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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

The Session Week 10: We’re Halfway There

As of mid-day Thursday 1,121 had been introduced and Gov. Greg Gianforte had signed 38 bills into law.

This week we’re breaking down what made it across the transmittal deadline, what failed and where the session is going next.

Republican leaders are touting two bills that have already been signed into law. One expands where people can carry concealed firearms (House Bill 102), including in state government buildings, banks and on college campuses. This has been a longstanding GOP priority, especially because Democratic governors vetoed prior bills expanding so-called constitutional carry rights.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte also signed a bill limiting COVID-19 civil liability for businesses (Senate Bill 65), which was a major condition for him getting rid of the statewide mask mandate that rankled a lot of Republican voters and lawmakers for months.

We’re seeing pretty quick movement on a handful of bills that would cut the business equipment, capital gains and personal income taxes (House Bill 303, Senate Bill 184 and Senate Bill 159). Gianforte and GOP legislative leaders say these proposals are critical to fulfilling goals outlined before the session, which are to jumpstart the economy after some slowdown during the pandemic and make Montana more business-friendly.

GOP-sponsored bills to improve broadband internet infrastructure (Senate Bill 51) and widen access to telemedicine (House Bill 43) are also seeing a lot of support within the caucus.

Democrats claim that a lot of the Republican bills provide relief to large corporations and wealthy Montanans, not those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic. As a sort of counter, they introduced their own tax bills they said would give more help to low- and middle-income Montanans. Those policies would’ve offset property tax and rental costs (Senate Bill 10), exempted some social security income from the state income tax (LC2676) and expanded the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (House Bill 424), but none of them made it very far through the legislative process.

Democrats also put a lot of effort behind a bill to raise the minimum wage in Montana (Senate Bill 187 and House Bill 486)—which we’re seeing a lot of interest for nationally on the left—but that one didn’t gain much traction among Republicans either.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted special powers local public health officials and the governor’s office have during a state of emergency. For example, former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock unilaterally extended the state of emergency in Montana and put in place a statewide mask mandate. Local boards of health were able to restrict hours of operation at businesses. Republican lawmakers are looking to reign those powers in.

Two notable bills that advanced right under the wire are House Bill 121 and House Bill 230, which would essentially give elected leaders oversight over the executive and local public health officials during a state of emergency.

Democrats unsuccessfully pushed back against these bills, saying they would undercut these officials' ability to deal with public health emergencies.

Another big theme of the session are social issues like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Democrats are scoring some wins here through defense, notably killing a bill that would have penalized doctors for providing gender affirming care for minors (House Bill 113), though a similar proposal is now moving through the House (House Bill 427).

Other Republican-sponsored measures, like a proposal requiring surgery and a judge’s order to change the gender listed on a birth certificate (Senate Bill 280) and one to allow individuals to cite religious beliefs as a legal defense in court (Senate Bill 215), also cleared the transmittal deadline.

Looking ahead, we’ll be watching how the budget shakes out and what policy moves forward. Rep. Llew Jones, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is basically the conductor of lawmakers orchestrating the budget (House Bill 2). He says that starting Monday, the appropriations committee will start hearing presentations from the subcommittees that analyze specific sections of the budget, like health and human services and education.

The last state general fund status sheet shows a 1.5% negative structural balance in the budget, so if nothing changes, the state would end up spending more than it will bring in--but of course, we expect to see lots change, and spending cut, over the next half of the session

We also expect to see debate over how the state should use new tax revenue on marijuana sales and how that substance should be regulated for recreational use. There are varying views on both those points. We did see one lawmaker try to bring a bill to delay implementation of recreational marijuana by a year, but that failed.

Policywise, we’ll be keeping a close on bills that have advanced that would change how judges get to the bench and how elections are regulated in the state. Republicans want to give the governor the power to appoint judges to vacancies directly, without input from a judicial nomination commission (Senate Bill 140), and they want to eliminate same-day voter registration (House Bill 176).

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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