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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Lawmakers pass $14 billion budget as the legislative session ends

Montana Capitol
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Capitol

Lawmakers adjourned the 68th Montana Legislature Tuesday, three days shy of their 90-day deadline.

Lawmakers passed a $14 billion budget and considered the most bills in one session since 1973. Montana Public Radio’s reporters in the statehouse Shaylee Ragar and Ellis Juhlin spoke with Corin Cates-Carney to break down what passed, what didn’t and how politics influenced it all.

Corin Cates-Carney: Before we get into specifics about policy, big picture what are each of your takeaways from the last 90 days?

Shaylee Ragar: People might expect that Republicans holding the governor's office and super majorities in the House and Senate, they'd be in lockstep to pass Conservative priorities. But some also warned before the session that this much power could be unwieldy. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick said the supermajority made lawmaking more difficult at times.

Steve Fitzpatrick: I think maybe with fewer Republicans, there'd actually been made more cohesion and might be more effective.

Shaylee Ragar: We saw quite a bit of friction among the caucus and between the caucus and the governor's office. He called out lawmakers a few times during press conferences when they declined to advance his agenda. Regardless, Republicans say they're very happy with what they were able to get across the finish line. Majority Leader Fitzpatrick says Republicans got 90% of what they wanted. There is a caveat, though. We're still waiting to see what Gov. Greg Gianforte signs into law.

Steve Fitzpatrick: And you mentioned Republicans in the super majority. Democrats then were the super minority. What were the dynamics like between the two parties?

Shaylee Ragar: Yeah, I think that imbalance of power also contributed to the tensions between the parties on social issues that we saw boil over at the end of the session. When Representative Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat from Missoula and one of the first transgender lawmakers ever elected to the state House, was barred from the House floor for encouraging a disruptive protest. Democrats opposed that move, but they had little recourse. Republicans called the protests shameful and said Zephyr violated rules of decorum. So lots of discord this session.

Steve Fitzpatrick: Ellis, what stood out to you?

Ellis Juhlin: Well, we heard a lot of talk about constitutional amendments leading up to the session. Overall, there were 19 amendments introduced during the session, but every single one of them failed to get the 100 votes that they would need between both houses to make it on the ballot.

Steve Fitzpatrick: One of the last votes lawmakers took was to pass the state's budget. How does it compare with the blueprint for state spending Gov. Greg Gianforte published before lawmakers arrived in Helena?

Shaylee Ragar: There's not much of a difference in the amount of spending, but there's definitely a difference in the legislature's final budget that they adopted. That version does not include the governor's proposed child tax credit, nor the full amount he requested for the Department of Justice or the state Public Defender's office. The Legislature went above and beyond Gianforte's proposal when it came to increasing reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers of mental health care, long term care, disability services and nursing homes. Gianforte did get what he asked for in $300 million for the state's mental health care system, a cut to the state's top income tax rate, an expansion of the state's earned income tax rate and property tax rebates for homeowners.

Corin Cates-Carney: One of the pieces that lawmakers were debating about how to spend was the state's pool of money that arrived from sales tax on marijuana after recreational use was legalized in 2021. Ellis, how did that debate play out over that $58 million in revenue?

Ellis Juhlin: So, despite the session's end this is actually still a pretty big question mark. This is the first session where the Legislature has a full year's worth of this money to work with. And everyone was really eager to get their piece of that pie. What passed was a bill to allocate money to county roads and expand on a popular conservation program called Habitat Montana by including grants for habitat restoration. Gianforte vetoed it Tuesday after the Senate adjourned. So this process for a possible legislative override is kind of unclear. Democratic leadership I spoke with said that lawmakers can be pulled to try and override the veto. But Republican leadership that I spoke to said it's probably dead. If it is in fact dead, the tax revenue distribution will revert back to the 2021 Legislature's decision.

Corin Cates-Carney: Okay, so lawmakers have left Helena, but some of their policy is still up in the air. Democrats were in the super minority this time around, as we mentioned. How much influence do we see from them in the state's final spending plan?

Shaylee Ragar: Right. And as you might expect, Democrats were not able to get a lot of the spending they wanted in the budget. For example, they wanted more funding for housing, to pay for school lunches and for Medicaid. However, Democrats were able to make some headway with a $9 million bill to help low income families pay for child care. And like I mentioned previously, the increase in Medicaid provider rates. That was a bipartisan effort, but Democrats really fought to the and nail to increase those rates all session long.

Ellis Juhlin: We saw Democrats lose out on a lot of the things they prioritize this session. One of the biggest losses we heard from again and again was disappointment over housing, which was something Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers said he really would have liked to have seen them get through.

Pat Flowers: We offered solutions in both the House and the Senate as Democrats and none of those moved forward.

Corin Cates-Carney: Staying on the topic of housing policy, this was something that was on the minds of many Montanans heading into the legislative session. What did lawmakers do to address that?

Ellis Juhlin: There are a few bills that passed that focused on zoning reforms to increase the housing supply and density of homes. They'd change rules in urban areas, primarily made up of single family homes to allow for duplexes, mixed use and multi-family housing as well. The Legislature is also requiring cities to develop comprehensive plans to account for their projected population growth and create housing to meet those increases. Then there's also this bill that has four different components. One of those is giving $100 million to developing below ground infrastructure to facilitate construction and then different mechanisms to subsidize affordable housing by providing money for affordable workforce housing in Deer Lodge and Anaconda areas. Low interest loans for low income groups and allocating more money from the coal trust to finance the construction of multi-family rental housing units.

Corin Cates-Carney: So, while there was a lot of money to fight over throughout the session, there was also a lot of debate about social issues over abortion and transgender rights. What ended up passing Legislature?

Shaylee Ragar: Right. Those debates ended up being some of the most contentious of the session. Bills passed to ban gender affirming care for transgender minors, define sex as binary and eliminate legal recognition of transgender Montanans, and a wide ranging bill to ban minors at drag show performances. Gianforte has already signed the gender affirming care ban, saying it's an important measure to protect children from long lasting treatments. Opponents, including many medical providers and civil rights advocates, say the bill is discriminatory and will prevent kids from getting best practice care. We also saw a slate of anti-abortion bills like last session that passed. Gianforte has vowed to sign all ten of those bills, and it is very likely that those will get challenged in court like last session's bills did.

Corin Cates-Carney: What else stands out to you now that the 68th session is over? Any final takeaways?

Shaylee Ragar: I've heard lawmakers describe the the 2023 legislative session as a once in a lifetime session. With the combination of a $2.5 billion budget surplus, supermajorities for Republicans in both the House and Senate and this uproar we saw over social justice in the Capitol made for a very busy session this year.

Ellis Juhlin: As the session comes to a close, I've been thinking a lot about the interim. Historically, interim committees that work in the two years between legislative sessions have had an even split of legislators from both parties. But that won't be the case moving forward because of a new policy that was passed this session. Those committees are going to be far more partisan and Republicans are going to have control of most interim committees now. So it'll be interesting to see how those dynamics play out.

Corin Cates-Carney: Shaylee and Ellis, thank you for your coverage.

Ellis Juhlin: Thanks.

Shaylee Ragar: Happy to be here.

Isaak Opatz: This is MTPR.

The 2023 legislative session has wrapped up. Over 90 days, lawmakers drafted and debated hundreds of bills and amendments on issues like health care, education, the environment, LGBTQ+ rights and, somehow, TikTok. What does it all mean for you?

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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