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The major legislative news came early this week as House Republicans advanced Montana’s two-year budget with an initial vote Monday. But the action didn’t let up, with lawmakers continuing major debates on voting rights, corporate income tax and the future of coal-fired power. A push to expand wolf trapping also gained extra attention after news broke that Gov. Greg Gianforte had recently trapped and killed a wolf near Yellowstone National Park without completing a required state education course.

THE BUDGET

House Bill 2, the state’s two-year budget, brought the entire House Republican caucus together Monday, passing its initial reading on a straight party-line vote. Democrats argued that the roughly $12.6 billion package doesn’t do enough for health and human services. They attempted several times to amend the bill in hopes of bringing it closer to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s earlier budget proposal, to no avail. Republicans did succeed in further revising HB 2, including allocating $1 million to the Montana University System to assist in implementing the contentious constitutional carry bill Gianforte signed into law earlier this month. The same party divide emerged on a final HB 2 vote Wednesday. The budget now heads to the Senate.

Lawmakers also spent considerable time this week picking over federal COVID-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The Legislature is crafting strategies for how to spend that money, including helping public schools cope with budget challenges caused by fluctuating enrollment. But the complete picture remains cloudy, and spending plans for additional relief dollars contained in December’s stimulus continue to be a live legislative conversation as well.

VOTING

Two controversial changes to Montana election laws cleared key milestones this week. On Wednesday, the Senate voted to pass House Bill 176, which would end Montana’s decade-long practice of allowing people to register to vote on Election Day. And on Friday, the House approved Senate Bill 169. That proposal would tighten photo ID requirements for voter registration and for voting at polling stations. It would also require college students using a school-issued photo ID to register or vote to produce a second form of identification as well. Both bills were opposed by all Democrats in the chamber and one Republican. Each bill will now return to its original chamber for final approval of amendments.

TAXES

A Gianforte-backed push to revise Montana’s corporate income tax system to better reflect the digital economy got new life this week with the introduction of Senate Bill 376. The new bill was described by proponents as a “baby steps” measure after an earlier bill, Senate Bill 181, got bogged down in opposition from industry groups that think it would raise their taxes.

Another measure endorsed by the governor’s office also stumbled this week. Senate Bill 184, which would offer a capital gains tax break for entrepreneurs who build Montana businesses, narrowly failed an initial House floor vote after some Republicans raised concerns about it potentially encouraging large marijuana businesses to locate in Montana. Supporters said they would work to find another path forward for the bill, and a motion to reconsider the vote at a later date passed handily.

EDUCATION

Several bills overhauling portions of Montana’s K-12 and higher education laws made significant progress in recent days. House Bill 246, which aims to streamline teacher licensing and give local public school officials greater instructional authority, passed the Senate on a unanimous vote Friday and now heads to Gianforte’s desk. And a pair of proposals impacting community colleges also won strong bipartisan support on the Senate floor. House Bill 67 would revise the state’s financial contributions to community colleges to incentivize trade-based career and technical education. It was approved on an initial vote of 49-1 before being sent to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee for another hearing late next week. House Bill 179, which attempts to make it easier for communities to establish new colleges, passed the Senate Friday and is going back to the House for amendment approval.

ENERGY

On the energy front, House Bill 273, which seeks to ease restrictions on nuclear energy development by removing a voter approval process from statute and pulling nuclear energy plants from the purview of the Major Facility Siting Act, was heard in the Senate Energy Committee. The House Energy Committee weighed two bills by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, addressing how disputes between the owners of Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant are handled. One of those proposals, Senate Bill 265, would move arbitration of disputes between owners to Montana, rather than Spokane, as the 40-year-old owners’ agreement specifies. It would also define a company’s failure or refusal to fund “its share of operating costs” as an “unfair or deceptive act” that could subject that company to fines of up to $100,000 per day.

WILDLIFE

The Legislature this week also passed several bills impacting wolves and bears in Montana. On Friday, the House approved Senate Bill 267, which would allow hunters and trappers to be reimbursed for harvesting wolves, a measure that’s called a “bounty bill” by opponents. It should go to the governor’s desk any day now. The House also passed Senate Bill 98, which would allow a person to kill a grizzly bear that’s threatening livestock. Finally, a bill that seeks to modify the definition of bison passed second reading in the Senate. Opponents say it will significantly restrict the movements of wild bison and make it harder for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to establish new bison herds.

HEALTH

Finally, two high-profile pieces of health legislation are one signature away from becoming law. Senate Bill 101, which would broaden the ability of Montana health care providers to negotiate direct payment agreements with patients in lieu of insurance, cleared the Senate Monday. And on Thursday, Senate Democrats and Republicans split cleanly over House Bill 121, a measure that would allow the governor or local elected officials to overturn recommendations issued by county health boards. Both bills will now land on Gianforte’s desk.

BIRTH CERTIFICATES

The House Judiciary Committee heard fiery testimony and questions from lawmakers Friday on a bill that would require transgender Montanans to have surgery and obtain a judge’s order if they want to change the gender on their birth certificate. Proponents are pushing Senate Bill 280 as a way to reverse a more lenient administrative rule enacted under the administration of former Gov. Steve Bullock. Supporters of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Columbia Falls, argue that a significant policy change should have gone through the legislative process. Opponents argue that Glimm’s bill would create unnecessary hurdles for transgender people looking to update their birth certificate to align with their gender identity, a change they say can create additional security and safety in day-to-day life. The committee did not vote on SB 280 on Friday.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.