Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

HELENA — Lawmakers spent much of this past week juggling measures affecting revenue and spending, namely the three competing bills that outline how the state will regulate recreational marijuana and House Bill 2, the Legislature’s primary budget bill for state spending over the next two years. On top of both of those behemoth pieces of legislation, there are still plenty of policy issues percolating in both chambers.

MARIJUANA 

Lawmakers vigorously debated three proposals on Wednesday for how to approach the state’s budding marijuana industry, eventually passing all the measures on to the Senate in an effort to keep options available for “additional amendments and input,” according to House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings. 

House Bill 701, introduced by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-East Missoula, and backed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, is the bill most likely to land on the governor’s desk. It strays from the language of the ballot initiative voters endorsed last fall, Initiative 190, by requiring counties to vote on whether to allow recreational marijuana businesses in their community, and it would open the door for out-of-state producers to enter Montana’s recreational market. House Bill 670 was authored by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, and is more closely aligned with last year’s initiative. House Bill 707, authored by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, would treat recreational marijuana like alcohol and allow the state to tax it wholesale. 

All three bills have been criticized by conservation groups and Democrats for steering a majority of cannabis tax revenue into the state’s General Fund, instead of into conservation projects as language in Initiative 190 had suggested. 

PUBLIC EDUCATION

Lawmakers advanced a number of significant proposals this week impacting K-12 education in Montana, starting with the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee’s approval Wednesday of House Bill 403. That bill, introduced by Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, would establish a statewide grant program to incentivize rural students to become teachers in their home communities. The committee also passed House Bill 572, which allows schools to employ active or retired law enforcement officers as armed “marshals” on school grounds, and House Bill 46, which rolls inflationary funding for special education into the state’s primary K-12 budget.

Over in the House, a measure to increase the tax credit cap on donations to private school scholarships cleared the floor Thursday and will now land before the Senate. And Senate Bill 99 passed its final floor vote Friday, paving the way for new restrictions on sexual education in public schools and a prohibition on instruction from medical groups that provide abortions. SB 99 now heads to the governor’s desk.

ENERGY

Several important measures pertaining to coal-fired generation and nuclear energy development advanced this week. Three bills sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, that influence the future of Colstrip met significant milestones. Senate bills 265 and 266, which deal with how and where disagreements between Colstrip owners are adjudicated, passed out of the House Energy Committee. Senate Bill 379, a proposal that would allow NorthWestern Energy to acquire additional coal-fired power generation with a near-guaranteed cost recovery from ratepayers, passed third reading before the Senate Thursday 27-21. 

Senate Bill 176, a competing measure brought by Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, passed second reading 29-21 on Tuesday before failing third reading two days later, 12-36. Molnar’s measure was intended to discourage Colstrip owners from leaving the plant and would have ensured that any stranded costs associated with remediation and unrecovered investments would be paid by utility shareholders rather than energy ratepayers.

Senate Joint Resolution 3, which was introduced by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, passed out of the House Energy Committee and is bound for the full House. It directs the state to conduct an interim study on the use of advanced nuclear reactors. Another nuclear measure, House Bill 273 brought by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, passed out of the Senate Energy Committee 9-4, and is now bound for the full Senate. In addition to striking a provision in law that says voters must sign off on nuclear energy developments, it removes them from the purview of the Major Facility Siting Act.

ENVIRONMENT AND WILDLIFE

Senate Bill 358, which would lift numeric water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorus and switch to a more subjective narrative standard, passed second reading in the Senate Friday. Proponents say it will make it easier to stay in compliance with standards, while opponents argue it will weaken protections for one of the state’s most valuable resources.

House Bill 302, a measure that would require county commissioners to sign off on wild bison transfers into their county, passed second reading in the Senate and is scheduled for third reading on Monday. It will have a bearing on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ ability to establish future herds of wild bison.

In other land-use news, Senate Bill 115, a bill sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Whitefish, that would require the state Land Board to sign off on acquisitions of conservation easements larger than 500 acres or worth more than $1 million, was signed by the governor on Thursday. In the past couple of months, significant amendments were made to the original version of the bill, which set the consideration threshold at 100 acres and $100,000.

TAX BILLS AND THE STATE BUDGET

A major income tax overhaul sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, passed the Senate this week. Senate Bill 399 is pitched as an effort to make it easier for Montanans to complete their tax paperwork by bringing state tax rules into closer alignment with federal ones. It also includes rate cuts for high-income taxpayers and eliminates several existing tax credits.

Senate Bill 182, a “trigger bill” providing for automatic income tax cuts in the event of future budget surpluses, passed an initial vote in the House on party lines Friday. The bill, also sponsored by Hertz, is still scheduled for a final vote in the House but will likely pass and proceed to the governor.

House Bill 2, the state’s main budget bill, cleared the Senate this week, moving the $12.6 billion, two-year spending package closer to final approval. It now returns to the House for continued deliberation on the latest amendments. 

Justin Franz contributed reporting.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.