As of mid-day Thursday, 1,121 bills had been introduced and Gov. Greg Gianforte had signed 38 bills into law.
This week we’re breaking down what made it across the transmittal deadline, what failed and where the session is going next.
Republican leaders are touting two bills that have already been signed into law. One expands where people can carry concealed firearms (House Bill 102), including in state government buildings, banks and on college campuses. This has been a longstanding GOP priority, especially because Democratic governors vetoed prior bills expanding so-called constitutional carry rights.
Gianforte also signed a bill limiting COVID-19 civil liability for businesses (Senate Bill 65), which was a major condition for him getting rid of the statewide mask mandate that rankled a lot of Republican voters and lawmakers for months.
We’re seeing pretty quick movement on a handful of bills that would cut business equipment, capital gains and personal income taxes (House Bill 303, Senate Bill 184 and Senate Bill 159). Gianforte and GOP legislative leaders say these proposals are critical to fulfilling goals outlined before the session, which are to jumpstart the economy after some slowdown during the pandemic and make Montana more business-friendly.
Democrats claim that a lot of the Republican bills provide relief to large corporations and wealthy Montanans, not those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic. As a sort of counter, they introduced their own tax bills they said would give more help to low- and middle-income Montanans. Those policies would have offset property tax and rental costs (Senate Bill 10), exempted some Social Security income from the state income tax (LC 2676) and expanded the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (House Bill 424), but none of them made it very far through the legislative process.
Democrats also put a lot of effort behind a bill to raise the minimum wage in Montana (Senate Bill 187 and House Bill 486) — which we’re seeing a lot of interest for nationally on the left — but that one didn’t gain much traction among Republicans either.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted special powers local public health officials and the governor’s office have during a state of emergency. For example, former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock unilaterally extended the state of emergency in Montana and put in place a statewide mask mandate. Local boards of health were able to restrict hours of operation at businesses. Republican lawmakers are looking to rein those powers in.
Two notable bills that advanced right under the transmittal wire are House Bill 121 and House Bill 230, which would essentially give elected leaders oversight of the governor and local public health officials during a state of emergency.
Democrats unsuccessfully pushed back against those bills, saying they would undercut officials’ ability to deal with public health emergencies.
Another big theme of the session is social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. Democrats are scoring some wins here through defense, notably killing a bill that would have penalized doctors for providing gender-affirming care for transgender minors (House Bill 113), though a similar proposal is now moving through the House (House Bill 427).
Other Republican-sponsored measures, like a proposal requiring surgery and a judge’s order to change the gender listed on a birth certificate (Senate Bill 280) and one to allow individuals to cite religious beliefs as a legal defense in court (Senate Bill 215), also cleared the transmittal deadline.
Looking ahead, we’ll be watching how the budget shakes out and what policy moves forward. Rep. Llew Jones, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is basically the conductor of lawmakers orchestrating the budget (House Bill 2). He says that starting Monday, the appropriations committee will begin hearing presentations from the subcommittees that analyze specific sections of the budget, like health and human services and education.
The latest state General Fund status sheet shows a 1.5% negative structural balance in the budget, so if nothing changes, the state would end up spending more than it will bring in — but of course, we expect to see lots of change, and spending cuts, over the next half of the session
We also expect to see debate about how the state should use new tax revenue from marijuana sales and how marijuana should be regulated for recreational use. There are varying views on both points. We did see one lawmaker try to bring a bill to delay the implementation of recreational marijuana by a year, but that failed.
Policy-wise, we’ll be keeping a close eye on bills that have advanced that would change how judges get to the bench and how elections are regulated in the state. Republicans want to give the governor the power to appoint judges to vacancies directly, without input from a judicial nomination commission (Senate Bill 140), and they want to eliminate same-day voter registration (House Bill 176).
The Session airs Monday mornings on Montana Public Radio at 7:50 a.m., and on Yellowstone Public Radio at 5:47 a.m. and 7:47 a.m. It’s also available here or wherever you get your podcasts.