reap, head of the Montana Highway Patrol, the adoption of hard-and-fast (no pun intended) speed laws will come as a relief to officers who are tired of enforcing the vague "reasonable and prudent" standard.

"We've always been in favor of a numerical speed limit," Reap says. "The loss of the basic rule (after the Supreme Court decision) has only added to the frustration and difficulty that officers in the field face.

"I think this will give everyone, motorists and officers alike, an idea of what's appropriate."

Local rep previewsthe legislature

By ZACH DUNDAS

Mike Halligan is a political animal-so much can be determined from a glance at the Missoula attorney's office walls. A classic Mike Mansfield campaign poster hangs on the one, a panoramic shot of some bygone Democratic national convention on the other.

Given that propensity, he should be a happy man these days. The 18-year veteran of the Montana Legislature is more up-to-his-ears in it than usual, as the eight-inch-thick stack of proposed laws on his desk attests. "I started this three months ago," Halligan says, brandishing the packet.

Since he faced no opposition for his Senate seat, he was able to start requesting bill drafts long before most of his colleagues. Between his own interests and those he advanced for others, Halligan has made a fair contribution toward the record number of would-be laws facing the solons of the Big Sky when they gather in Helena on January 4.

The former leader of the Senate's Democrats says the blizzard of bills is driven mostly by mystery hanging over many areas of state law in the wake of Constitutional Initiative 75 and some court decisions.

The state Supreme Court, presenting an early Christmas present to drivers with a death wish, recently declared Montana's infamous "reasonable and prudent" speeding law unconstitutional. With five speed-limit proposals already on the table, Halligan says that perennial issue will probably be one of the first to be considered.

A state district court in Lewistown has declared the property tax reform passed over Democratic objections in 1997 unconstitutional, requiring new efforts to prevent huge new tax bills.

Then there's CI-75, the newly approved constitutional amendment requiring public votes on all new taxes. The amendment faces a state Supreme Court challenge in February, but until then, Halligan says, it's the law of the land. Thus, the Legislature must bring statutes into compliance, even though the high court could declare it null and void before the Leg adjourns in the third week of April.

That bafflement piles on top of a litany of other issues, including: a push to eliminate the state's six-percent business equipment tax ("That means a $51-million hit," Halligan notes), the dire financial need of the university system, the growing demand on the corrections department, and Governor Marc Racicot's proposal for a value-added tax on consumer goods.

Halligan says that this session's expanded Democratic minority should be able to make some noise in the face of a Republican majority which he says leans too far to the right. "For 40 years, the Democrats made the mistake of ignoring the minority," he says. "And now the Republicans are doing the same thing. We're going to try, from the beginning, to contrast ourselves from what they're trying to do. When they want to bust the Coal Tax trust, when they want to provide businesses relief, and we want to give it to homeowners, we'll make every effort every day to present an alternative."

As for the sheer volume of bills, Halligan acknowledges that things could get hectic in Helena. He insists, though, that it's all part of the process.

"I know it can look like a circus over there," he says. "Really, though, that's just the churning of democracy. I feel very strongly about getting all the ideas out there."

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