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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 Week 12: Budget In The House, Windfall Of Federal Cash, Rules For Marijuana

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As of mid-day Friday, 1,183 bills have been introduced, 60 have been signed into law. This week we’re watching the state budgets, recreational marijuana and bills that would carry impacts for LGBTQ people.

The introduction of a more than 200-page bill outlining Montana’s regulations for the use of recreational marijuana and the framework for taxing sales of the substance is expected in the House this week.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins from Missoula, says the policy is meant to be all encompassing and give structure to the new industry. He says it will put caps on how much of marijuana’s psychoactive compound, THC, is allowed in recreational products, how much of the substance individuals can possess, and ban growing the plant at home for individual use.

Montana voters passed I-190 with nearly 57% of the vote along with a separate constitutional initiative to set the legal age to use the substance at 21, approving the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state.

While voters approved a plan for how to spend money generated by the state’s 20% tax on recreational marijauan sales, lawmakers will make their own budget for the revenue - projected at more than $50 million per year.

Democratic Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, who’s Chippewa Cree and from Box Elder, is carrying a bill (House Bill 621) in an effort to require that tribal governments in Montana receive an allocation of the recreational marijuana sales tax money.

Montana’s massive general budget bill (HB 2) is expected to land on the House floor this week. This will be a chance to see how some of the contested decisions in budget committees about how to spend public money play out in front of the full chamber.

So far we’ve seen disagreement over portions of the health and human services budget, where Republicans typically want to control costs and Democrats typically want to invest in stronger programs. There has also been debate over some education measures — some more conservative Republicans, for example, wanted to strip out several hundred thousand dollars for need-based college scholarships, arguing that that funding was duplicative with other programs. Comparatively moderate Republicans and Democrats had the votes in the House Appropriations Committee to resist that change, so that money is still in there.

As the state budget reaches the full House chamber, lawmakers are working with a plan that is a bit less than the total spending requested by Gov. Greg Gianforte. Gianforte asked for $12.8 billion over the next two years and the current bill draft totals $12.6 billion.

The federal American Rescue Plan Act means Montana lawmakers will have about a billion extra dollars to appropriate this year. Lawmakers are breaking out into separate budget negotiation groups to decide what to do with the money and early talks are focusing on infrastructure projects. There’s been bipartisan consensus on water projects, like overhauling the St. Mary’s Canal in Northern Montana, and building out broadband internet access.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Llew Jones says lawmakers plan for spending the stimulus money will be debated in the House Appropriations Committee this week.

Separately, there are a growing number of opponents to bills that would put a ban on trans women and young girls competing in women’s sports and a ban on gender-affirming surgeries for minors. Montana’s university system, business owners and major medical associations say the policies discrimante against LGBTQ people and could be bad for businesses in the state. Republicans on the committee have not budged in their support for the policies saying they want to remove unfair advantages in school sports and prevent young people from making these medical decisions before they turn 18 years old. Those policies are expected to receive final votes in the Senate this week.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.
Mara Silvers - Montana Free Press
Eric Dietrich - Montana Free Press