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Montana Republicans In High Spirits After Conservative Wins During 2021 Session

 Montana Capitol Building in Helena, MT.
Montana Capitol Building in Helena, MT.

The 2021 meeting of Montana lawmakers was defined by Republicans' ironclad majority in both chambers with the backing of the first GOP governor in 16 years and work that began during a pandemic. MTPR’s Shaylee Ragar and YPR’s Kevin Trevellyan have been in the halls and zoom meetings for the past 80 days. Here’s their breakdown of the final day of action.

Shaylee Ragar Kevin, the Republican caucus held a press conference after the session had officially adjourned, and they were in high spirits.

Kevin Trevellyan Judging from their farewell speeches Republicans think they successfully fulfilled the mandate they believe voters gave them. They passed bills on party lines that provide tax relief, expand concealed firearm carry rights, limit abortion access and narrow the power of public health officials during states of emergency.

What was the mood like among Democrats?

Shaylee Ragar Democrats are using words like "frustrating" and "disappointing" to describe this session. Many of their top-priority bills were steamrolled by Republicans. But House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said her caucus stood steadfast on prioritizing their goals for the lower and the middle class.

"We've said it from day one, that we are laser focused on folks that need the help, and Republicans just weren't."

Kevin Trevellyan Still, Democrats and Republicans did both highlight bipartisan success with the framework they passed to regulate Montana's forthcoming recreational marijuana market, which is scheduled to come online January 2022.

Shaylee Ragar Although that bipartisan work was almost upended at the last minute.

Kevin Trevellyan Right. Over the last couple of days of the session, everyone was keeping their eyes on a marijuana-related bill sitting in what's called a free conference committee. Basically, that means lawmakers had an opportunity to make some massive changes to the recreational marijuana framework, even though the framework itself had already passed the Legislature. The most conservative lawmakers in the GOP caucus advanced that policy with an amendment calling for diverting tax revenue to a new trust fund to deal with what Republicans call the unintended economic and social costs of marijuana. Democrats like Missoula Senator Ellie Boldman objected to this, saying it was coming on the last day of the session and there is just no time for public comment.

"This is not the way we do things when we have worked in a bipartisan way on arguably one of the biggest pieces of legislation of this session. And we had handshake deals."

Shaylee Ragar It felt like everyone in the Capitol was just waiting to see what would happen after the bill made it to the House and Senate floors.

Kevin Trevellyan It was literally the last bill that both chambers considered. House Republicans passed it largely on party lines, setting up a suspenseful vote in the Senate and ultimately, one of the Republican senators who voted to forward the policy out of committee, Bob Brown, flipped just a short while later to provide a key vote killing the bill,

"Having a little more time to reflect on exactly what it's doing, you know, I believe that this is probably, at this point in the session, this is just too, too much too late. So I'm gonna be a no."

Shaylee Ragar I want to switch gears to the state budget. Big picture, it's a $12 billion budget, which is a roughly 2.5 percent increase over the last biennium's budget. That's a smaller increase than other budgets in recent years, and will spend a little less than what the executive branch proposed. Representative Llew Jones, a moderate Republican from Conrad, and chair of the committee that builds the budget, said he's pleased with it.

"Beauty's in the eye of the beholder. But it's a good budget," Jones said.

Shaylee Ragar Even the most stringent fiscal conservatives were on board. So there was broad support among Republicans. But all Democrats in the House voted against the budget. They said Republicans changed it too many times at the last minute and didn't do enough to protect people on the state's social safety net programs.

Democratic Representative Emma Kerr-Carpenter from Billings:

"I was sent here by my constituents to help fight for them to be able to have lives of dignity, respect and possibility. And that is not in this budget."

Kevin Trevellyan The budget also set up the Legislature to continue the investigation into the judiciary.

Shaylee Ragar Right. Republicans have secured $285,000 to continue looking into alleged bias among judges in the branch. Montanans seven Supreme Court justices have refuted those claims. Democrats say the investigation is a violation of the separation of powers that serves as a check and balance on state government. And we'll certainly be tracking that investigation as it continues.

Kevin Trevellyan Lawmakers ended their session 10 days ahead of the 90 day deadline. I think it probably couldn't have come soon enough for those of us who have been covering it since January.

Shaylee Ragar I'd have to agree with you there, Kevin. I'm glad we could stick it out together.

Tune in to MTPR May 3 at 7 p.m. for an in-depth breakdown of the 2021 legislative session, or listen on The Session.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio

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