With the passage of another big calendar milestone at the week’s start — the last day to introduce revenue and appropriation bills — lawmakers made this week a short one as they headed into the Easter break. Still, several big bills hit important targets this week in Helena, both in the Legislature and on the executive’s desk, where Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a sanctuary cities ban sponsored by Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, into law
The Senate made short work this week of approving the final amendments to a voter ID bill. Senate Bill 169, which would require individuals without a government-issued photo ID to present two forms of identification when voting, passed on a party-line vote on the Senate floor Wednesday. The same story played out in the Senate Tuesday with House Bill 176, a controversial measure to end same-day voter registration. Both bills are now headed to the governor’s desk.
The Native American Voting Right Act narrowly failed to pass out of the House. It passed second reading Tuesday before failing 48-51 two days later. House Bill 613 would have expanded Native American voting access by expanding ballot drop-off locations and allowing for more leeway on address and ID requirements.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND TRANSGENDER RESTRICTIONS
Republican lawmakers this week advanced two bills that have been strenuously opposed by Democrats and advocates for LGBTQ civil rights. Debates on the Senate and House floors showed sharply polarized factions within both parties.
State representatives on Wednesday debated the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Senate Bill 215, which supporters say would increase legal protections for religious expression and allow citizens to claim exemption from laws and policies that are found to “substantially burden” their religious liberties. Opponents have said the measure could open the door to protected discrimination under the auspice of faith.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, introduced an amendment explicitly prohibiting RFRA’s use as justification for discrimination as defined in the Montana Human Rights Act and local nondiscrimination ordinances passed in a handful of cities. Several Republicans rejected the change, which ultimately failed 53-47. The bill later passed 61-39.
In the Senate, House Bill 112 passed Tuesday despite two Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. Many Republicans championed the measure as a way to prevent what they call unfair competition between athletes who were assigned male at birth and their peers who are cisgender women.
Democrats disputed claims that a small number of transgender athletes can infringe on opportunities for cisgender athletes, urging fellow lawmakers to instead consider participation in sports as an invaluable opportunity for all young people.
Speaking against the bill, Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, raised concerns about potential economic fallout if the proposal is signed into law. He said it runs counter to the Biden administration’s policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and could put schools and universities at risk of losing federal funds and facing boycotts from the NCAA. Based on that argument, Solomon successfully carried an amendment to make the legislation void if the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights promises enforcement action. The amended bill passed 29-21. It now heads to the House for approval of the amendment.
ENVIRONMENT, ENERGY AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS
A proposal by Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, to lift the numeric water quality standards the Department of Environmental Quality uses to regulate sewer plants and septic systems was heard by the House Natural Resources Tuesday. Proponents said it’s difficult to remain in compliance with the numeric standards, and that surrounding states use a narrative rather than numeric standard. Opponents said the proposal uses metrics that are too vague and would lead to pollution of one of the state’s most important resources. They also argued Senate Bill 358 could expose the state to intervention from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The House Natural Resources Committee tabled two measures that were first introduced early in the session. Senate Bill 29 pertained to cloud seeding, a process that’s purported to generate precipitation for irrigators and water companies. The bill had emerged from a study bill passed in the previous Legislature. Senate Bill 165, sponsored by Carl Glimm, R-Columbia Falls, didn’t make it out of House Natural Resources either. In addition to changing some specific sanitation standards pertaining to subdivisions, it proposed to move rulemaking out of the DEQ and into the Board of Environmental Review, a governor-appointed body.
Senate Bill 379, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, and drafted by NorthWestern Energy, narrowly passed out of the Senate Energy Committee Thursday 7-6. The committee heard testimony on the bill during a lengthy meeting Tuesday. Proponents of the measure argued it would help keep the Colstrip power plant, and its associated jobs, revenue and tax collections, alive. Opponents said it would hamstring the Public Service Commission’s to regulate monopoly utilities and levy huge costs on several hundred thousand ratepayers without any guarantee that Colstrip will continue to operate.
Stevensville Sen. Theresa Manzella’s proposal to put regulatory oversight of social media companies on the PSC’s plate was tabled in the Senate Energy Committee the same day the committee heard testimony on the bill. Proponents of Senate Bill 391 said social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter indiscriminately and unfairly censor political speech, while opponents said it’s logistically and ideologically inappropriate for the PSC to adjudicate First Amendment conflicts.
Federal relief funding for Montana’s public schools made significant advancements this week with the House’s passage of House Bill 630 and House Bill 632. Combined, the two bills will allocate nearly $500 million directly to Montana schools from a pair of congressional COVID-19 relief packages. Also tucked into HB 632 is a $1.2 million pot of federal cash to help offset budget shortfalls related to fluctuating student enrollment, as well as hundreds of millions more for efforts targeted at professional development for educators and afterschool and summer enrichment programs for K-12 students. Higher education is set to get a boost, too, including a $7.5 million allocation to the Montana Research and Economic Development Initiative, which will help the Montana University System deploy on-campus research in the private sector.
Elsewhere in education, Democrats touted the House’s passage Thursday of House Bill 403. The proposal, carried by Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, would establish a “grow your own teacher” grant program at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education incentivizing rural students to become teachers in their home communities. The bill now moves to the Senate for further debate.
Several key proposals tackling the state’s new recreational marijuana market made notable advancements this week. House Bill 701, which has the governor’s support but is drawing criticism for requiring county voter approval of recreational cannabis businesses, passed a vote in the House Taxation Committee. The House Business and Labor Committee gave a similar greenlight to House Bill 670, a measure from Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, that more closely aligns with marijuana ballot initiative approved by voters last fall. That committee also passed House Bill 707, a somewhat less popular proposal that would allow the state to tax recreational marijuana wholesale, which was briefly tabled during the committee’s deliberations Thursday. All three bills now move to the House floor for debate.
A bill that would have eliminated Montana’s business equipment tax is stalled after passing an initial vote in the House this week. House Bill 372, which would reduce state tax collections by about $10 million a year, passed a preliminary House vote Wednesday, but was tabled by the House Appropriations Committee Thursday. A separate bill that would expand an equipment tax exemption for smaller businesses, House Bill 303, is backed by the governor and pending before the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.
Another bill backed by the governor and aimed at exempting entrepreneurs who build Montana businesses from capital gains taxes in an effort to stimulate job creation, is moving forward again after stumbling on the House floor last week. Senate Bill 184 narrowly failed an initial floor vote after some Republicans raised concerns it could benefit large marijuana companies. It passed a new vote by a 71-29 margin Wednesday after being amended to exclude businesses that conduct activity considered illegal under federal law.
Public school enrollment dropped 2.4% in Montana during the pandemic. Now, preliminary data from the Office of Public Instruction indicates that the number of K-12 students in the state not only rebounded this fall but is slightly higher than pre-COVID levels.
In Montana, the volume of tests since early August has regularly exceeded the state lab’s capacity, resulting in wait times that can last up to seven days.
A majority of Republican lawmakers last month requested the creation of a special legislative committee to investigate Montana’s 2020 election. Now, a legal memo states that GOP leadership lacks the authority to meet that demand, but raises the possibility of alternative avenues.