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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 17: Last Minute Legislation And Maneuvers

As of mid-day Friday, 1,313 bills have been introduced and at least 267 have been signed into law. This week we’re watching how the Republican majority is spending their mandate from voters as the session is winding down and last minute legislation.

Committee chairs and legislative leaders have said this may be the final week of the 67th session of the Montana Legislature. Big pieces of policy remain on the table, like the state budget, how lawmakers will divvy up federal coronavirus relief funds, the regulatory and tax mechanism for recreational marijuana, and GOP priorities with social policy and tax cuts.

Those social priorities include a pair of bills about transgender youth. Senators last Tuesday indefinitely postponed consideration of House Bill 427 from Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, which would have barred doctors from providing gender-affirming surgeries to minors who have gender dysphoria. Eight Republicans joined Democrats in that vote to stop the policy moving forward. Another bill that would bar transgender girls and women from participating in school sports is headed to the Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk with an amendment that would void the policy if the federal government were to withhold education funding because of it.

A suite of bills aimed at limiting abortion are also on their way to the governor after passing through the Legislature earlier in the session. Gianforte has said he’ll sign one bill that wouldlimit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and another that will ask voters via ballot initiative to require doctors to provide life-sustaining care to newborns. Opponents say that’s mostly a political effort to put abortion on the ballot during an election year. Gianforte hasn’t clearly said whether he’ll sign other bills to put restrictions on early-term medical abortions and another to require doctors to offer an ultrasound before an abortion, but the issue is a cornerstone of the Republican party. A proposed constitutional amendment to define “personhood” as beginning at conception didn’t get enough support to clear the two-thirds majority necessary to put it on the ballot.

Lawmakers are expected to continue their investigation into allegations of bias by Montana Supreme Court justices and district court judges after the end of the session. Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, chair of the Special Select Committee on Judicial Transparency and Accountability, says the committee will release a report this week that details what the investigation has uncovered so far. A draft outline of the report includes findings on public employee use of state equipment and time for lobbying, findings on judicial branch employees retaining public records and findings on judicial compliance with the Code of Judicial Conduct. Democrats say the investigation is a violation of the separation of powers between three co-equal branches of government.

Republicans are also trying to finalize a suite of tax cut measures, many of which were proposed by Gianforte in his executive budget proposal. A centerpiece of this tax relief effort is a pair of bills that would cut Montana’s top income tax rate from 6.9% to 6.75% in 2022, then cut it again to 6.5% in 2024, while also reducing the number of tax brackets to two. One of those bills would also get rid of some tax credits, including for green-energy production. Democrats say these proposals prioritize the rich at the expense of the state budget and could lead to cuts to essential services. Both bills passed the House last week on party lines and are now back in the Senate for a final vote there. On the House floor last week, House Taxation Chair Becky Beard, R-Elliston, reminded lawmakers that the governor wants to eventually cut the top income tax bracket to 5%, so these bills are being framed as preliminary steps in the big picture on tax relief.

Meanwhile, the bill outlining how Montana should spend more than $2 billion from the American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief funds is enjoying bipartisan support. On the House floor last week, Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, who’s carrying the policy, said lawmakers still need to clarify how city and county governments can match grant funds, and tweak how the plan coordinates with other bills moving through the legislative process. Lawmakers are also waiting on guidance from the federal government about how funds can be spent, which has led to extensive contingency language in a number of other fiscal bills.

Finally, the massive budget bill to fund the state government for the next two years is receiving its final touches this week. In parallel to that, lawmakers are adding language to what are called budget companion bills, which spend the early part of the session as blank bills and are then amended late in the legislative process to add last-minute policy tweaks that are related to the budget but are out-of-scope for the main budget bill. A lot of those changes are mundane — for example, a pending criminal justice budget companion bill would tweak the statute specifying how many state judges there are in the Bozeman judicial district because the budget adds funding for another one. But companion bills can sometimes be a place for lawmakers to slip in significant last-minute policy changes, like a provision that was added to the justice companion bill this week that directs the state Department of Justice to investigate environmental organizations.

A lot of bills are still up in the air during the final days of the session. Policies that lost traction earlier in the process could be revived. Keep an eye out for big-ticket items tied to recreational marijuana policy and a new broadband infrastructure program to move closer to the finish line.

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