Credit: Eliza Wiley/MTFP

Activity at the Montana Legislature picked up considerably this week, with lawmakers busily working to amend and pass a range of policy proposals as the (as yet unscheduled) session’s end looms. Debates swung wildly from LGBTQ rights to coal-fired power to skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine, and dozens of measures cleared key hurdles, including a proposed constitutional amendment to extend Montanans’ privacy protections to electronic data and communications, which passed both chambers and will now appear on the 2022 ballot. Elsewhere in the Capitol, Gov. Greg Gianforte continued to chip away at an ever-growing pile of bills awaiting his signature.

VOTING

Gianforte signed two major changes to Montana election laws Monday, halting same-day voter registration and enacting more stringent voter identification requirements. The move sparked an immediate backlash from the Montana Democratic Party, which filed a lawsuit requesting that a District Court judge bar Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen from enforcing the new laws. So far, Gianforte and Jacobsen have yet to formally respond to the legal challenge.

And on Thursday, Gianforte approved two more pieces of election-related legislation. The first, Senate Bill 196, allows polling places to limit Election Day voting hours from noon to 8 p.m. if fewer than 400 voters are expected to show up. The second, Senate Bill 226, exempts candidates from having to pay back personal campaign loans with primary campaign funds, freeing that money for use in general elections. The Senate also passed a measure Friday to dramatically increase the amount of money political parties can contribute to political candidates, and the House advanced a bill that would prohibit individuals from receiving a ballot until they’ve met state residency and age requirements for voting, even if they’ll be eligible on Election Day.

TAX POLICY

A pair of Republican measures cutting state income taxes in the coming years passed initial votes in the House this week. The first, the governor-backed Senate Bill 159, would cut the state’s top-bracket tax rate from 6.9% to 6.75% starting in 2022. The second, Senate Bill 399, cuts the top rate further, to 6.5% and also eliminates several state tax credits as part of a full-fledged overhaul of the state income tax system. The tax credit elimination piece of SB 399 would take effect in 2022, and the 6.5% rate in 2024.

Proponents said the measures had been amended to delay their effective dates until the state can be sure they don’t conflict with a provision in the March federal stimulus bill that aims to keep states from using stimulus dollars to offset tax reductions. Both face further procedural votes in the House and Senate before heading to the governor’s desk.

TRANS RIGHTS AND RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION 

On Friday, the Legislature passed one of the most contentious bills to hit its docket this session. House Bill 112 would bar transgender women and girls from participating on women’s K-12 and collegiate sports teams, and was recently amended to be void if it jeopardizes federal education funding for Montana schools. In two rapid-succession votes, the bill cleared third reading on the House floor and, hours later, the Senate floor. HB 112 now goes to Gianforte, who has not publicly stated his position. Gianforte did sign the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act Friday, which would allow Montanans to cite their religious beliefs in court when defending non-compliance with laws and policies.

Another proposal that LGBTQ advocates have fought hard to defeat appears to have stalled. House Bill 427, which would have barred physicians and health care professionals from providing gender affirming surgeries to youth, was indefinitely postponed on the Senate floor Tuesday. Opponents trumpeted the bill’s apparent demise, while its sponsor, Rep. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, openly questioned the “moral courage” of Republican senators who approved the postponement.

MARIJUANA

After more than a week of intense debate over how to handle adult-use marijuana in Montana, lawmakers finally advanced a single bill out of committee Wednesday. House Bill 701 deals with a dizzying list of provisions, from licensing requirements for marijuana businesses and workers to where state tax revenues generated from marijuana sales will go. A major sticking point in the deliberations was whether to give county governments the ability to prohibit marijuana businesses within their jurisdictions. Legislators split the difference by allowing counties where the 2020 legalization ballot measure passed to opt out of the program, and counties where it failed to opt in. HB 701 passed an initial vote on the Senate floor Friday.

HEALTH

A bill allowing doctors to establish direct payment agreements with patients became law Wednesday. The idea was a major talking point during the 2020 election, and supporters touted the agreements as a more affordable alternative to health insurance. Democratic lawmakers largely opposed the measure, citing concerns about patients getting hit with costly medical bills if they develop injuries or medical conditions not covered under an agreement. Gianforte also signed a bill expanding telehealth services in Montana by permanently eliminating regulations lifted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and requiring that telehealth be covered by health insurance plans. That proposal passed the Legislature unanimously.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to advance a pair of controversial bills that ease state vaccination requirements. Both measures would bar government agencies and private businesses from requiring people to provide proof of vaccination in order to receive goods, services, health care, public assistance or employment. One of the bills passed the Senate floor Friday. The other will head to the full Senate next week.

EDUCATION

Gianforte signed off on one of the session’s largest pieces of non-fiscal education legislation Monday. House Bill 246, which passed the Legislature with strong bipartisan support last month, grants local school officials greater decision-making authority in tailoring education to individual students. It also establishes a new class of educator license that allows industry professionals to become certified to teach. Trade-based education got an additional boost in the form of a tax credit for employers who pay for their employees to learn a trade. The credits are a key component of Gianforte’s Montana Comeback Plan, feeding into his broader push to spur economic recovery by incentivizing career and technical education.

JUSTICE AND THE JUDICIARY

A trio of bills addressing Montana’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons crisis became law this week. Gianforte signed the first two Monday, approving the establishment of a commission at the Department of Justice to review unsolved cases involving missing Indigenous persons and the continuation of a grant program that has helped tribal colleges set up missing persons reporting systems. During a signing ceremony Wednesday, Gianforte added his signature to a measure extending the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force another two years.

Lawmakers meanwhile continued to advance a series of bills that would have a marked impact on Montana’s judiciary system. Senate Bill 402 would rework the state’s contested Judicial Nominating Commission, expanding it to 15 people and making a majority of members non-attorneys appointed by the governor. Gianforte previously signed into law Senate Bill 140, a measure that would have eliminated the nominating commission outright. However, that new law could be overturned by a pending court challenge. SB 402 passed the Senate earlier this month and won support from the House in an initial vote Friday, largely on party lines. And a bill asking voters to approve the election of state Supreme Court justices by district rather than statewide passed the Senate 29-21 Friday. The House will have to approve amendments to that bill next week.

Friday also brought mixed results for Montana judges appointed by former Gov. Steve Bullock. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the confirmation of Cascade County District Judge Michele Levine on a 7-4 vote, but unanimously approved Judge Peter Ohmann to the bench in Gallatin County — a final decision on Ohmann now falls to the full Senate. The committee has yet to take a vote on the confirmation of Lewis and Clark County District Judge Chris Abbott, who was appointed by Bullock last November.

NATURAL RESOURCES

A bill that seeks to modify the definition of bison passed second reading in the House after being amended in the Senate. It’s likely headed to the governor’s desk. 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, which is unlikely for the next decade per a settlement agreement the state recently reached pertaining to bison restoration. Proponents of House Bill 318 say it will introduce more fairness to livestock production by requiring the state to collect per-capita fees from bison ranchers as it does for cattle.

An amended version of House Bill 367, which would amend the Montana Constitution to recognize Montanans’ hunting, trapping and fishing rights and establish those activities as the preferred and “primary but not exclusive” means of managing wildlife, narrowly failed third reading before the Senate. Since it involves a constitutional amendment, two-thirds of the body’s vote is required, and it fell one vote shy of that threshold.

Also on the wildlife front, Gianforte signed a bill to reimburse hunters and trappers for costs incurred in the hunting or trapping of wolves. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, said it will help ranchers keep livestock safe from wolf predation and bring ungulate populations up in western Montana. Opponents counter that the state’s elk population is higher now than when wolves were reintroduced in the state. They also argue that the measure harkens to a dark day in the state’s history when a bounty on wolves led to the species’ near-extirpation.

The House voted 65-35 to reject a bill by Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, that would have changed the state’s standards for cloud seeding, a practice that’s used in some neighboring states to build snowpack levels for the benefit of agricultural producers and hydroelectric utility companies. It narrowly passed the Senate a month ago and is now likely dead. 

In a late-session plot twist, Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip introduced an amendment to House Bill 693, a subsidiary of the Legislature’s broader funding bill, that would direct the Department of Justice to investigate the “electioneering and related political and lobbying activities of environmental organizations.” Among other things, the DOJ would be empowered to investigate such groups’ funding, “engagement in political speech,” and influence over the government’s regulatory or permitting actions. Democrats attempted unsuccessfully to strip Ankney’s amendment from HB 693 late Friday afternoon on the Senate floor. The bill passed a subsequent vote 29-21.

ENERGY

Senate Bill 379, the measure drafted by NorthWestern Energy to guarantee cost recovery and a rate of return on new coal-fired power acquisitions, was tabled in the House Energy Committee Wednesday 11-1. But part of it was revived Friday when Ankney introduced an amendment to House Bill 695, which focuses on water utility arbitration. The Senate Natural Resources Committee approved the amendment against Democrats’ protests. They said introducing an amendment from a failed piece of legislation was out of order, particularly given that the host bill shares little in common with SB 379. The amendment allows utility companies like NorthWestern Energy to recover from ratepayers the costs associated with power outages and noncompliance with environmental standards without first receiving approval from the Public Service Commission. It also includes a provision saying the state cannot reject nuclear energy projects on the grounds that the federal government has failed to address nuclear waste disposal. It passed out of committee on party lines 7-5, and will go before the full Senate, likely next week.

Senate Joint Resolution 3, which directs the state to conduct a study on the feasibility of advanced nuclear reactors for use in Colstrip, passed out of the House Wednesday by a vote of 78-20.

Finally, an amended version of Rep. Steve Gunderson’s “Protect Critical Infrastructure” bill was approved by the House after receiving amendments in the Senate. The amended version has more forgiving penalties and a narrower focus than what was included in the original version. It appears likely to pass third reading next week and land on Gov. Gianforte’s desk. 

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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.