Credit: Eliza Wiley/MTFP

Face masks, labor unions and public assistance programs were just a few of the major topics swirling around the Capitol during the seventh week of the Montana Legislature. Lawmakers advanced a number of notable bills in committee discussions and on the House and Senate floors. Plus, Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the highly controversial “constitutional carry” bill into law Thursday, opening the door to permitless concealed firearms carry in a number of public settings. And another prominent 2021 bill seems destined for the governor’s desk: House Bill 143, which would establish incentives for school districts to increase pay for starting teachers, passed one of its final votes on the Senate floor with strong bipartisan support.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE AND VOTING

Several new bills surfaced late this week that could change the face of campaigning in Montana. Senate Bill 224 proposes to repeal the state’s limit on how much money political committees are allowed to donate to candidates, raise the dollar threshold for disclosing donor information and roll back the investigative authority of the commissioner of political practices. Senate Bill 226 would give political candidates greater latitude in using campaign funds to repay personal loans made to their campaigns. Both bills were heard by the Senate State Administration Committee on Feb. 19, and attracted testimony in opposition, including from former Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl.

On the voter rights front, the House-approved bill to end Election Day registration got its first hearing before a Senate committee on Feb. 15. And a proposal to tighten photo ID requirements for Montana voters made its House committee debut after passing the full Senate late last week.

TAX POLICY 

The House approved a bill Feb. 19 to exempt certain businesses from the state’s business equipment tax, sending it on to the Senate. House Bill 303 is one of a suite of tax bills tied to Gianforte’s proposed budget, which the governor maintains will spur economic growth and create jobs.

Three other measures from that same suite all passed out of the Senate Taxation Committee on Feb. 19: Senate Bill 159, which would reduce the rate in Montana’s top income tax bracket; Senate Bill 182, which would enact future tax cuts in the event of a budget surplus; and Senate Bill 184, which would exempt shareholders of Montana-grown businesses from paying capital gains taxes on stock options.

PUBLIC ASSISTANCE 

The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee voted Feb. 17 to pass several changes to the state’s eligibility process for certain state and federal assistance programs. Senate Bill 100 has been pitched as a way to crack down on welfare fraud in Montana, though opponents argue it may push eligible Montanans out of the system and strain agency resources.

Over in the House, a proposal impacting recipients of SNAP, the supplemental nutrition assistance program, got its first hearing Feb. 18. House Bill 339 would require all SNAP applicants be current with their child support payments in order to qualify for benefits.

LABOR AND INDUSTRY 

With several bills affecting public sector unions already spurring debate at the Legislature, lawmakers on the House Business and Labor Committee heard arguments Feb. 16 on a proposal to more broadly implement so-called “right to work” policies in Montana. House Bill 251 generated nearly two hours of testimony Feb. 16. Proponents claimed the bill was necessary to grant employees more freedom in deciding whether to join a union, while opponents asserted HB 251 would irreparably damage worker rights.

One of the Legislature’s ongoing industry-specific debates — Colstrip — rose to the fore again Feb. 18 as the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee took action on Senate Bill 176. The measure attempts to tackle lingering operational and remediation questions at the aging coal-fired power plant, but some opponents maintain SB 176’s handling of Colstrip-tied transmission lines could chill business and investment interest in the state. The bill was voted out of committee 11-2.

LOCAL CONTROL 

Another familiar Montana debate resurfaced in the House Agriculture Committee this week. Legislators there heard arguments on House Bill 302, which would require county commissioners to sign off on the release of any new bison in their counties. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, framed HB 302 as a local control measure, and proponents said enhancing that control would help alleviate agricultural concerns about disease transmission. Opponents countered that the threat of disease has been overblown for years and rebuked the Legislature for not consulting tribes. The bison showdown is expected to continue over this and other legislation.

The House Education Committee advanced a proposal that would further empower local school officials to make decisions about education instruction and graduation requirements. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, also seeks to broaden the instruction options available to those officials, and to expand certification requirements for teachers. The committee voted unanimously Feb. 17 to send the bill to the full House.

While some bills have been couched as expanding local control, others appear poised to take it away. On Feb. 18, the House took a key vote on a bill that would void local mask mandates across the state. House Bill 257 seeks to prohibit local governments or health officials from compelling or enforcing businesses to comply with public health mandates. It passed the House on third reading 66-33 and now heads to the Senate.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.