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.

VETOES

Updated May 20: On Thursday, Gianforte officially nixed House Bill 188, which would have imposed annual electric vehicle registration fees ranging from $195-$1,300 depending on the size and type of vehicle. He wrote that he applauded the attempt to make sure electric vehicle owners pay into the state highway’s trust fund, but said he couldn’t sign off on one of the highest electric vehicle registration fees in the country. Gianforte said he was particularly concerned about the $375 fee for the “heavy truck” category, which would apply to all-electric light-duty electric trucks manufactured by Ford, Toyota, Dodge, Chevy and GMC. He said he would have supported more modest fees originally proposed by lawmakers, but that the fees legislators ultimately landed on are out of alignment with his agenda to make Montana a more competitive tax environment.

Updated May 18: On Friday, Gianforte announced one of his more prominent vetoes to date on Senate Bill 278, a measure that proposed a number of changes to civil liability law. If made law, it would have directed the Montana attorney general to collect the donor rolls of nonprofit groups that challenge or support government regulation — a provision Gianforte singled out in his veto letter as one he could not back. SB 278 would have also classified legal fees awarded to nonprofits opposing or supporting regulation as business income rather than nonprofit income.  

Gianforte also vetoed a high-profile bill on emergency powers. Senate Bill 108 aimed to allow voters to petition for an election to repeal or amend actions taken by local health boards. In his veto letter, Gianforte wrote that two other measures already signed into law — House Bill 121 and House Bill 257 — were already adequate to increase accountability and bring “greater oversight of local public health actions.” Another pandemic-inspired proposal, House Bill 158, was similarly vetoed. That bill would have established a commission to review state regulations that were temporarily suspended in response to COVID-19 and determine which suspensions should be made permanent.

Gianforte’s Friday announcement listed 11 vetoes. All were of bills sponsored by Republicans, including an interim study of state winemaking regulations and a proposal to shift rulemaking authority for subdivisions from the Department of Environmental Quality to the Board of Environmental Review. In vetoing the latter, Gianforte wrote that while he shares supporters’ concerns about the current subdivision review process, the bill presented to him “may have unintended consequences and impacts to private property.”

THE BUDGET

Updated May 20: Gianforte signed the state’s two-year budget bill, praising it as a “fiscally conservative, pro-jobs budget.” The measure, House Bill 2, authorizes state agency spending through June 2023 and totals approximately $12 billion. Democrats had sought more spending on social services, and most members of the minority party opposed the budget bill in final votes.

MARIJUANA

Updated May 20: After months of legislative debate over how to implement Montana’s adult-use marijuana program, Gianforte signed House Bill 701 into law Tuesday. The final version directs tax revenues from adult-use cannabis toward state parks, recreation trails and conservation efforts, as well as a new fund for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs. Under the new law, counties in which a majority of voters rejected last fall’s adult-use ballot measure will have to individually opt in to the marijuana program through a local election.

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

Updated May 18: Gianforte signed another massive allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funding into law late last week. House Bill 630 establishes a roadmap for how the state will spend hundreds of millions of dollars sent its way by Congress in December’s CARES II Act. That money includes $183 million flagged for emergency rental assistance through the Montana Department of Commerce, and $170 million earmarked for the Office of Public Instruction to help alleviate funding issues for K-12 schools experiencing pandemic-related fluctuations in student enrollment.

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.

LEGISLATIVE INVESTIGATIONS

Updated May 18: Late last week, Gianforte signed House Bill 483, which authorizes five year-round staff positions for the Legislature, including an attorney who can serve as a special counsel to assist in legislative investigations such as the ongoing GOP-led probe targeting alleged bias in the Montana judiciary.

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 18: Several revisions to Montana campaign practice laws were approved by the governor late last week. House Bill 689 requires that political committees leasing office space on university campuses and spending more than $5,000 annually file a report of fundraising and spending activity with the Legislature. Only one group, the University of Montana-based MontPIRG, currently fits that description. Due to last-minute amendments, the new law also exempts religious organizations from having to disclose political activity to the state provided that activity doesn’t target the general public.

Another change signed by Gianforte excuses political candidates from having to disclose the use of someone’s private property for fundraising events as a campaign contribution. Senate Bill 224 also increases limits on contributions candidates can receive from individuals and political parties. In the case of gubernatorial candidates, for example, the individual limit is increased from $500 to $1,000 and the party limit is increased from $18,000 to $100,000.

Gianforte also signed House Bill 506, which specifies how the state’s districting commission should go about dividing Montana into two districts for U.S. House elections starting in 2022, dictating specific factors for the body to prioritize. Given the way the Montana Constitution spells out the independent districting commission’s power, however, it isn’t clear whether the commission has to comply with the new law.

And finally, House Bill 530 now bars people from collecting mail-in ballots if they’re paid to do so. The law mirrors the Ballot Interference Prevention Act, which was passed as a ballot measure in 2018 but struck down by a Billings judge last year for disproportionately impacting Native American voters. The Montana ACLU and several Native voting rights groups involved in that litigation filed a similar lawsuit challenging HB 530 this week.

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

Updated May 18: On Friday, Gianforte’s office announced he’d signed House Bill 230 into law, giving the Legislature authority to terminate, extend or set additional limits on a state of emergency declaration issued by the governor. The law also establishes religious services as an essential service during such emergencies.

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 18: Late last week, Gianforte officially approved the creation of a “grow your own” teacher grant program in Montana. House Bill 403, sponsored by Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, is designed to address rural educator shortages by helping colleges develop teacher preparation programs and incentivizing local students to become teachers in rural communities.

Gianforte also signed House Bill 572, a proposal from Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, establishing a school marshal program in Montana. The new law allows local school boards to employ a marshal to prevent violent altercations on school property, and requires that a marshal have a concealed carry permit to be eligible for the job.

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 18: House Bill 637, which was amended late in the session to include a number of provisions benefitting the outfitting industry, was also signed into law. It allows non-resident hunters who booked a hunt with an outfitter last year but did not draw a tag the opportunity to purchase a license this year, and 3,000 nonresident tags will be made available for that purpose. Bill sponsor Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, said it’s a one-time deal to help the outfitting industry recover from the impact of COVID-19. HB 637 also includes a number of more lasting provisions, including one that gives non-resident outfitted clients the chance to purchase an additional “preference point” to boost their odds of drawing a tag.

House Bill 318, which modifies the definition of wild bison, was also signed into law. It would narrow the definition of wild bison in existing statute by excluding any bison that have been owned by a person or held in captivity. All other bison, except those owned by a tribal member and located on a reservation, would be subject to a per capita fee.

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.