Legislators convene on the House floor as the 67th Montana Legislature kicked off on Jan. 4, 2021. Credit: Mara Silvers

HELENA — In the first two months of the 67th Legislature, policy gushed through the Montana Capitol. New and seasoned lawmakers pushed forward proposals focused on tax cuts, health care expansion, right-to-work legislation, changes to election laws, and restructuring the divisions of power during an emergency response. 

Republicans in the House and Senate, as well as in Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration, have claimed success on a number of fronts. Democrats are citing more incremental wins and victories in blocking proposals from the more hardline faction of the GOP. 

Here’s a breakdown of the significant policy reforms taking shape in the Legislature so far.

TAXES AND THE ECONOMY

A slate of tax policies put forward by Gov. Greg Gianforte under the banner of his “Montana Comeback Plan” mostly moved forward with Republican support overriding Democratic opposition. Those measures would, among other things, increase exemptions for the business equipment tax and cut income taxes for higher earners in an effort to attract entrepreneurs to the state.

Two tax reduction bills championed by Democrats were unsuccessful. One would have created a credit to help lower-income Montanans pay their property taxes, while another would have raised income taxes on top earners to expand a tax credit for working families. Both were voted down in their initial hearings in the House and Senate.

Other proposals put forward by Republicans and Democrats seek to expand access to rural broadband infrastructure considered critical to increasing economic opportunities in less-densely populated areas of Montana. One bill would offer tax breaks to telecom companies to encourage them to install fiber optic and coaxial internet cables; it has advanced to the second chamber. Another bill would encourage collaboration between other infrastructure development and broadband providers. A third bill, to allow for municipal broadband, died in its final vote in the House. 

PUBLIC HEALTH AND EMERGENCY DECLARATIONS

As a response to public health orders that some believe were issued without consideration of small businesses or the ability of citizens to attend religious services, lawmakers have considered a handful of Republican-backed bills that would curb the authority of public health officials and the governor. 

While several related measures are floating through the Legislature separately, House lawmakers this week passed two, House Bill 121 and House Bill 230, that would accomplish those goals. HB 121 would give elected officials like city councils and county commissions more say in enacting public health regulations and the ability to rescind or amend health official mandates made during an emergency, like a pandemic. HB 230 would give the Legislature the power to cancel or alter orders made in an emergency declaration from the governor. Both measures would prohibit regulation of attendance at religious services.

EDUCATION

The first half of the session saw some successes for K-12 public education funding. Lawmakers passed an inflationary funding increase for elementary and secondary schools into law before the transmittal break, giving individual districts clarity as they finalize their budgets for the next academic year. The Legislature also approved a $17 million appropriation of federal COVID-19 relief funds for Montana’s education system. A measure incentivizing salary increases for beginning teachers was signed into law Friday, and a bill to include inflationary costs in the K-12 special education budget passed the House this week with strong bipartisan support.

Education policy, however, had mixed results during the first 45 days. Several controversial proposals impacting public schools were voted down, including a bill relaxing immunization requirements for students. But other debates will continue after transmittal, among them a bill to require students to opt in to sex education and one to prohibit transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports. 

Meanwhile, House Bill 246 — arguably one of the most impactful education bills of the 67th Legislature — sailed from the House to the Senate with only a single opposing vote. It would implement major changes to state law to broaden teacher certification requirements and grant more decision-making flexibility to local school officials. 

ABORTION AND CIVIL RIGHTS FOR LGBTQ PEOPLE

In the first month of the session, House Republicans introduced a package of bills that would widely curtail abortion access. By transmittal week, four of them had cleared committee hearings and advanced through both chambers on party-line votes. 

If enacted, the bills would largely prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require providers to offer an ultrasound to patients, impose new restrictions and data collection protocols for those seeking a medication abortion earlier in pregnancy. Another would require physicians to provide life-saving treatments to newborns, a bill that opponents characterize as both redundant with existing statute and an overreach into complicated medical deliberations between patients and providers.

The session is also seeing a number of bills that seek to legislate how transgender youth can access gender-affirming medical treatment, impose bans on transgender women and girls who participate in women’s interscholastic sports teams, and require proof of surgery and a court order for transgender adults who wish to change the gender on their birth certificates. Another bill, a Religious Freedom Restoration Amendment, would allow Montanans to cite their religious beliefs as a legal defense if their actions are challenged in court — a policy LGBTQ advocates say will open the door for legal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. All bills have passed through the House or Senate and will be considered by the second chamber when lawmakers return on Monday. 

INDIGENOUS ISSUES

While Indigenous leaders, lawmakers and advocates have pushed back against several proposals they’ve said would infringe on tribal sovereignty or restrict voting in tribal communities, they have also advocated for several measures that would affect their communities. 

In 2019, the Legislature passed a suite of bills aimed at addressing the disproportionate rates at which Indigenous people go missing or face violence in Montana. Those efforts have continued with four proposals that would continue or build on those efforts. One of those bills, Senate Bill 4, has already passed the Legislature and would extend the state’s Missing and Murdered Indgenous Persons Task Force. Gianforte has called for lawmakers to send legislation extending that task force to his desk to sign into law. 

The other three, which have passed the House and are awaiting consideration by Senate lawmakers, would also extend the task force and a grant attached to it, create a seperate missing person case review commission and create a grant program for community members and others who want to assist in missing persons cases. 

Lawmakers are also considering another measure that would protect the ability of Indigenous people in Montana to vote — especially if voting restriction bills pass this year — and expand the voting rights of Indigenous Montanans, especially those living on reservations and in rural areas. The measure, House Bill 613, would ease voter-ID restrictions for Native Americans and require permanent satellite election offices and ballot drop boxes on reservations, among other requirements. It has yet to be passed out of the House, but was not subject to the transmittal deadline.

VOTING

Several election law changes survived the Legislature’s transmittal deadline. Among the Republican proposals are House Bill 176, which eliminates same-day voter registration, and Senate Bill 169, which narrows photo-ID requirements for voters. Supporters say the bills will ensure the integrity of Montana’s elections. Critics say the changes will disenfranchise voters across the state, particularly in rural communities and on reservations.

Democratic efforts to expand voter access, meanwhile, faced mixed results. House Bill 613 — also called the Native American Voting Rights Act — is still alive in the House. If passed, it would insulate tribal members from the restrictions in other bills like SB 169. Other progressive efforts to extend the voter registration period and provide postage for absentee ballots are now officially dead.

ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT

On the wildlife front, wolves and bison have been the focus of several pieces of legislation that have passed with broad Republican support. Reps. Paul Fielder and Bob Brown are sponsoring two measures apiece that aim to reduce the state’s wolf population, which they say is too high. House Bill 225 would expand and codify trapping season start dates in law, and House Bill 224 would allow snare traps to be used on wolves. Fielder presented those measures as “another tool in the toolbox” to aid wildlife managers and reduce livestock predation, while opponents argue that it’s part of a “war on wildlife” waged by some members of the Republican caucus. Brown’s measures would lift tag limits for individual hunters, allow for nighttime hunting on private land, and allow hunters and trappers to be reimbursed for harvesting wolves. Opponents say it will legalize wolf bounty hunts.

Regulations regarding bison are still in flux. House Bill 302, a measure by Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, would require county commissioners to sign off on bison relocations in their jurisdiction. It passed the House Agriculture Committee but has yet to go before the full House for a vote. (It’s subject to an April 1 transmittal deadline.) Rep. Kenneth Holmlund’s House Bill 318 to “clarify definition of bison” has passed its third reading in the House. Proponents say it would clarify who should pay taxes on domestic bison; opponents say it will limit the future establishment of wild bison herds. Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, has also introduced a bison bill. Senate Bill 255, a measure before the Senate Fish and Game Committee, seeks to establish an auction for a wild bison tag to fund future wild bison conservation efforts. It’s awaiting executive action in committee.

As in the past, the fate of the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip has loomed large in the 67th  Legislature. There’s been significant debate about who should pay for clean-up and stranded costs should Units 3 and 4 close ahead of schedule. Two bills brought by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, seek to hold Colstrip owners to the original terms of their agreement to prevent owners based on the West Coast from getting out of Colstrip, which could lead to those units closing down ahead of their depreciation schedules. Both of those measures have advanced with bipartisan support, though opponents say they re-write the terms of a 40-year-old agreement between private parties and are likely to be overturned in court.

Nuclear energy has been an under-the-radar topic of note, as well, with Rep. Derek Skees’ bill to lift restrictions on nuclear development passing out of the House on unanimous Republican support. A study bill brought by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, that directs the state to study modern nuclear reactors garnered unanimous support from senators of both parties. It’s before the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee, but a hearing date has not yet been set.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. 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.