The Session Week 18: What Happened During Montana’s 2021 Legislative Session?
The 67th session of the Montana Legislature adjourned sine die Thursday, April 29. During lawmakers’ 80 days of work, 1,313 bills were introduced and as of mid-day Friday at least 302 had been signed into law.
Montana Republicans have come a long way since they last left the state Capitol building in 2019, when then-GOP House Majority Leader Brad Tschida stood on the floor of the chamber and bemoaned the divisions in their caucus while a Democratic governor held the power of the veto pen.
Two years later, the GOP arrived this session with a bolstered majority in both the House and Senate and their first Republican governor in 16 years. Republicans say 2020 voters gave them a mandate to create jobs and jump-start Montana’s economy after pandemic-related shutdowns and touted their legislative accomplishments as a new day for the state.
The first show of power from Republicans came in setting the tone and rules for how lawmakers would gather and get their work during the pandemic.
Republicans rejected mask requirements at the statehouse and allowed lawmakers the option to tune into the session remotely, voting down Democrats’ call to hold the session remotely or postpone.
Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, led the creation of a COVID-19 response panel to deal with virus-related issues during the session.
"I would imagine we are going to have members who are going to get sick,” Ellsworth during a planning meeting in early December said. “It’s possible [inaudible] members that die. But that possibility is there irregardless even if we’re here or not. But the one thing we can do is come together and serve the great [state] of Montana."
Numerous cases of COVID-19 were reported among lawmakers, staff, journalists and lobbyists, and at one point in mid-April the Legislature postponed its work as positive cases were tracked at the Capitol. Gov. Greg Gianforte also tested positive. No lawmakers died from COVID.
How They Spent Taxpayer Dollars
The two-year budget is a modest increase over the last session by about 2.5%. That’s tight enough that the fiscal conservatives can say they’ve held the line on new spending without making sweeping cuts to government services. However, Democrats wanted more spending on social services and objected to several last-minute changes to the budget, including a policy for how often people enrolled in expanded Medicaid must certify they qualify for benefits, which could result in some people losing benefits under the safety net program.
Tax cuts were the centerpiece to Gov. Gianforte’s budget agenda.
Here’s a breakdown of what passed:
- A broad rewrite of Montana’s tax code will kick in in 2024. It removes some former tax credits, restructures the state’s tax brackets and grants Montanans a larger standard deduction by aligning the state code closer to the federal tax system. The marginal tax rate for individual top earners will be cut to 6.5% for those making more than $20,500.
Republicans say their plan will save Montana taxpayers $120 million a year, an amount reporters on The Session have not yet been able to verify. Most of that is targeted at higher-earners and business owners, following trickle down economics logic.
Democrats say more should have been done to provide property tax relief and expand tax cuts and credits for low-income Montanans.
An important caveat to the state’s modest budget is the windfall of cash Montana received and plans to spend from federal COVID relief dollars. The Legislature allocated much of the state’s multi-billion dollar share of the stimulus to water and sewer projects, improvements to state-owned buildings, and building out broadband connectivity across the state. Despite this spending plan passing the Legislature, states around the country are still waiting for guidelines on how federal relief dollars can actually be spent.
Republicans and Democrats alike described the stimulus spending as a once-in-a-generation chance for the state to invest in future economic opportunities.
Setting Rules For Legal Recreational Marijuana
Montanans 21 and older have been able to use and grow their own recreational marijuana since January. The system for how to tax and allow retail sales within the new industry was one of the most high-profile debates of the 2021 session. Lawmakers sought to avoid the pitfalls of Montana’s early medical marijuana program, which initially had minimal guardrails. After extensive debate, lawmakers ended up with a recreational marijuana policy that most of them seem at least okay with.
Big picture, here’s what it does:
- A 20% sales tax on recreational marijuana, with an additional local-option tax for counties.
- Counties that didn’t support the November initiative that legalized marijuana will have to hold an election if they want to opt into allowing dispensaries in their region.
- Much of the money from the 20% sales tax will go into the state’s general fund, with some dollars allocated to veterans services and projects tied to non-wildlife outdoors conservation, including Habitat Montana. Money from the tax will also go to a continuum care program spearheaded by Gov. Gianforte’s office, which has not been set up yet.
- The regulatory and tax program is set to come online in January 2022.
Conservative Social Policy
With a Republican now sitting in the governor’s office, the GOP advanced long-sought anti-abortion policies.
In one of the most attended bill signings of the session, Gianforte sat behind a desk on the Capitol steps and signed three new laws that will ban most abortions after 20 seeks of gestation, require health care providers offer an ultrasound before an abortion procedure and restrict medically-induced abortions early in pregnancy.
Policy impacting LGBTQ people also took center stage in the Legislature’s social policy debate.
Gianforte signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which supporters say increases protections for religious expression and opponents say will open the door for discrimination of LGBTQ Montanans. Legal questions remain over how much of an impact the policy will have on either side of the debate.
The Montana Legislature joined multiple Republican-controlled statesthis year in passing bills to ban transgender athletes from competing in sports that align with their gender identity and put limits on when people can change their gender on their birth certificate.
While other policies that could have restricted the kind of health care LGBTQ Montanans can access didn’t pass, advocates say they felt pummeled by legislation this session.
Elections and Redistricting
Republicans approved several changes that will impact how people can vote in Montana. Gov. Gianforte said these changes are needed to protect the integrity of elections and ease the burden of county elections workers, especially on election day.
Montana followed GOP lawmakers across the country in considering rewrites to election rules. The legislative chair of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders has said bills intended to tighten election security are solutions in search of a problem.
Democrats and Native American voting advocates say Montana’s new rules could make it more difficult for some people to vote. Election administrators say there will need to be considerable education to help voters navigate changes to voter ID and registration procedure.
- There are new rules for which types of ID are acceptable to use when voting. For example, a photo college ID is no longer usable by itself, but a concealed carry permit is.
- Same-day voter registration has ended. Montana Democrats are suing to block this policy and the new voter ID law.
- It is now illegal for someone to collect someone else's absentee ballot if they’re receiving any kind of monetary benefit.
During the last week of Montana’s 2021 legislative session, news broke that Montana would gain a second U.S. House seat. Within 24 hours, Republicans advanced a proposal to give the Legislature more of a say in the work of an independent commission in charge of drawing the states' new congressional districts. Republicans say this will ensure the process is fair. Opponents say this is unconstitutional involvement of the Legislature in the work of Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission, which is made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and a presiding officer without an official party affiliation.
Governmental Powers Feud
Gov. Gianforte has signed into law a bill that allows him to fill temporary court vacancies directly, without involvement of the Judicial Nomination Commission. The law was challenged in court as soon as it was signed and has led to an investigation by Republicans into alleged bias within the Judicial Branch, after internal emails were released detailing the judge's opinions on controversial legislation that could come before them.
All seven of the Montana Supreme Court justices are defending their impartiality. Democrats say the investigation is political theatre and a violation of the separation of powers between the branches of state government.
Republicans have set up a special committee to continue the investigation into the judiciary over the next two years.