Credit: Eliza Wiley/MTFP

HELENA — With the 2021 session of the Montana Legislature entering its final weeks, the clock is ticking for lawmakers to push bills on a variety of issues across their procedural finish lines. Even so, the Legislature’s Republican leadership made time to escalate a dispute with the state Supreme Court over judicial emails, launching a full-fledged investigation into judicial conduct.

And late Friday, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office released a list of 42 bills the governor has signed into law.

Here’s what else happened.

WATER QUALITY

Senate Bill 164, which proposed to loosen nitrate standards the DEQ uses to regulate water quality, narrowly failed second reading in the House, 48-52, and is likely dead. An amended version of another proposal, by Carl Glimm, R-Columbia Falls, that would shift subdivision rulemaking from the DEQ to the Board of Environmental Review and change specific sanitation standards, passed out of the House and will return to the Senate.

An amended version of Senate Bill 358, a measure sponsored by John Esp, R-Big Timber, to replace numeric water quality standards with narrative standards passed out of the Legislature Thursday. Environmental advocates opposed that measure out of concern it would lead to degradation of the state’s waterways, while proponents say it will make it easier for water treatment facilities to stay in compliance with the law.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT & PUBLIC LAND

By a vote of 30-20, a bill sponsored by Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, that would require county commissioners to sign off on wild bison relocations passed the House. It will head to the governor’s desk in the coming weeks. Proponents of House Bill 302 said it will provide important brucellosis controls, while opponents said brucellosis concerns are overblown and the bill will interfere with tribes’ ability to manage bison and the establishment of wild herds.

Three major proposals pertaining to predator management passed out of the House Wednesday. Those include a bill that limits grizzly bear relocation to previously approved zones in the Greater Yellowstone, Cabinet-Yaak and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems, a measure establishing a black bear spring hound hunting season, and a proposal that lifts bag limits for wolves and legalizes hunting with bait and at night on private land.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, was tabled in the Senate Natural Resources Committee Friday afternoon. House Bill 320 would have prevented the state from selling federal public land transferred to the state. Gunderson said he pursued the measure in part to put public land under state, rather than federal, regulatory oversight. Opponents described it as a “red herring” measure designed to facilitate public land transfer. 

REGULATORY TAKINGS

Senate Bill 260, one of the more under-the-radar but consequential measures before lawmakers, failed second reading in the House Wednesday. SB 260 is what’s known as a “regulatory takings” bill. It would have permitted someone whose property has been devalued 25% or more due to state or local regulations to bring a lawsuit against the state to recoup the loss.

Proponents deemed SB 260 one of the most important private property measures before lawmakers, while opponents said it would hamstring state agencies’ ability to enforce measures that protect public health and the environment.

ENERGY POLICY

House Bill 273, which seeks to remove restrictions on nuclear development, passed out of the Legislature Thursday, 30-20, largely along party lines with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing. It strikes a requirement for voters to approve future nuclear energy projects, and takes those projects out of the purview of the DEQ-administered Major Facility Siting Act.

Two bills pertaining to how and where disagreements between Colstrip owners are adjudicated passed out of the Legislature on Tuesday. Both measures are sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. Senate Bill 265 would allow the state’s attorney general to fine Colstrip owners up to $100,000 per day if they fail to pay costs associated with the continued operation of the coal-fired power plant.

Senate Bill 379, which has become one of the session’s most high-profile bills, was heard in the House Energy Committee Wednesday. That measure, also sponsored by Fitzpatrick, has garnered more than 1,500 comments in opposition and has spurred public demonstrations around the state. Proponents say it will extend the working life of Colstrip, while opponents say it will saddle utility customers with exorbitant energy bills without any guarantee the facility will remain operational. During a Tuesday morning meeting, the Public Service Commission remained in opposition of the bill.

Rep. Steve Gunderson’s “Protect Critical Infrastructure” bill, which would significantly increase penalties associated with trespassing and defacing utility equipment like pipelines, passed out of the Senate Thursday along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.

POLITICAL SPENDING

Senate Bill 162, a controversial measure to lift reporting requirements for political expenditures by religious organizations, was revived in the Senate State Administration Committee Wednesday. It was inserted into another bill, House Bill 689, that seeks to increase lawmakers’ oversight of the activities and expenditures of MontPIRG, a University of Montana student-led organization that engages in political issue advocacy. That action came unbeknownst to HB 689’s sponsor, and just two days ahead of a key legislative deadline. The Senate committee voted to pass the amended bill along party lines and it will now go before the full Senate.

EDUCATION

House Bill 179, a proposal to streamline the local funding for new community college districts in Montana, cleared a final round of votes in the House and will now move to the governor’s desk. It is sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton.

Another K-12 funding bill passed an initial Senate floor vote Thursday. House Bill 663 would direct state tax revenues from recreational marijuana to public schools in an effort to decrease school funding pressures placed on local property taxpayers.

VACCINES

Lawmakers on the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee Monday heard testimony on two bills aimed at relaxing vaccination requirements in Montana. House Bill 702 would bar businesses and government agencies from denying goods, services, employment, health care access or educational opportunities to people on the basis of vaccination status. And House Bill 703 would prohibit private and government entities from requiring that people produce an “immunity passport,” or certificate proving immunity, in order to travel or gain access to goods or services.

The bills revived a debate that arose from similar but unsuccessful proposals earlier in the session, with proponents arguing that vaccination requirements violate civil liberties and opponents countering that vaccines are essential to maintaining public health.

BUDGETS 

Montana’s main state budget bill, House Bill 2, is headed to a conference committee for final tweaks after a procedural vote on the House floor Monday. Two bills allocating federal stimulus money, House Bill 630, and House Bill 632, cleared Senate floor votes this week but are likely headed for similar treatment.

latest stories

Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.

Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.

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.