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A breakdown of the latest action we’re watching in the Statehouse, produced by Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Free Press. Find new episodes every Monday when the 2023 legislative session kicks off in January.

The Session: Past halfway point, lawmakers buckle down on the budget

Hundreds of bills were left on the cutting room floor at the legislative session's midway point. Now, as lawmakers head into the second half, they're turning more of their attention to finalizing the state’s next two-year budget.

Host Corin Cates-Carney and reporters Ellis Juhlin and Eric Dietrich discuss what they're watching now that the Legislature has rounded the critical transmittal break.


Corin Cates-Carney: It's legislative day 49.

Speaker 2: The Senate will be in session.

Corin Cates-Carney: Bills were left on the cutting room floor at the legislative sessions halfway point in the second half. Lawmakers will turn their attention to finalizing the state's next two year budget. This is The Session, a look at the policy and politics inside the Montana statehouse. I'm Corin Cates-Carney, I'll be your host this week.

Eric Dietrich: I'm Eric Dietrich with Montana Free Press.

Ellis Juhlin: And I'm Ellis Juhlin with Montana Public Radio.

Corin Cates-Carney: We'll take a look at the state spending in a moment. But first, let's take a look back at the transmittal break, the procedural deadline for general policy bills to pass out of their original chambers. Eric, can you tell us a little bit about just how many bills passed that deadline?

Eric Dietrich: So far this session we've had about 1,400 bills introduced. It's a few more than we had last time in 2021. And of those, about 800, a little bit more than half have made it through the first chamber by that March 3rd transmittal deadline. There's more time still for budget bills and ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments, but that was really the big hurdle for most policy bills. So we have hundreds of bills that are now probably dead. That's, "probably dead" is actually the technical term that the legislative website uses.

Corin Cates-Carney: Are there any bills that didn't make it across the deadline that stand out to you?

Eric Dietrich: We saw several notable bills go down in the pre transmittal crunch. You know, for example, there are bills that would have switched judicial elections in the state from nonpartisan to partisan campaigns. Additionally, a bill that would have enacted work requirements for Montana's expanded Medicaid program. And then another that would have provided specific protections for parental rights.

Corin Cates-Carney: If bills didn't make it across this deadline are they actually truly dead?

Eric Dietrich: Usually, but it depends. So there's a fundamental rule of the legislature, and that's if there's political will, there's a way. So sometimes you see provisions for failed bills that people decide they like amended and other legislation and voted for. You know, if the supporters of those bills can get enough support and get people enough people on board, like they can make that happen. Usually, oftentimes they can find a route to do that. And additionally, if you get enough lawmakers to agree on something, you can actually vote to suspend the rules that normally kill bills. That transmittal. It's a high threshold to do that vote. Two thirds in the House and I think 3/5 in the Senate, but happens sometimes.

Corin Cates-Carney: So, Eric, you were saying lawmakers have a lot of discretion and power for how they operate when they consider policy. Ellis, what did that actually look like when they were under this deadline during the transmittal?

Ellis Juhlin: Yeah, we saw a little bit of a mad dash that first week of March to get bills over the hurdle that Eric talked about of the transmittal deadline. We had all day committee meetings sometimes that would run well into the night. I was at a House Fish Wildlife and Parks Committee meeting that ran until about 9:00. And we see a lot of the kind of normal way that things are run and committees change when they're on these sorts of deadlines. For example, things like public comment can oftentimes get shortened. Committee chairs have the power to decide how long opponents and proponents can give testimony for, so that can get limited.

You could also see if they're running low on time people that are giving testimony online might be able to just say their name and not give comment. We also saw a lot of these bills being heard in committee and then voted on an hour or two after they were heard, which is different than what we saw in the first few weeks of the session. Once bills had made it out of committee, we saw floor sessions that were running 10 to 12 hours well into the night. We also saw these rapid fire third readings, which is when bills are voted on by lawmakers, they're no longer debated. And that was almost like an auctioneer level pace of just reading the bills title, taking the vote, saying whether the bill passed or not, and moving through, trying to come up against that transmittal crunch.

Corin Cates-Carney: So the second half of the session is when committees that work on the budget really start to get busy, start putting the pieces all together. Ellis, the whole budgeting process started last fall when Governor Greg Gianforte released his blueprint for what he wanted state spending to look like. Does it look like he's getting what he wanted?

Ellis Juhlin: I would say yes and no. We've seen a lot of components of the governor's budget enacted in policies that have moved through the legislature, some of them even going all the way through both houses at this point. Notably, we saw that with the eight pack of tax relief bills. But there are a few components of the governor's budget that haven't been implemented yet. Notably, the child tax credit was tabled and a bill that would create a disaster mitigation fund was also tabled. And Governor Gianforte has been pretty vocal with lawmakers about wanting to see these bills come to fruition.

Gov. Greg Gianforte: These legislators are stalling this pro-family, pro-growth tax cut for the sake of hard working Montana families. Our friends in the legislator ought to get this bill across the finish line.

Ellis Juhlin: It is worth noting, however, that these bills are far from gone. It's likely that lawmakers are kind of holding on to them to use them as a bargaining chip in future dealings. There's also an ongoing debate that we're seeing surrounding how money from recreational marijuana tax revenue is distributed.

There's a bill that would enact what Gianforte has outlined in his budget that would double the amount of marijuana revenue funding going towards the Heart Fund, which deals with addiction, recovery and treatment, and increasing the amount of money that goes to law enforcement. There's an alternative bill that wouldn't increase the Heart Fund or any of those other measures that Gianforte has prioritized in his budget.

Corin Cates-Carney: What's the road map for the budget from here?

Eric Dietrich: So the House Appropriations Committee, which is the primary budget Committee on the House side of the legislature, is working this week on House Bill 2 the state's main budget bill. That's a big, huge bill. Billions of dollars includes basically all the agency budgets for the state, also funding for health programs. There's been a bunch of discussion there around the health programs in particular about raising the rates the state Medicaid program pays to mental health providers. It's concerned that those rates are so low that it isn't, you can't actually run a business relying on those rates so that that will be sorted out. The first bite of the apple sorted out this week, most likely.

And then from there, the budget bill goes to four debates in the House and then over to the Senate, where it goes through a similar committee and then floor debate process. Ultimately, the Senate is going to probably pass a slightly different version of the budget bill than the House will. And then we'll have to come together and kind of negotiate through the differences. And hopefully at that point, we'll have something that the governor will sign.

Corin Cates-Carney: What are you two keeping an eye on now that we're in the second half of the session?

Eric Dietrich: There are a lot of big spending proposals floating around independently of the budget bill. So the question is which of those will make the cut? For example, there are a couple of big infrastructure proposals, a teacher health insurance trust that's out there. Some lawmakers want to put money into shoring up the state's pension systems. And additionally, the minority Democrats have a bill that would put 500 million into a housing fund.

Ellis Juhlin: I'm watching for what happens with those changes to marijuana revenue funding. And I'll also be watching out for housing bills like the housing fund that Eric just mentioned and also long term property tax relief, which is something that Democrats have mentioned wanting to see that hasn't come up in the first half. I'll also be keeping an eye on some different wildlife bills. The Citizens Elk Management Coalition has a proposal to bring a $200 million legacy fund to fund conservation projects across the state that I'll be keeping an eye on.

And it's also worth noting that we're still in the time period where legislation can still be brought for constitutional referendums. So I'll be keeping an eye out for anything that would be proposing changes to Montana's constitution that includes changes to our right to clean air and water, the judicial system and things like abortion access.

Corin Cates-Carney: Thank you both for your reporting.

Eric Dietrich: Thanks for listening.

Ellis Juhlin: Thank you.

Corin Cates-Carney: Before we go, the reporters of the session hosted an hour-long Q&A with listeners. We covered questions about funding for mental health issues, bills targeting wolves, the fight over access to abortion and policy to assert more legislative and executive control over the judicial branch. If you missed that discussion, we'll have a link in the episode's show notes and on our websites.

This has been The Session, a look at the policy and politics inside the Montana State House. See you next week.