Week 11 —  The state budget takes shape, and marijuana regulation is coming soon

As of midday Friday, 1,148 bills had been introduced and Gov. Greg Gianforte had signed 54 into law. 

This week we’re starting to see the state budget take shape,; recreational marijuana regulations are coming soon, and Democrats try again with tax changes as Republican plans move forward.

The many pieces of the state budget are starting to come together. Late last week was confluence in the House Appropriations committee — each of the breakout groups came back so the whole group could ponder their proposals and vote on changes. The roughly $2.5 billion state General Fund budget was passed out of committee and now heads to the full House for debate. 

Lawmakers building the state budget spent the first half of the legislative session broken into subcommittees taking a detailed look at different pieces of the budget: education, health and human services, and infrastructure, among others.

These committees started with the governor’s budget proposal and have made changes based on their own vision for state policy and spending. This committee work has led to the GOP majority at times butting heads within their caucus and the Gianforte administration. Additionally, moderate Republicans on occasion have sided with Democrats on budget votes. For example, a proposal to remove $375,000 a year in need-based financial aid for Montana college students failed in this way in a vote before the House Appropriations Committee last week. 

The signing into law of the federal American Rescue Plan Act by President Joe Biden adds another wrinkle to state budget talks in Montana. The law calls for $1,400 checks for most individuals across the nation, and will also bring an estimated $2.7 billion into Montana through the state government, at least $1 billion of which will be appropriated by the Legislature. 

Another major question before lawmakers in the second half of the 2021 session will come down to how the state wants to regulate recreational marijuana following voter approval of Initiative 190 in last November’s election. Rep. Mike Hopkins, a Republican from Missoula, will carry a bill outlining Montana’s regulatory plan, and said it could be introduced as soon as this coming week. 

State lawmakers continue to debate the fairest way to tax Montanans. 

Republicans are backing Gov. Gianforte’s proposed cut to the state’s top marginal income tax rate, and are considering doubling the cut the governor initially proposed. The governor had proposed cutting the top tax rate from 6.9 % to 6.75%. Senate Bill 159 was amended last week to drop the tax rate to 6.5%.

Democrats are offering their own changes to Montana’s tax code, including a recent proposal (House Bill 631) to expand earned income tax credits. Republicans have thrown cold water on most of those ideas. 

Finally, this week we’re watching a proposal (House Bill 379) to change how some insurance industries treat men and women differently when setting premium rates. Montana State Auditor Troy Downing campaigned in part on the issue. HB 379 passed the House with some bipartisan support. It’s scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee on Wednesday, March 17.

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.