Winners, losers and blended baggage of the 67th Legislature

Montana’s 67th Legislative session formally adjourned Thursday afternoon, with dueling sine die motions from the House and Senate bringing legislators’ work for 2021 to an official end.

This year’s session was the first since 2003 where a Republican-controlled Legislature had the chance to pitch laws to a Republican in the governor’s office — a dynamic that delivered the state a wave of conservative policy. As proceedings came to a close Thursday, Republican leaders touted tax cuts, free market health care measures and the passage of what they called a responsible, fiscally conservative budget. 

“The 67th Legislature is one Montanans can be proud of,” said Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale.

“I think we’ve shown Montana that we deserve to be here to legislate,” said Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell.

Minority Democrats said Thursday afternoon that their caucus had been successful in helping shape major legislation, such as measures spending federal COVID relief dollars on major infrastructure initiatives.

“That money is going to do a lot of good in this state,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott. “Our fingerprints are all over that legislation.”

In all, Montana’s 50 state senators and 100 state representatives introduced a total of 1,313 bills and resolutions since the Legislature convened in January. Of those, nearly 400 have passed into law and another 300 are either awaiting the governor’s signature or en route to his desk.

As lawmakers head back home — and their constituents evaluate the work they did — here’s an initial look at the session’s winners and losers.

Winner: Gianomics

A newly sworn-in Gianforte kicked off the legislative session in January by proposing a suite of tax cuts he said would create jobs by making Montana a more competitive destination for entrepreneurs and relocating out-of-state businesses. Despite opposition from minority Democrats, who wanted fewer tax cuts for the rich and more relief for lower-income Montanans, legislative Republicans ushered nearly all those proposals into law. 

The highest-profile tax proposal backed by the governor reduces the tax rate assessed on Montana’s top earners from 6.9% to 6.75% starting in 2022. A separate measure rewrites much of the state tax code and eliminates several tax credits in order to bring that rate down to 6.5% starting in 2024. Republicans have called the reductions an initial step toward making Montana competitive with other states in the Rocky Mountain West. Democrats note Montana is the only state in the region without a sales tax.

Other laws supported by the governor will exempt more businesses from the state business equipment tax and carve out a capital gains tax exemption for entrepreneurs who cash out after building Montana-based businesses.

Democrats took several passes at providing property tax relief and expanding income tax credits for low-income families without garnering Republican support. Republicans did, however, pass a measure that lowers property taxes by offsetting some local school taxes with marijuana tax revenue and about $10 million a year from the state’s General Fund.

Winner: Vaccine Skeptics

One of the session’s late-breaking dustups arose from a cadre of Republican lawmakers and citizens who voiced deep reservations about the nation’s rush to vaccinate against COVID-19. Claims of widespread adverse side-effects mingled with allegations of immunization mandates to propel passage of a bill barring government agencies and private businesses from making vaccination a requirement. Hospitals countered that the broad language of House Bill 702 encompassed not just the COVID-19 vaccine, but vaccines for influenza, measles, whooping cough and other communicable diseases, resulting in a threat to the safety of staff and patients and to hospitals’ ability to comply with federal health regulations.

Ultimately the Legislature approved HB 702 after receiving assurance from the governor’s office that the bill would not create added risk for health care facilities. Gianforte returned HB 702 with an amendment of his own that more directly addressed those concerns. And while several Republican lawmakers expressed hesitancy in voting for the bill, they decided to take the governor at his word and grant vaccine-mandate opponents their wish. HB 702 was sent back to Gianforte on the final day of the session.

Loser: Marginalized Voters

Throughout the 67th Legislature, voting rights groups fought hard against a litany of bills they argued would disenfranchise large pockets of voters across Montana. Among the more controversial proposals was a pitch to eliminate same-day voter registration, which has been established practice in the state since it was approved on the 2004 ballot. Opponents of House Bill 176 frequently noted during testimony that tens of thousands of people have registered on Election Day over the past 15 years, and that 56% of voters statewide rejected a ballot measure to end same-day registration in 2014. Organizations representing tribal interests were particularly incensed, saying that voters in Indian Country have relied on the ability to register and vote in one trip to overcome geographic and transportation obstacles. Their appeals went unheeded by the majority of lawmakers. The deadline for voter registration is now noon the day before an election.

Running parallel to that debate was a concerted effort to defeat Senate Bill 169, which places new restrictions on the types of photo identification Montanans can use to register and to vote at the polls. Again, voting rights advocates hammered the negative impacts of such a policy on marginalized voters, namely college students and tribal members who may not have access to the types of documentation required by the bill. A third measure, which would require county election officials to update voter databases annually, was condemned by opponents as an effort to purge the state’s voter rolls. Those bills were also signed into law.

Those opposed to the recent changes to Montana election laws haven’t given up. Immediately after Gianforte’s signing of HB 176 and SB 169 last week, the Montana Democratic Party filed a lawsuit requesting that Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen — who requested both bills — be barred from enforcing them.

Winner: Broadband Expansion

Montana’s multi-billion-dollar share of the March federal COVID-19 relief package gives the state a unique opportunity to retire its last-in-the-nation ranking for high-speed internet access. Lawmakers allocated $275 million of the state’s stimulus haul to the effort and are encouraging local governments to add their own stimulus dollars to the cause.

That broadband program calls for the state to solicit proposals and award contracts to internet service providers to build privately owned high-speed internet networks in underserved parts of the state. The program will be administered through the Montana Department of Commerce with input from an advisory commission and the governor.

Winner: Organized Labor

At the session’s midpoint, union members from across Montana packed the House gallery to witness a key vote on a bill they’d spent weeks opposing. The so-called Worker Freedom Act would have implemented sweeping changes to state laws regarding organized labor, including requiring employers to obtain written consent from workers to deduct union fees from their paychecks. It was, according to AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad, the first major piece of right-to-work legislation to hit the House floor in decades.

Right-to-work advocates had been pushing hard for change well ahead of the session, circulating mailers throughout Montana calling for what they characterized as freedom of choice for workers. Some Republican lawmakers took up that call, with one arguing in a rhetorical flourish that the Worker Freedom Act would unchain the state from the “shackles of compulsory unionism.”

In the end, the House voted down the proposal, effectively ending the debate. And while union members continued to weigh in on other issues impacting their fellow Montanans throughout the session, they hailed the failure of the Worker Freedom Act as an early and significant victory for workplace safety, good-paying jobs and their right to collective bargaining.

Mixed Bag: LGBTQ Civil Rights

This session saw a number of Republican-sponsored proposals that would, if enacted, have adverse effects on transgender, nonbinary and two spirit people, particularly youth seeking gender-affirming medical treatments and student athletes. Another policy signed by the governor, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was also heavily criticized by LGBTQ Montanans for opening the door to increased discrimination on religous grounds. 

Not all of those proposals, however, were passed or signed into law. Even with Republican majorities in both chambers, the sweeping transgender medical ban, House Bill 113, saw an early defeat in the House, while a later version of that same bill, House Bill 427, was sidelined in the Senate. Both outcomes required a consistent bench of Republican opposition, which LGBTQ lobbyists and allies claim as evidence of hard-won victories.

Other bills were passed through the Legislature, despite opposition from Democrat caucuses and some Republicans. Those measures, House Bill 112 and Senate Bill 280, would ban transgender women and girls from competing on women’s sports teams and would require surgery and a court order for anyone wishing to change the gender on their birth certificate. Both bills now await the governor’s endorsement or veto. 

Taken together, many advocates for LGBTQ civil rights agree they were pummeled by an onslaught of hostile legislation. The trend, they said, was even harder to fight given the substantial Republican majority in the House and a general lack of understanding about transgender people. Since the beginning of the session, however, lobbyists and allies have said they made headway against waves of misinformation and were heartened by growing community support from medical providers, education associations, student groups and businesses. The widespread opposition to these bills, culminating in the defeat of some measures, has LGBTQ advocates claiming successes in an otherwise bruising session.

Winner: Public Education

The past year has been markedly tough for teachers and students in Montana schools. Virtual classrooms, strict public health protocols, limited access to school resources — the pandemic touched on nearly every aspect of the school experience. Those challenges spurred lawmakers to closely examine a slate of policy changes aimed not just at softening the lingering effects of COVID-19, but bolstering the state’s education system for the long haul.

For students, change manifested in the ability of local schools to better tailor education based on individual needs. House Bill 246 won strong bipartisan support by enhancing skill-based educational opportunities for young Montanans and granting school officials the authority to modify or waive course requirements on a case-by-case basis. Lawmakers also passed a measure folding inflationary increases for special education into the state’s routine budget, supporting the future stability and availability of funding for special ed students. That bill is still awaiting Gianforte’s signature.

For educators, HB 246 streamlined the teacher licensing process and added a new license to state law that will strengthen the role local trade professionals can play in classrooms. Maybe the biggest moves lawmakers took toward improving the lives of teachers and tackling the state’s long-standing teacher shortage was the early-session passage of House Bill 143, which steers additional state funding to schools to incentivize salary increases for educators in their first, second and third year on the job. The Legislature made quick work of HB 143, and it was signed into law in early March.

Lawmakers also played a substantial role in deciding how to allocate nearly $500 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds flagged for Montana’s public schools. The key priority was to mitigate the financial impacts of pandemic-induced fluctuations in student enrollment, which has declined more than 2% since spring 2020. Federal money will now be used to fill any gaps in school funding as those students return, and address adverse impacts on student learning resulting from more than a year of stress, uncertainty and disruption.

Winner: Trappers

Thompson Falls lawmakers Bob Brown and Paul Fielder prioritized aggressive wolf management in the bills they sponsored and found a receptive audience for the measures among their Republican peers. Trappers now have an additional tool at their disposal, an expanded season to trap wolves, and the ability to seek reimbursement for wolves they harvest.

Rep. Fielder sponsored a bill that allows licensed trappers to use neck snares on wolves. One of the session’s more controversial wildlife bills, due in part to the frequency with which snares kill non-target animals like mountain lions, bears, birds of prey and dogs, House Bill 224 netted more than 850 comments in opposition and 201 in favor. Fielder also introduced House Bill 225, which adds two weeks to both ends of the existing trapping season and codifies that season into law. Previously, the Fish and Wildlife Commission had flexibility to set the season’s dates as it saw fit.

Sen. Brown introduced Senate Bill 267, which allows hunters and trappers to be reimbursed for costs incurred in pursuit of wolves. Opponents of the measure said it effectively creates a bounty on wolves and harkens back to when wolves were nearly extirpated from the landscape a century ago. They also argued that wolves act as a check on diseases like chronic wasting disease. Without a healthy wolf population to cull sick animals, CWD will expand in the state, they maintain. Proponents said the bill will enlist the skills of the most effective hunters and trappers to manage a wolf population that’s exceeded targets set in the state’s management plan, to the detriment of livestock producers and ungulate hunters. 

Collectively, the three measures garnered 566 comments in support and 1,715 comments in opposition. All three were signed into law by the governor earlier this month.

Loser: Wildlife

The 2021 Legislature was not kind to bison, wolves and bears.

Attempts by Democratic lawmaker Martin Weatherwax, D-Browning, to facilitate the transfer of wild bison from Yellowstone National Park to tribes stalled, while bills by Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, and Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, restricting the movement of wild bison passed the Legislature with broad Republican support.

Holmlund’s bill changes the definition of wild bison in a way that will make it difficult for new herds to become established in the state, which aligns with the approach the Gianforte administration appears to be taking on bison management. Kassmier’s measure requires county commissioners to sign off on any bison relocations within their jurisdiction. Proponents for both measures referenced brucellosis risk and the impact the disease could have on ranchers when arguing for those bills.

Eight members of the Legislature’s American Indian Caucus referenced anti-bison legislation in a letter sent to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland this week seeking assistance from the Department of Interior to restore bison on federal lands in Montana.

In terms of predator hunting, Montana’s wildlife management policies are starting to closely resemble those in Idaho, which is much more lax in terms of how and when hunters can harvest animals. Lawmakers passed four bills aimed at lowering wolf populations, wrote into law a season for hunting black bears with hounds, and passed two bills and a resolution seeking to add more state influence in the management of grizzly bears, which are federally protected by the Endangered Species Act.

House Bill 468, sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, creates a spring hound hunting season for black bears and a chase season to follow, which according to critics could lead to fatal outcomes for humans, bears or dogs.

Bruce Gillespie, a Republican senator who lives near the Rocky Mountain Front, sponsored a successful bill that would allow people to kill grizzlies that threaten livestock. (Current law allows killings if a bear is threatening a person or actively attacking livestock.) 

And Senate Bill 337, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, prevents Fish, Wildlife and Parks from relocating grizzly bears outside of pre-approved grizzly management zones, which opponents argued will lead to an increase in the density of problem bears and force wildlife managers to kill more bears.

Winner: Anti-abortion Advocates

After 16 years of Democratic governors reliably vetoing abortion restrictions, Republican lawmakers succeeded this session in codifying a range of bills meant to curb abortions at various stages of pregnancy. Three of the proposals were signed into law on Monday by a beaming Gov. Gianforte.

The slate of bills that originated in the House breezed through committee hearings and floor votes in both chambers, despite consistent arguments from Democrats that the bills infringe on a patient’s right to privacy and are unconstitutional. The legislation includes widespread restrictions on medically induced abortions early in pregnancy, a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, and a requirement that providers offer an ultrasound before a procedure. 

Even if the bills are challenged in court, Gianforte’s endorsement is considered a seismic win for Montana Republicans who have long opposed abortion and used the issue as a political tool for railing against Democrats who support the right to reproductive autonomy. 

Winner: Private Schools

Proponents of school choice in Montana entered the 67th Legislature with quite a list of goals. Most of the proposed policies they argued would expand educational opportunities for young Montanans failed to sway a majority of lawmakers. A sweeping measure aimed at establishing an autonomous statewide charter school system died without so much as a floor debate, while another bill redirecting public school dollars into separate accounts for special needs students pursuing other educational avenues cleared the House only to stall in the Senate.

But private schools — and, by extension, the school choice advocates supporting them —  did claim a key victory with the passage this week of House Bill 279. The proposal builds on a controversial tax credit program for private schools approved by the 2015 Legislature and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. With HB 279, which has yet to be signed by the governor, individuals will receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions to private school scholarships up to $200,000. The previous credit cap was $150. HB 279 sponsor Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, told lawmakers the cap increase would finally make the tax credit scholarship program “usable for Montana families.”

Mixed Bag: The Judiciary

This branch of state government white-knuckled its way through the session. 

Lawmakers and the Gianforte administration sought to overhaul the process for filling temporary vacancies on the bench by pushing a bill that would give direct appointing power to the governor, rather than the independent Judicial Nomination Commission. Senate Bill 140 was consequently passed, signed into law and immediately challenged in court. 

That bill was, essentially, the first tipped domino in an ongoing feud between the Legislature and the judiciary. It involves — in a nutshell — a dump of internal emails detailing judges’ personal opinions and lobbying tactics of the judiciary, allegations of misconduct, a lot of subpoenas, a Republican-led investigative committee that Democrats argue is political theater, and the unprecedented appearance of all seven Supreme Court justices before lawmakers to defend their professional integrity.

From a policy perspective, the judiciary emerged from the session holding a mixed bag. One bill that would have allowed a citizen-led committee to investigate members of the judiciary failed to pass the Legislature. Another, which proposes electing Supreme Court justices by district, cleared both chambers and will be on the ballot as an initiative next year. 

The other metric for measuring an independent and non-politicized judiciary, though, has been the question of whether a Republican-held Senate would confirm three judges appointed to fill vacancies by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. In the final days of the session, one of those nominees was rejected while another was allowed to continue serving in his current job. The tipping point came down to a third, widely respected appointee. After a messy series of political procedures Thursday, Judge Christopher Abbott’s confirmation was narrowly endorsed by the Senate when a handful of Republicans sided with Democrats in an 11th-hour vote. 

Winner: The Workforce

Heading into the session, Gianforte and Republican lawmakers identified trade-based career and technical education as key priorities for spurring economic recovery. The push quickly took the shape of financial incentives for students and colleges proposed in a swath of bipartisan-supported legislation. Among the measures that made it into law was House Bill 252, which establishes a tax credit for employers equal to 50% of what they spend on education and training for employees.

A high-profile revision to community college funding is also poised to help address Montana’s workforce shortage. Under House Bill 67, two-year campuses will get an additional 50% in state per-pupil funding for each full-time student enrolled in trade-based courses, a commitment that community college leaders said will incentivize career and technical education and level the playing field for programs such as automotive technologies that are costlier to administer than more classroom-centric subjects. The Legislature also passed a companion bill that makes it easier to establish new community college districts by streamlining local funding mechanisms.

Federal COVID-19 relief funds will add even more money to higher ed. Lawmakers approved a provision utilizing some of those funds to alleviate potential financial challenges for community colleges that experience fluctuating enrollment due to the pandemic, as well as another proposal directing $15.2 million to the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, in part to back efforts toward job creation and workforce recovery.

Winner: Second Amendment Enthusiasts

By now, the debate around House Bill 102 has become something of a distant legislative memory. But just four months ago, Montanans were abuzz over the so-called constitutional carry law, which expanded where and how people can carry concealed firearms. Republicans made quick work of getting the bill through the Legislature, and Gianforte affixed his signature in February, much to the satisfaction of gun enthusiasts and the horror of gun-control advocates. Attorney General Austin Knudsen hailed it as the most powerful affirmation of Second Amendment rights in Montana in two decades.

HB 102 made concealed carry legal without a permit throughout much of the state, though it did carve out exceptions for courtrooms, federal buildings and K-12 schools. The Montana University System lobbied hard for concessions, including the ability to prohibit guns at entertainment and sporting events and to require roommate consent for the possession and storage of guns in dorms. Higher-ed officials have so far demurred about the possibility of a legal challenge.

Loser: Local Control

Montana counties, cities, and towns — particularly those local governments inclined to adopt left-leaning policies — saw their authority curtailed on several fronts by the conservative Legislature.

Lawmakers, for example, passed a law nullifying so-called inclusionary zoning programs adopted by the cities of Whitefish and Bozeman in an effort to promote housing affordability. Those programs required a portion of newly built homes in those jurisdictions to be priced at specified levels, a mandate that raised the hackles of the construction industry. Builders, who say inclusionary zoning programs provide few subsidized homes while driving up the cost of market-rate properties, lobbied the Legislature to rein in government overreach.

The Legislature also banned local jurisdictions from regulating vaping products and repealed the long-standing-but-previously-unused law that gave Missoula County the authority to sell its voters on a two-cent gas tax for local road projects.

Lawmakers also restrained local governments that want to take a cautious response to lifting COVID-19 pandemic health orders. A provision attached to the bill allocating the latest round of federal relief spending reduces local infrastructure grants by 20% when they’re awarded to communities that have mask mandates or other health regulations in place that are stricter than the state as a whole. With the passage of House Bill 121, local health boards are prohibited from implementing new regulations, and are instead required to propose such regulations to local elected officials for approval.

Winner: IT Providers

In an effort to avoid delaying the legislative session on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislature spent more than $1 million to make its proceedings accessible remotely, according to a cost breakdown provided by legislative staff. Included in that sum are $3,360 worth of Zoom Pro licenses, an $88,000 remote voting system, and more than half a million dollars in audio-visual systems.

The Montana Free Press is a nonprofit news organization based in Helena.