Legislature adjourns with marijuana, budget and tax plans en route to governor
| May 2, 2021 6:35 PM
The 67th Montana Legislature has adjourned, capping four months of work in an unprecedented hybrid session as the state and the nation struggle to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
With more than 1,300 bills introduced, 500 passed and 350 signed into law, the 2021 session saw conservatives advance a flood of legislation to the governor’s desk, fueled by the presence of a Republican in the state’s highest office for the first time in 16 years. Much of that legislation dealt with fallout from the pandemic, even as the Legislature combated the virus in its halls -- with Democratic resistance often coming up short against the majority Republican lawmakers in both chambers.
Republicans succeeded in passing some of their long sought-after agenda items, like sweeping election reforms, increased gun access and restrictions to abortion services while also limiting the rights of transgender youth and bolstering religious freedoms. Those pieces of legislation stoked the flames of a controversial session that also featured heated debates on issues like the state budget, tax reform and implementing a recreational marijuana program.
In a speech before lawmakers in the House of Representatives, Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings praised the work of her caucus to pass a “conservative” budget, protect second amendment rights and more.
“It has been a successful session, and one Montanans can be proud of,” Vinton said.
Democratic Senate Minority Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, told Senate lawmakers she was pleased with how closely the Legislature’s bill to implement recreational marijuana stuck to the original ballot initiative and praised work done to distribute billions in federal pandemic relief money, but expressed frustration with “missed opportunities” from a session she said was often bitter in tone.
“Despite the good work done on these pieces, I’m disappointed we often chose the politics of division over what’s best for Montanans,” Cohenour said.
As the doors close on the 2021 Legislature, here’s a recap of some of the biggest issues:
Budget and federal relief
The Legislature completed their only constitutionally mandated task -- passing a balanced budget -- on the final day of their work, April 29. House Bill 2 appropriates $12.5 billion in state and federal funds for the next two years, paying for state programs in health, education, law and justice and more.
Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, sponsored the bill, and suggested it was “beautiful” when he introduced it on the House floor.
“The statistics on this bill are pretty good,” Jones said. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this is a good, solid budget.”
Democrats in the House, however, unanimously opposed HB 2, slamming it for “policy language” inserted into the bill, like one amendment that informs the Department of Health and Human Services of the Legislature’s intent to end continuous eligibility for Medicaid expansion, a program that allows some Medicaid users to stay enrolled for longer periods of time without reapplying.
“It’s hard to imagine a bill that’s more harmful to the kiddies than this one, where we’d be asking unelected bureaucrats to be doing what we soundly rejected in our Legislature on a bipartisan basis,” said Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman.
The budget is 3.6% larger than the one passed in 2019, but 1% smaller than Gianforte’s proposed budget. However, one Democrat in the Senate criticized Republican amendments to the bill to fund expected legal battles over controversial legislation passed this session. Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, denounced a $100,000 appropriation in the bill to defend a legal challenge to bills ending same-day voter registration and boosting voter ID requirements and a $285,000 appropriation to fund a special interim committee on “judicial transparency and accountability,” created to investigate the judicial branch for accusations of bias and wrongdoing.
“Elections have consequences, and I’m just afraid for the taxpayers of Montana,” Boldman said, though she ultimately voted for the bill.
Lawmakers also passed a bill with plans to distribute about $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief. House Bill 632 cleared the Legislature on bipartisan votes from each chamber, and is awaiting a signature from the governor. It creates a series of “advisory commissions” comprised of lawmakers and representatives from the governor’s office to consider grant applications for the relief money, with millions of dollars available for sewer and water improvements, broadband expansion, health projects, public schools, housing assistance and more. The bulk of the money can be spent through 2024, and bill sponsor Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, said the injection of funds will help Montana “build bridges to the future.”
The Legislature passed a bill with sweeping revisions to Ballot Initiative 190, which Montana voters passed to legalize recreational marijuana last November. House Bill 701 changes where marijuana tax revenues are distributed, how many plants individuals can grow for personal use, and how counties can go about opting in or out of the market.
The bill would tax recreational marijuana at 20% and maintain medical marijuana’s 4% tax rate with the tax revenue going to conservation reduced compared to I-190. The ballot initiative originally promised nearly 50% for conservation efforts, but in HB 701, that amount is decreased to 32%, divided among wildlife habitat conservation, state parks, trails and the nongame wildlife account. The majority of the remaining revenue would fill the general fund, the state’s primary “checking account.”
The bill gives counties that did not vote in favor of legalization the option to hold a vote to opt-out of the marketplace -- though medical dispensaries already doing business in the county would be “grandfathered” in if that county decides to reject recreational marijuana.
“What we have in front of us is a dramatically better product compared to the initiative,” bill sponsor Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, told lawmakers in the House. “Without this bill, you have I-190 as law in the state of Montana.”
The bill cleared the House on a bipartisan, 67-32 vote, with Democrats joining moderate Republicans to pass the bill. The Senate did much of the work on the bill after the House was forced to advance three separate, incomplete plans for recreational marijuana against a tight deadline in early April. But, the resulting “compromise” bill left many right-wing Republicans displeased, citing the addition of a 3% optional local sales tax on marijuana to the bill and a general lack of restrictions on edibles.
Bills seeking restrictions on the rights of transgender youth dominated the first half of the 2021 Montana Legislative Session, but in the end, only one of those bills made it to the governor’s desk.
House Bill 112, sponsored by Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, would ban transgender women and girls from competing in women’s sports from elementary school through college, and passed both chambers of the Legislature, mostly along party lines. Fuller repeatedly said the bill would “protect” women’s sports from dominance by athletes who were assigned male at birth, while opponents insisted that was not an issue in Montana or anywhere in the nation, instead saying transgender girls have a right to participate in a sport that aligns with who they are.
Lawmakers did amend HB 112, however, to void the bill following an appeal process if the federal government determines it to be discriminatory, as a recent executive order from President Joe Biden could mean Montana would lose federal education funding if the bill passes.
A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate managed to defeat House Bill 427, also from Fuller, which sought to restrict gender-affirming care for transgender youth. But, two bills from Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, may also impact the rights of transgender people. Senate Bill 215, signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte, boosts “religious freedom” as a viable defense in court cases, which opponents have said could lead to discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. Senate Bill 280, awaiting action from the governor, would require transgender people to undergo transition surgery and obtain a court order to have the sex designation on their birth certificate changed.
Tax cuts and credits dominated the revenue picture at the 2021 Montana Legislature, with measures to slash income tax rates and bolster exemptions for the business equipment passing late in the session. Gianforte promised broad revisions to state tax policy early in the session, though several measures took months to solidify amid discussions about how to make the cuts without eliminating key state programs.
Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, sponsored two major income tax reform bills, both of which are awaiting the governor’s signature. Senate Bill 159 seeks to cut the top income tax rate from 6.9% to 6.75% and cleared the Legislature mostly along party lines. Senate Bill 399 promises more dramatic reforms, however, aiming to bring Montana’s state income tax filing structure in line with the federal government’s. By 2024, SB 399 proposes simplifying Montana’s six current income tax brackets into two: a higher bracket taxed at 6.5% for those making more than $20,500, and a lower bracket taxed at 4.7%.
Lawmakers also passed House Bill 303, sponsored by Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton. That bill would raise the business equipment tax exemption from $100,000 to $300,000 -- more than the initial proposal of $200,000.
Attempts by Democrats to pass bills cutting taxes for middle class families or introduce a local option sales tax all stalled in committee, and members of the caucus have expressed concern the newly-passed tax breaks will only impact the wealthy and large corporations. Republicans argue the bills will incentivize job growth and keep more money in Montanans’ pockets.
With a Republican now in the governor’s office, conservative lawmakers wasted no time advancing a slate of bills restricting access to abortion. Gianforte has signed three of those already, with more likely to come.
House Bill 136, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, bans abortions after 20 weeks, while House Bill 140 from Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell requires doctors offer an ultrasound to a pregnant person prior to undergoing an abortion. Additionally, Florence Republican Rep. Sharon Greef’s House Bill 171 prohibits the distribution of abortion-inducing drugs by mail.
The measures are likely to draw lawsuits, as the Montana Supreme Court has previously issued decisions explicitly protecting abortion access under the state constitution’s right to privacy.
One of the first bills signed into law by Gianforte, House Bill 102 established “constitutional carry” in Montana, meaning most adults can carry a concealed firearm almost anywhere in the state without requiring a permit. Included in the list of places where unpermitted concealed carry is now allowed are college campuses, banks -- unless posted otherwise -- and bars. Republicans in the state had long sought to bolster second amendment rights, but faced a roadblock for years with Democratic governors in office.
House Bill 258, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, prohibits law enforcement from enforcing any potential federal bans on firearms, and was signed by the governor on April 23.
Republicans succeeded in passing numerous laws addressing how Montana runs its elections after increased scrutiny in the aftermath of the 2020 election -- though, no proven cases of fraud have been reported in the state.
House Bill 176, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, ends same-day voter registration in Montana and was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. Registration now closes at noon the day before an election.
Senate Bill 169 implemented sweeping voter ID reform in the state -- a long-pursued Republican goal. Sponsored by Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, the new law requires voters who show up to the polls without a “primary” form of identification like a state driver’s license or tribal photo ID to show two other forms of identification, like a student ID and a bank statement or utility bill. In the past, election administrators accepted student identification cards on their own in order to cast a ballot in Montana.
Both bills came at the request of Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, who campaigned on promises to bolster “election integrity” in the state. Meanwhile, the Montana Democratic Party has already filed a lawsuit in district court against Jacobsen over both bills, claiming they target the state’s youngest voters. The lawsuit also states “there is no legitimate justification for these restrictions, much less any sufficiently weighty state interest to justify their burdens on the fundamental right to vote.”
Pandemic policy fallout
Lawmakers advanced a plethora of bills reacting to the political fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-vaccination requirement measure House Bill 702 passed the Legislature, and if signed by Gianforte, would prohibit “discrimination” by the government or private businesses based on vaccination status and bans the use of vaccine passports in the state. While arguments for the bill were fueled by conspiracies about the COVID-19 vaccine, including Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, referencing in one debate a widely debunked conspiracy that the vaccine contains microchips, the bill blocks businesses and employers from requiring any vaccines at all.
New laws also seek to limit the powers of local health officials and the governor during future states of emergency. House Bill 121, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, allows county officials to accept, revise or reject orders issued by local health boards, while House Bill 230 from Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, restricts the duration of an emergency declaration by the governor to 45 days. After that, the Legislature would have to vote to approve an extension of the state of emergency.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons
While members of the American Indian Caucus in the Montana Legislature expressed concern at the start of the session that lawmakers may not have the appetite for bills seeking funding for continuing and additional programs addressing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons crisis, those fears were mostly put to rest by the session’s end.
Gov. Greg Gianforte signed three bills bolstering support for programs to help stem the crisis: House Bill 35, House Bill 98, and Senate Bill 4. HB 35 creates a review commission tasked with researching missing persons cases and educating the public on the issue, while HB 98 and SB 4 both extend the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, begun in 2019. HB 98 also extends the “Looping In Native Communities” grant program, allowing Blackfeet Community College to continue work developing a database and reporting system for missing persons cases.
Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, sponsored the House Bills.
“The intent of this suite of bills is to ensure that gaps in the justice and law enforcement system are filled so that our brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles are found and brought home,” Stewart Peregoy said in a statement.
Only House Bill 36 failed to pass the Legislature. That bill sought to provide grants to train on-the-ground search teams in missing persons cases.
Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.