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At the halfway point, Republicans pass budget bills, target 'woke extremism'

 Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana.
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana.

Friday was the official halfway point of Montana’s 68th legislative session. Lawmakers pulled several marathon floor sessions last week to pass bills through the House or the Senate before a procedural deadline.

Republicans entered the legislative halftime break championing what they’re calling their eight-pack of budget bills, which are on their way to the governor’s desk. Those policies enact components of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s proposed budget including: one-time property tax rebates, income tax breaks, reducing capital gains tax, funding road infrastructure and reducing the business equipment tax.

Speaking to reporters after adjourning Friday, Speaker of the House Matt Regier, from Kalispell, said the bills were a top focus of the GOP.

“Montanans sent the Republican supermajority to Helena this session, and we are delivering to our constituents the income and property tax rebates that they deserve,” Regier said.

Democrats, who voted against many of these bills, criticized the legislation for offering tax cuts for the wealthy. Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, from Belgrade, said the GOP had hastily advanced the bills without due consideration.

“I thought it was ironic that those bills were all linked together, they went as a package. I could only conclude from that, that they believe that they can't stand on their own," he said. "It wasn't good policy."

The Legislature is working with a nearly $2.5 billion budget surplus, due in part to federal aid from the pandemic and higher than expected tax revenue caused by inflation and more people moving to the state.

Throughout the first half of the session, Republican lawmakers and the governor haven’t been in complete agreement on how to spend the money.

Two bills — one to create a child tax credit and another that would establish a “disaster resiliency fund” — were both tabled in committee in the last few weeks, and Gianforte has been vocal about his disappointment.

“These legislators are stalling this pro-family, pro-growth tax cut," Gianforte said. "For the sake of hardworking Montana families, our friends in the Legislature ought to get this bill across the finish line."

Democrats have said they are concerned with the amount of money the GOP has already planned to spend at this point in the session, and are worried that there has not been enough focus on key issues including long term property tax relief, affordable housing and childcare.

Senator Flowers spoke on the matter.

“They've given about a billion dollars of tax cuts to the wealthiest Montanans," Flowers said. "These are candy coated gems that they can get votes on. That's what they're for. They're not for working Montanans, they don't benefit working Montanans."

The GOP’s supermajority enables the party to pass legislation without any support from Democrats, and they have relied on that to advance high-profile social policy bills. These include a bill banning minors from drag performances and prohibiting public school employees from showing any material the state considers “obscene.” All of these have passed in the House. Republicans in the Senate have also passed a bill banning gender affirming care to minors.

“The House understands that Montana has become a state for families fleeing from 'woke' extremism," Speaker Regier said. "People are moving to Montana, not just for the quality of life, but also for the quality of leadership.”

Republicans have also advanced other policies that focus on elements of their party platform including bills to expand access to guns, parental rights and a firm anti-abortion stance.

Lawmakers have also requested drafts for bills to amend the Constitution, which could challenge abortion access, and change judicial elections, but none of that has been introduced yet.

Copyright 2023 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Ellis Juhlin