Gov. Greg Gianforte signs House Bill 176 on April 19, 2021. Credit: Courtesy office of Gov. Greg Gianforte

The 67th Montana Legislature has concluded, but not all of the new policies passed by lawmakers have yet to clear their final hurdle: the signature of Gov. Greg Gianforte. Gianforte does have the option to veto any measures he disagrees with, or he could opt in some cases not to act at all, in which case the bill will become law after 10 days. Here’s a look at some of the major laws Gianforte has signed since the session ended. Montana Free Press will update this information.

VACCINATION

Updated May 7: On Friday, Gianforte’s office announced that he’d signed House Bill 702 into law. The measure, which triggered considerable late-session controversy, declares that the withholding of goods, services or employment by private businesses or government agencies on the basis of vaccination status is illegal discrimination. An amendment added by Gianforte after the Legislature’s initial passage of HB 702 does exempt certain long-term care facilities from the law, and grants hospitals the ability to ask employees to volunteer their vaccination status and to implement additional safety protocols for unvaccinated staff.

BROADBAND

Updated May 11: During a Tuesday ceremony in Hamilton, Gianforte inked his signature on a broadband deployment bill that passed the Legislature with strong bipartisan support. The ConnectMT Act endeavors to increase high-speed internet access by tasking the state with soliciting proposals and awarding contracts to internet service providers to build privately owned networks in underserved parts of the state. A separate measure, House Bill 632, allocated $275 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for those efforts.

TAX POLICY

Updated May 11: Gianforte continued to chip away at his Montana Comeback Plan Tuesday, signing two more key pieces of tax policy passed by the Legislature. The first, dubbed the Entrepreneur Magnet Act, establishes a capital gains tax exemption for people who build businesses in the state. The Corporate Tax Modernization Act, meanwhile, aims to increase tax collections from out-of-state digital retailers selling products in Montana while lowering taxes on in-state manufacturers.

Gianforte also signed House Bill 464 over the weekend, repealing a law passed in 1979 that allowed county voters to approve a local gas tax to support transportation infrastructure maintenance. Last fall, Missoula County became the first and only county in the state to pass such a tax.

Updated May 6: Gianforte signed two bills Thursday cutting Montana’s top income tax rate in the coming years in a ceremony at Thompson Precision Manufacturing in Kalispell. Senate Bill 159 cuts the marginal rate from 6.9% to 6.75% in 2022, reducing state tax collections by an estimated $30 million a year, and Senate Bill 399 reduces the rate further to 6.5% starting in 2024 as part of a broad-based rewrite of the state income tax code. SB 399 also eliminates several state tax credits starting next year. Gianforte has said the rate cuts will boost Montana’s economy by making the state a more attractive place to build businesses.

And during a signing ceremony Tuesday at Fort Benton’s Golden Triangle Brew Company, Gianforte officially signed a core tax policy component of his Montana Comeback Plan into law. The change, captured in House Bill 303, increases the state’s business equipment tax exemption from $100,000 to $300,000, which Gianforte said will save small businesses money and help stimulate local economies.

COVID RELIEF

Montana will allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID stimulus money to infrastructure programs through House Bill 632, which Gianforte has signed. The bill allocates $463 million for local water and sewer project grants, $119 million for state-owned building projects and $275 million to broadband connectivity projects. Specific awards will be made by the governor with input from advisory commissions.

HEALTH CARE

Updated May 14: Gianforte signed a trio of bills into law this week aimed at improving Montanans’ access to health care. Senate Bill 357 expands telehealth services in the state by guaranteeing telehealth coverage for Medicaid enrollees and allowing patients to receive remote treatment from specialists including physical therapists and audiologists. Senate Bill 374 allows certain medical professionals to dispense drugs that are not federally controlled directly to patients, and the Montana Pharmacy Benefit Manager Oversight Act requires companies that process drug claims for health insurers to register and report their finances to the state — a change Insurance Commissioner Troy Downing said will help drive down prescription drug prices.

CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS

Updated May 14: The governor’s office announced Wednesday that Gianforte had signed Senate Bill 319 into law, approving a measure that received several last-minute amendments during the session’s final days. The bill was originally aimed at allowing statewide political candidates and political parties to create joint fundraising committees. In addition to that, the new law also restricts voter registration and signature gathering efforts in college dorms and dining halls, requires that optional student fees supporting the University of Montana-based Montana Public Interest Research Group be opt-in, and mandates that judges recuse themselves from cases involving attorneys who donated significantly to their campaigns.

EMERGENCY POWERS

Following a year of state and local governments taking rigorous measures to combat COVID-19, Republicans pushed hard this session to set up new guardrails around emergency powers. Gianforte green-lit several of those changes, among them Senate Bill 185, which bars the governor from suspending any laws affecting Montanans’ constitutional rights. He also signed House Bill 429, meaning the governor can no longer suspend election laws without the consent of the Montana Legislature.

EDUCATION

Updated May 14: On Wednesday, Gianforte ushered one of the more controversial education bills of the session into law. In a move that largely divided Republican and Democratic lawmakers, House Bill 279 increases the cap on tax credits individuals or businesses can receive for donations to private school scholarships from $150 to $200,000. The bill also raises the credit cap for donations to supplemental public school funds to $200,000.

Gianforte also signed House Bill 46 this week, which will require future Legislatures to include inflationary funding for special needs students in the state’s primary K-12 education budget.

Montana will be committing more money to trade-based education at its three community college campuses in the coming years following Gianforte’s signing of House Bill 67. The new law incentivizes enrollment in career and technical-ed courses by increasing the state funding community colleges receive based on those courses. Gianforte approved a companion bill as well, House Bill 179, which streamlines local funding sources for new community colleges down to a single levy subject to approval by voters.

One significant change to public K-12 education is a new requirement, established by Senate Bill 99, that schools must annually notify parents if their child is slated for sex education classes, and inform them of their right to withdraw their child from those classes. Similarly, any school events or assemblies involving human sexuality instruction require parental notification at least 48 hours in advance. Schools must also make all sex ed curriculum materials available for public inspection, and districts are barred from allowing health care providers that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood, to provide students with any instruction or course materials on human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases.

NATURAL RESOURCES

Updated May 14: Gianforte affixed his signature to Senate Bill 98 this week, making it legal under state law for an individual who sees a grizzly bear threatening livestock to kill the bear. Since grizzlies are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act, opponents have argued the federal government could still pursue charges.

Gianforte also signed Senate Bill 87, a measure that directs the owners of a coal-fired plant to conduct a study on water feasibility. The city of Colstrip relies on the Colstrip power plant to pump water from the Yellowstone River into a reservoir used by the community for clean drinking water. The continuation of that water supply is starting to come into question as Colstrip owners eye a plant closure date. SB 87 is intended to give Colstrip residents some certainty about the future of their water supply.

Updated May 7: Late this week, Gianforte signed a major policy shift impacting nuclear energy into law. House Bill 273 strikes a provision in law that says voters must sign off on nuclear energy developments and removes such development from the purview of the Major Facility Siting Act.

Three measures pertaining to how Fish, Wildlife and Parks manages predators were signed into law last Friday. House Bill 468 creates a spring hound hunting season for black bears, which will be followed by a chase season that will run until June 15. Senate Bill 314, which is aimed at significantly reducing the state’s wolf population, lifts bag limits for wolves and legalizes the use of bait and hunting at night on private land. And Senate Bill 337 changes how FWP handles grizzlies that come into conflict with people, preventing FWP wildlife managers from relocating problem grizzlies outside of zones already approved by the governor-appointed Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Bison management has been another big wildlife issue this session. House Bill 302 is now law, requiring county commissioners to sign off on wild bison relocations within their jurisdictions. 

Gianforte also signed Senate Bill 358, which deals with water quality regulations. It strikes a statute that established defined limits on the amount of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that can be present in waterways. In place of a numeric standard, the “narrative” water quality standard that was previously in effect will be restored. 

TRANSGENDER RIGHTS

Montanans wishing to change the sex designation on their birth certificate will now need to obtain surgery and a court order first. Gianforte signed Senate Bill 280, reversing an administrative rule enacted under former Gov. Steve Bullock. The previous policy required only that a person fill out a form requesting the gender on their birth certificate be updated. The new policy, requiring a judge’s order and documentation of surgery, goes into effect immediately.

This story was updated May 6, 2021, to correct the mechanism by which HB 67 increases funding to community colleges.

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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.