Montana Capitol. Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

Nearly a month into Montana’s 2021 legislative session, the first in 16 years under unified Republican control of state government, the potential fates of some controversial proposals regarding abortion and transgender rights have started to become clear. Other important issues, like the state’s biennial budget, are still in early stages. 

TRANSGENDER RIGHTS

After five Republican representatives switched their votes after heated debate, House Bill 113 failed to advance after a procedural third vote on the House floor Tuesday, essentially ending its chances of passage in 2021. The controversial measure would have barred medical providers from prescribing puberty blockers, hormone treatments and a range of other gender-affirming care to minors experiencing gender dysphoria. 

But another bill opposed by transgender rights advocates passed a final House vote on Wednesday. That proposal, House Bill 112, would prohibit transgender girls and women from participating on women’s high school and college sports teams based on concerns that they might benefit from physical advantages. The Senate will now consider the bill. 

ABORTION RESTRICTIONS

A collection of abortion-restriction bills passed their third and final votes in the House this week, meaning the Senate will now consider them before potentially sending them to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. 

In his first State of the State address Thursday night, Gianforte signaled support for at least two of those measures, House Bill 136 and House Bill 167. HB 136 would broadly restrict access to abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, while HB 167 would create a ballot referendum asking Montanans to vote on whether to establish penalties for health care providers found to have not given life-preserving care to newborns.

House members voted to send both bills to the Senate on Tuesday, and both proposals have Senate committee hearings scheduled. The other two abortion bills in the slate, House Bill 140 and House Bill 171, also won House approval this week and now goes to the Senate. 

COVID-19 AND PUBLIC HEALTH AUTHORITY

Gianforte has said that before he’ll rescind Montana’s COVID-19 mask mandate, he needs the Legislature to pass a law protecting businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits

Senators have now passed that proposal, Senate Bill 65, for House members to consider. The measure would shield public-health-compliant businesses, nonprofits and health care providers from certain COVID-19-related lawsuits. The House Business and Labor Committee passed the bill 12-8, sending it to the House for a debate. 

In his Thursday address, Gianforte urged the Legislature to pass the bill. 

A handful of other proposals stemming from backlash to the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic also faced votes or hearings this week. Generally, those proposals aim to restrict public health officials from enacting or enforcing health orders without the approval of elected bodies that oversee them. Others would give the Legislature more input in the continuation of gubernatorial emergency declarations. 

House Judiciary Committee members passed the most restrictive of the bills, House Bill 230 and House Bill 236, on Friday after Thursday hearings. That committee also voted on Thursday to send another, House Bill 121, to the full chamber for debate and a vote. 

MISSING AND MURDERED INDIGENOUS PEOPLE 

Among the topics Gianforte identified as priorities Thursday was the high rate at which Montana’s Indigenous people go missing. 

While a state task force, law enforcement, tribal leaders and advocates have been working on the problem for nearly two years, four bills are currently moving through the Legislature to authorize continuation or expansion of that work. 

Gianforte pressed lawmakers in Thursday’s address to send him a bill extending that task force.

House Bill 98 and Senate Bill 4 would reauthorize that task force to continue meeting for another two years. Senators approved their version last week, and a House committee voted Friday to advance it in the House. 

Also on Friday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve another of the proposals, House Bill 35. That measure would lead to the creation of a missing person review commission modeled after the state’s existing Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission. The commission would review cases and make recommendations to improve future missing-person investigations. 

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.