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Week 12 —  Week 12: Tracking the budget in the House, a windfall of federal cash, and new rules for legalized marijuana

As of midday Friday, 1,183 bills have been introduced in the Montana Legislature, and 60 have been signed into law. This week we’re watching the state budgets, adult-use marijuana and bills that would have impacts for LGBTQ people. 

The introduction of a more-than-200-page bill outlining Montana’s regulations for the adult use of recreational marijuana and the framework for taxing sales of the substance is expected in the House this week.  

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins from Missoula, says the policy is meant to be all-encompassing and give structure to the new industry. He says it will put caps on how much of marijuana’s psychoactive compound, THC, is allowed in recreational products, how much individuals can possess, and ban growing the plant at home for individual use. 

Montana voters passed I-190 last year with nearly 57% of the vote, along with a separate constitutional initiative to set the legal age for use at 21, approving the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state. 

While I-190 contained language directing the state’s use of the 20% tax on recreational marijuana sales, lawmakers will make their own budget for the revenue, which is projected at more than $50 million per year.  

Democratic Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy from Box Elder is carrying House Bill 621 in an effort to require that tribal governments in Montana receive an allocation of the marijuana sales tax money. 

Montana’s massive general budget bill, House Bill 2, is expected to land on the House floor this week. That will be a chance to see how some of decisions contested in budget committees play out in front of the full chamber. 

So far there’s been disagreement over portions of the public health and human services budget, where Republicans typically want to control costs and Democrats typically want to invest in stronger programs. There has also been debate over some education measures — some more conservative Republicans, for example, wanted to strip several hundred thousand dollars from need-based college scholarships, arguing that that funding was duplicative with other programs. Comparatively moderate Republicans and Democrats had the votes in the House Appropriations Committee to resist that change, so that money remains.

As the state budget reaches the full House chamber, lawmakers are working with a plan that is a bit less than the total spending requested by Gov. Greg Gianforte. Gianforte asked for $12.8 billion over the next two years, and the current bill draft totals $12.6 billion. 

The federal American Rescue Plan Act means Montana lawmakers will have about a billion extra dollars to appropriate this year. Lawmakers are breaking out into separate budget negotiation groups to decide what to do with the money, and early talks are focusing on infrastructure projects. There’s been bipartisan consensus on water projects, like overhauling the St. Mary Canal in northern Montana, and building out broadband internet access. 

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Llew Jones says lawmakers’ plans for spending the stimulus money will be debated in the House Appropriations Committee this week. 

Separately, there are a growing number of opponents to bills that would ban trans women and girls from competing in women’s sports and ban gender-affirming surgeries for minors. Montana’s university system, business owners and major medical associations say the policies discriminate against LGBTQ people and could be bad for businesses in the state. Republicans on the committee have not budged in their support for the policies, saying they want to remove what they call unfair advantages in school sports and prevent young people from making consequential medical decisions before they turn 18. Both policies are expected to receive final votes in the Senate this week. 

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.