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HELENA — As the Montana Legislature pauses for its midpoint break this week, members of both chambers — both controlled by substantial Republican majorities — are tallying their successes from the first two months, as well as what remains to be accomplished in the duration of the 90-day session.

Republicans, spending the mandate they won by securing the governor’s office and expanding House and Senate majorities in last November’s elections, have methodically voted forward most portions of a tax-cuts package proposed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, as well as measures to reform emergency protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over vocal opposition from Democrats, Republicans have also advanced a range of contentious bills that would restrict abortion, impact civil rights for LGTBQ people and revise election law.

Democrats and relatively centrist Republicans have derailed some controversial proposals advanced by members of the party’s hardline faction, including measures to broaden exemptions for vaccinations and so-called right-to-work legislation, which failed after bipartisan votes on the House floor.

Other conservative priorities, such as loosening firearm regulations and tightening voting rules, have seen broad support from the Republican caucus.

This year’s Legislature also saw an unusually jam-packed crunch in the runup to this week’s transmittal deadline, when non-fiscal bills die if they hadn’t passed at least one legislative chamber.

Combined, the House and Senate held 488 public hearings to discuss bills in the two weeks before this year’s transmittal deadline — 119 more than in the equivalent period in 2019. Additionally, a total of 164 bills were debated on the floor of the House or Senate on Monday, March 1, a record for at least the last decade, according to a Montana Free Press analysis of legislative data.

Democrats and some lobbyists have criticized the volume of last-minute legislation in recent weeks, saying the speed at which potential laws are moving through committee hearings and floor debates has made it unduly difficult for the public to weigh in.

“Our job is to vet legislation, consider it, give it due time and due diligence,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said in a recent conversation with reporters. “And the schedule the majority created for us didn’t allow for it in a lot of different ways.”

Republican leaders in the Legislature have pushed back on the notion that this session has seen an unprecedented amount of legislation. They’ve noted that the number of bills introduced so far this session, 1,121, is actually fewer than in prior sessions following a change in governors, such as 2005, the year Democrat Brian Schweitzer assumed office.

“It isn’t a whole lot different than any other session that we’ve had,” Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith said at a recent GOP caucus meeting.

Smith and other Republican leaders have touted the party’s successes and said they feel hopeful about the remainder of the session.

“Working with the Legislature, we’ve demonstrated our resolve and ability to get the people’s business done over the first half of the legislative session,” Gianforte wrote in a statement posted to Twitter Wednesday. “I look forward to accomplishing much more with lawmakers in the remaining weeks ahead.”

REPUBLICAN WINS, AND DIVISIONS

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have claimed successes on a range of policy priorities, including tax reforms supporters say will help spur economic growth. Among those are bills to reduce the state’s top-bracket income tax rate and exempt more businesses from the state business equipment tax. 

The majority party has also successfully advanced proposals to amend how state and local officials handle emergencies, particularly public health crises, after many Montanans expressed frustration about the state’s response to the ongoing pandemic. Gov. Gianforte signed into law a bill to protect businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19, as long as they are in compliance with state, local and federal health protocols. A package of additional proposals related to the powers of local health authorities and the governor has not yet been passed by both chambers. 

Other Republican proposals have centered on advancing conservative social priorities, including a slate of bills to restrict access to abortions through stricter protocols for providers and patients and a broad ban on procedures after 20 weeks. At least six anti-abortion proposals were introduced in the first half of the session, with four major policies passing out of both chambers and headed to the governor’s desk. 

Republicans in the House also sought to restrict medical treatments for transgender youth and ban participation in school sports for transgender women and girls. Two more bills passed by the Senate would make it harder for transgender adults to update the gender on their birth certificates, and allow for Montanans to cite religious beliefs as a legal defense, a policy passed in other states that opponents say will open the door to discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Throughout the first two months of the session, Democrats slammed Republicans for what they characterized as an outsized focus on social issues. 

“Senate Democrats have made it very clear that our priority was to create jobs and expand opportunity for working Montana families. It’s unfortunate that Republicans haven’t joined us in that effort,” Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said in a Tuesday press briefing. “We debated a hundred bills last night … and instead of jobs, with creative solutions for how do we put Montanans to work, we made it harder to change your birth certificate. We made it easier to discriminate against LGBT Montanans.”

Senate majority spokesman Kyle Schmauch said Republicans have been focused on a range of issues beyond those highlighted by Cohenour.

“Senate Republicans have made jobs, Montana’s economy, and access to affordable health care their top priorities this legislative session,” Schmauch wrote in an emailed statement. “Senate Republicans have also been focused on passing Governor Gianforte’s priorities for his Montana Comeback plan [and] making Montana more competitive for job creation.”

Many Republican-sponsored bills on hot-button issues, like the anti-abortion measures and right-to-work legislation, were assigned to two committees in particular: the House Judiciary and House Business and Labor committees. The judiciary committee saw a particular pre-transmittal crunch, holding public hearings on 65 bills in a three-day stretch last week.

Some Republicans reported public pressure ahead of floor votes on controversial topics, including LGBTQ and vaccination policies. Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, expressed frustration that other members of his caucus have put so much time and energy into the range of social bills.

“I think there are members who have gotten worn out on just social issues. I mean, what have we done for workers? What have we done for jobs?” said Welborn, historically a member of the comparatively moderate “Solutions Caucus” of Republicans in the Legislature. “The governor has talked a lot about his comeback plan, and what have we given [him]? We’ve kind of missed the mark on putting good bills on his desk.” 

Navigating the packages of social issue bills, Welborn said, has detracted from how much lawmakers are able to focus on other problems Montanans are facing. Had the first part of the session played out differently, he said, there could have been an increased focus on increasing education and job opportunities, in addition to the tax cuts championed by Gianforte and Republican leadership. 

“I think we’ve spent enough time taking our victory lap,” Welborn said, referring to the Republican caucus. “It’s time to do the work of the people.”

A CHANGE IN POLITICAL CLIMATE AND MORE BILL PROPOSALS

While some lawmakers saw an increased emphasis on legislation dealing with social issues, others said Republicans have been motivated to bring more conservative bills that span the policy spectrum, as Democrats narrowed their focus and worked to stop certain bills from advancing. 

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, a Great Falls Republican who has introduced 52 bills and resolutions this session, said having a Republican instead of a Democrat in the governor’s office has changed how he’s approaching his legislation.

“The types of bills I’m running are more conservative pieces of legislation than I would have brought in the past,” Fitzpatrick said, citing proposals to change administrative rules and energy and tax policy. “It’s a different session, and it definitely reflects a change in administration.” 

Lawmakers of both parties said the session saw a slow start in January before dramatically picking up pace in the two weeks before Wednesday’s transmittal deadline.

“The first couple weeks were inordinately slow,” said Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, who is currently serving his fifth session. Although the blame does not fall on any individual person or party, McGillvray said, the increased pace of bill hearings heading into transmittal was “not a good way to do business.” 

“It’s not fair to people who are opponents of [these policies], not fair to the people who are proponents,” he said. “It’s not fair to the legislators who have to look at them quick.”

Without pinpointing a cause for the initial lag in drafting bills, McGillvray said it may have been partly due to the number of lawmakers and legislative staffers adjusting to working remotely, and lawmakers’ efforts to respect the health concerns of staff members who are in the building. 

Despite initial fears that holding a mostly in-person session during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would see the virus sweep through the ranks of legislators, only five lawmakers have publicly disclosed positive tests. All have recovered and remain active in the session.

With many lawmakers and legislative staff choosing to participate virtually, however, the hybrid method has presented new challenges for communication, as well as some technical difficulties during committee hearings and floor debates. While some lawmakers have pointed to the infrastructural changes as an explanation for a lag in receiving drafts of bills earlier in the session, others have said that legislators did not submit their policy proposals in time for necessary revisions, debates and amendments. 

Heading into the second half of the session next week, bills that cleared the House or Senate as part of the transmittal crunch will be passed over to their second chamber for a fresh round of debate. Lawmakers also have the state budget to hammer out, as well as legislation that will determine how the state deals with regulatory questions and tax revenues resulting from the recreational marijuana initiative voters passed last year. 

For Democrats and some moderate Republicans who expressed dissatisfaction with the policy priorities during the first half of the session, there’s an opportunity to double-down on funding priorities, departmental programs and reforms. 

Other lawmakers agreed that there remain many more issues to work through, potentially during late-night deliberations, in the coming months.

“Even though we’re at the halfway point, we’re only 25% done,” Fitzpatrick said, repeating a common refrain among legislators. “There’s still a lot of game to play.”

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Mara Silvers

Mara covers Montana’s social welfare and criminal justice systems, including public health matters such as substance use disorders and mental health care. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.