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Lawmakers Make It To Half Time

Jackie Yamanaka

HELENA — After a 15-hour session, the Montana Senate finished its business for the first half of the 67th legislative session just before midnight on Monday, advancing a total of 115 bills. The slate ranged from legislation aimed at strengthening religious freedoms to a bill abolishing daylight savings time.

The next day, the House of Representatives also adjourned for the first half of the session after two marathon days, passing 101 bills and defeating 14 over both days.

The bills that started in the Senate will now move to the House of Representatives for more debate and vice versa. This week marks the transmittal deadline, meaning that all general bills that don’t pass out of their first chamber are effectively dead. That leaves the main focus for the second half of the session on legislation that deals with the state coffers, including House Bill 2, which sets the state’s budget for the next two years.

Total, Senators heard 128 bills Monday night, and only 13 of them did not pass.

With Republicans holding a strong majority in both houses of the Legislature, lawmakers in the first half of the session advanced bills on hot-button, traditionally partisan issues like expanding gun rights, restricting access to abortion and rights for transgender youth. Lawmakers also moved legislation that deals with limiting the power of local health boards, expanding broadband, keeping momentum going in efforts to curb the number of missing and murdered Indigenous people, enticing new teachers and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

One bill Senate Republicans are particularly proud of is Senate Bill 65, which granted businesses more protection from COVID-based lawsuits. That bill passed early in the session with bipartisan support, and was the first bill Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law.

In an interview on the Friday before the transmittal break, Senate President Mark Blasdel, a Kalispell Republican, said he was happy with where the Senate was at at the end of the first half.

“I think the session’s going along great,” Blasdel said. “I think numerous provisions are going through. I don’t have any disappointments as far as now.”

However, Senate Democrats, who hold 19 seats to the Republicans’ 31, expressed frustration at the time spent on bills that dealt with those contentious social issues like abortion, guns or transgender rights. Most of that legislation originated in the House, but either will be or has been debated in the Senate.

“Senate Democrats have made it very clear that our priority was to create jobs and expand opportunity for working Montana families. It’s unfortunate that Republicans haven’t joined us in that effort,” Democratic Minority Leader, Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-Helena, said during a press conference via Zoom Tuesday.

Senate President Blasdel said Democrats were looking in the wrong places for bills creating jobs.

“I guess it depends what you determine is a ‘jobs bill.’ If you’re looking at more infrastructure more...those bills will be coming through later in the process,” Blasdel said.

Blasdel also pointed to several broadband bills working their way through the Legislature. One, Senate Bill 51, would exempt certain broadband infrastructure, including cable, from property taxes for 5 years. That bill passed the Senate 35-15. Several other bills aimed at expanding broadband were introduced by Democrats in the House and the Senate will now consider those after the break.

In a followup email, Cohenour said one of the bills Senate Democrats are particularly proud of is Senate Bill 357, sponsored by Jen Gross, D-Billings, which would codify one of former Gov. Steve Bullock’s executive orders, allowing health care providers to provide services via telemedicine. That bill passed 48-1 during the Senate’s 15-hour session.

She also said she was happy some bills died, like Senate Bills 228 and 89, which would have changed union dues laws. Similar bills have passed the House of Representatives.

The legislative session is scheduled to resume next Monday evening.

James Bradley 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.