Sine Die — What happened during Montana’s 2021 legislative session?

The 67th session of the Montana Legislature adjourned sine die Thursday, April 29. 

During lawmakers’ 80 days of work, 1,313 bills were introduced, and as of midday Friday at least 302 had been signed into law. 

GOP POWER

Montana Republicans have come a long way since they last left the state Capitol building in 2019, when then-GOP House Majority Leader Brad Tschida stood on the floor of the chamber and bemoaned the divisions in their caucus while a Democratic governor held the power of the veto pen.  

Two years later, the GOP arrived this session with a bolstered majority in both the House and Senate and their first Republican governor in 16 years. Republicans say 2020 voters gave them a mandate to create jobs and jump-start Montana’s economy after pandemic-related shutdowns and touted their legislative accomplishments as a new day for the state. 

The first show of power from Republicans came in setting the tone and rules for how lawmakers would gather and get their work during the pandemic. 

Republicans rejected mask requirements at the statehouse and allowed lawmakers the option to tune in to the session remotely, voting down Democrats’ call to hold the session remotely or postpone. 

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, led the creation of a COVID-19 response panel to deal with virus-related issues during the session.

“I would imagine we are going to have members who are going to get sick,” Ellsworth said during a planning meeting in early December. “But that possibility is there irregardless even if we’re here or not. But the one thing we can do is come together and serve the great [state] of Montana.” 

Multiple cases of COVID-19 were reported among lawmakers, staff, journalists and lobbyists, and at one point in mid-April the Legislature postponed its work as positive cases were tracked at the Capitol. Gov. Greg Gianforte also tested positive. No lawmakers died from COVID. 

HOW THEY SPENT TAX DOLLARS

The two-year budget is a modest increase over the last session by about 2.5%. That’s tight enough that fiscal conservatives can say they’ve held the line on new spending without making sweeping cuts to government services. But Democrats wanted more spending on social services and objected to several last-minute changes to the budget, including a policy changing how often people enrolled in expanded Medicaid must certify that they qualify for benefits, which could result in some people losing program benefits. 

Tax cuts were the centerpiece of Gianforte’s budget agenda. 

Here’s a breakdown of the tax policies that passed: 

Republicans say their plan will save Montana taxpayers $120 million a year, an amount reporters for The Session have not yet been able to verify. Most of that savings is aimed at benefiting higher-earners and business owners, following the logic of trickle-down economics. 

Democrats say more should have been done to provide property tax relief and expand tax cuts and credits for low-income Montanans. 

An important caveat to the state’s modest budget is the windfall of cash Montana received and plans to spend from federal COVID relief dollars. The Legislature allocated much of the state’s multi-billion-dollar share of the stimulus to water and sewer projects, improvements to state-owned buildings, and building out broadband connectivity across the state. While this spending plan has passed the Legislature, states around the country are still waiting for guidelines on how federal relief dollars can actually be spent. 

Republicans and Democrats alike described the stimulus spending as a once-in-a-generation chance for the state to invest in future economic opportunities.

Montanans 21 and older have been able to use and grow their own recreational marijuana since January. The system for how to tax and allow retail sales within the new industry was one of the most high-profile debates of the 2021 session. Lawmakers sought to avoid the pitfalls of Montana’s early medical marijuana program, which initially had minimal guardrails. After extensive debate, lawmakers ended up with an adult-use marijuana policy that most of them seem at least OK with.

Big picture, here’s what it does: 

  • A 20% sales tax on adult-use marijuana, with an additional local-option tax for counties.
  • Counties that didn’t support the November initiative that legalized marijuana will have to hold an election if they want to opt in to allowing dispensaries in their region. 
  • Much of the money from the 20% sales tax will go into the state’s General Fund, with some dollars allocated to veterans services and projects tied to non-wildlife outdoors conservation, including Habitat Montana. Money from the tax will also go to a continuum-of-care program spearheaded by Gianforte’s office, which has not been set up yet.
  • The regulatory and tax program is set to come online in January 2022.

CONSERVATIVE SOCIAL POLICY

With a Republican in the governor’s office, the GOP advanced long-sought anti-abortion policies. In one of the most attended bill signings of the session, Gianforte sat behind a desk on the Capitol steps and signed three new laws that will ban most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, require health care providers to offer an ultrasound before an abortion procedure and restrict medically induced abortions early in pregnancy. 

Policy impacting LGBTQ people also took center stage in the Legislature’s social policy debate. 

Gianforte signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which supporters say increases protections for religious expression, and opponents say will open the door for discrimination of LGBTQ Montanans. Legal questions remain over how much of an impact the policy will have on either side of the debate. 

The Montana Legislature joined multiple Republican-controlled states this year in passing bills to ban transgender athletes from competing on scholastic sports teams that align with their gender identity and put limits on when people can change their gender on their birth certificate. 

While other policies that could have restricted the kind of health care LGBTQ Montanans can access didn’t pass, advocates say they felt pummeled by legislation this session

ELECTIONS AND REDISTRICTING

Republicans approved several changes that will impact how people can vote in Montana. Gianforte said the changes are needed to protect the integrity of elections and ease the burden of county elections workers, especially on Election Day. 

Montana followed GOP lawmakers nationwide in considering rewrites to election rules. The legislative chair of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders has said bills intended to tighten election security are solutions in search of a problem.  

Democrats and Native American voting advocates say Montana’s new rules could make it more difficult for some people to vote. Election administrators say there will have to be considerable education to help voters navigate changes to voter ID and registration procedures. 

During the last week of Montana’s 2021 legislative session, news broke that Montana would gain a second U.S. House seat. Within 24 hours, Republicans advanced a proposal to give the Legislature more of a say in the work of an independent commission in charge of drawing the states’ new congressional districts. Republicans say this will ensure the process is fair. Opponents say it’s an unconstitutional intrusion by the Legislature into the work of Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission, which is made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and a presiding officer without an official party affiliation. 

GOVERNMENTAL POWERS FEUD

Gianforte has signed into law a bill that allows him to fill temporary court vacancies directly, without the involvement of the Judicial Nomination Commission. The law was challenged in court as soon as it was signed and has led to an investigation by Republicans into alleged bias within the Judicial branch after internal emails were released documenting the judge’s opinions on controversial legislation that could come before them. 

All seven Montana Supreme Court justices are defending their impartiality. Democrats say the investigation is political theatre and a violation of the separation of powers between the branches of state government. 

Republicans have set up a special committee to continue the investigation into the judiciary over the next two years. 

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