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March 31, 2023

The single highest-profile component of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s signature red-tape relief effort, his much-touted push to streamline Montana’s code book in the name of efficient government, has emerged from its initial brush with the Legislature in a much-reduced form.

As introduced back in January, House Bill 152 envisioned a sweeping overhaul of the state’s occupational licensing code, the section of state law that governs licensed professions such as doctors, electricians and accountants. Paired with two other measures, House Bill 87 and House Bill 115, the bill sought to apply standardized forms and procedures to the state’s 32 separate professional licensing boards, many of which operate under idiosyncratic statutes.

Standardizing the licensing code, Gianforte’s office and the state labor department argued, would both make licenses less of a headache for state administrators and make it easier for professionals from other states to get permission to work in Montana.

Licensed professionals and their lobbyists pushed back, raising myriad objections to the proposed changes. The bill languished for more than half the session in the House Business and Labor Committee. As the committee finally passed it March 24, it was amended to a shell of its former self — reduced from 234 pages to five. The sole remaining provisions offer temporary licenses to military spouses living in Montana and exempt licensees who are deployed to military service from renewal fees and continuing education requirements.

“This isn’t quite what I had in mind,” sponsor Bill Mercer, R-Billings, acknowledged on the House floor Wednesday. He added that he hopes the Senate will restore portions of the bill as it moves forward. 

House Business and Labor Chair Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, said during Wednesday’s floor debate that the bill had sought to prescribe a one-size-fits-all system for professions ranging from plumbers to dentists. His committee, he said, was ultimately unable to get administration officials and industry groups on the same page about the bill’s many provisions.

“It put the committee in the role of picking winners and losers between government and industry. And certainly we don’t have the skills to make sure we’re picking the right winners and losers in each circumstance,” Buttrey said. “And boy, if we screw it up, the Legislature’s going to get blamed and industry is going to be in trouble for at least two years until we can come back and fix it.”

Gianforte said at a press conference Thursday that he’s also “hopeful” lawmakers will add some of the struck provisions back in and acknowledged that the initial bill “was so big it was hard to digest.”

He also defended the administration’s work on the measure, saying Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras and others involved in drafting the bill had sent or received 1.7 million emails trying to solicit feedback and had made many changes in response to industry input. 

“We’ve probably put more effort into outreach on that bill than any of the other 187 red-tape relief bills. So it’s extremely important to us,” Gianforte said.

Those other bills have, by and large, had better luck in the legislative gauntlet, many skating through with broad bipartisan support. A bill that eliminated an unused Montana huckleberry purity law, for example, passed with negligible opposition, as did another repealing licensing requirements for what the bill calls “hucksters,” or door-to-door salesmen.

—Eric Dietrich

Bill Report

House Bill 641, which would allow the state to analyze environmental impacts beyond Montana’s borders if the federal government starts regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, received an initially chilly reception from Senate Republicans Thursday. The measure passed the House with just a single Republican in opposition, but on Thursday GOP senators voted down the measure on second reading, 29-21. Despite assurances from Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, that HB 641 is a process bill that will help the state maintain its Environmental Protection Act-delegated authority to regulate air quality, the debate took a strange turn. Sen. Daniel Emrich, R-Great Falls, spoke about other countries attempting to collect cow flatulence in bags, argued that “everything in our life expels carbon,” and urged his colleagues not to “further this insanity.” “I think people heard the word ‘carbon’ and wigged out,” mused Morigeau, who carried the bill in the Senate for House sponsor Katie Zolnikov, R-BillingsSen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, later introduced a successful motion to reconsider, and the bill ultimately passed second reading Friday, 45-5.

Senate Bill 546, a proposal from Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, that would dismantle Montana’s adult-use marijuana industry, was killed this week in the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee on a 4-6 vote. Regier’s bill would have effectively eliminated recreational mrijuana dispensaries in the state and significantly increased the state tax on medical marijuana. Proponents of the bill raised concern about the potency of marijuana and its potential impact on youth. Opponents cried foul on the prospect of the Legislature overruling the citizens who in 2020 voted to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. On Thursday, three Republicans — Senate President Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton, Sen. Jason Small of Busby and Sen. Walt Sales of Manhattan — joined with all three Democratic members of the Business and Labor committee to oppose the bill.

House Bill 649, a Democratic proposal to increase Montana’s lagging Medicaid provider rates to benchmark levels identified by a 2022 state-commissioned study, passed out of House Appropriations Friday on a 14-9 vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, received consistent and insistent support from health care providers and at-home care workers serving seniors, people with disabilities, and people with mental health and substance use disorders. HB 649 was widely approved by the full House on second reading but garnered a cool response from some Republicans on the health budget subcommittee, including Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, who defended the significant rate adjustments Republicans had already advanced. Keenan and a handful of other members of the majority party ultimately voted with Democrats for the bill on Friday with one amendment — a tweak to set aside $14.3 million in state and federal dollars for the health department to increase rates at the agency’s discretion. 

Senate Bill 534, a proposed constitutional amendment from Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, that would impose additional criteria on the state Districting and Apportionment Commission, passed out of the Senate State Administration Committee this week, 7-3. Like all legislative constitutional amendment proposals, McGillvray’s bill requires 100 votes across the Legislature and then approval by the voters in 2024 to go into effect. SB 534 proposes amending the Montana Constitution to stipulate, among other restrictions, that the state’s independent redistricting commission “may not consider any data pertaining to the political affiliation of electors or prior election results.” It’s one of several GOP-backed proposals this session to change the commission’s process following the conclusion of the most recent redistricting cycle, which produced new state House and Senate maps that Republicans have criticized as unduly favoring Democrats — even though the maps would likely leave a sizeable GOP legislative majority intact. Legislative leadership has gotten behind McGillvray’s bill. Other proposed constitutional amendments related to redistricting from Republican Reps. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great FallsPaul Green, R-Hardin, and Brandon Ler, R-Savage, were tabled this week. 

Eye in the Capitol

Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

Activists participate in a “die-in” at the Montana Capitol on March 31 to protest legislation restricting transgender expression and access to health care this session as part of the 2023 International Transgender Day of Visibility.

Heard in the Halls

“We find ourselves sitting in a meeting that is not being conducted at our regular time, not even in our regular room. Although it was posted less than 24 hours ago, an agenda was not posted, and I don’t know that that’s fair to the public. But here we are. More importantly, I believe we’re here today not because members of this committee have changed their perspective or their viewpoint in the last 48 hours. Quite honestly, I think the elephant in the room is that individuals outside this committee disagreed with the outcome of one of our votes, didn’t respect the expressed will of this committee, and so we reconvene.”

Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula, speaking during an irregular meeting of the House Education Committee Friday. The committee convened to reconsider House Bill 837, a “curriculum transparency” bill from Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade. The bill would establish new public access requirements for curricular materials in K-12 schools and add a definition for “critical theory instruction” to state law. The committee’s last regularly scheduled hearing ahead of next week’s transmittal deadline for spending bills took place on Wednesday, at which point a handful of Republicans joined with Democrats to vote down HB 837. But the bill was pulled from the table Friday and put to a vote once more, failing 6-7. The reasons behind Friday’s reconsideration of the bill remain unclear, but Democrats speculated that political gamesmanship was afoot. Attempts to contact the committee’s chair, Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, by email and phone were unsuccessful Friday afternoon. 

—Alex Sakariassen

On Background

Legislative curtain opens on Gianforte’s ‘red-tape relief’ push: For more on Gov. Greg Gianforte’s deregulatory push this session, see this early-session story. (MTFP)

Constitutional amendment proposals heat up ahead of deadline: It’s crunch time for constitutional amendment proposals, including those related to the state’s redistricting process. For more, see this previous Capitolized item. (MTFP)

Health providers scramble to keep remaining staff amid Medicaid rate debate: For more on Montana’s Medicaid provider rate debate, see this story. (Kaiser Health News)