Legislature Reaches its 2023 Midpoint

As they headed home for their post-transmittal break, Republicans touted their legislative victories

By Eric Dietrich and Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Montana Free Press
The Montana State Capitol building in Helena. Beacon file photo

Hundreds of proposed laws at the Montana Legislature officially landed in Capitol recycling bin Friday as they failed to clear the session’s March 3 transmittal deadline, the date most non-budget bills introduced this session were required to clear at least one legislative chamber.

The transmittal date, the halfway mark of the every-other-year legislative session, drove a pre-deadline crunch week as lawmakers scrambled to clear their dockets before the legislative calendar brought down the procedural guillotine.

Amid the rush, legislators debated 319 bills on the House and Senate floors in marathon sessions Wednesday and Thursday, forwarding measures that would, among other things, deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in tax rebates to Montana residentsban drag shows in public spaces where minors are present and authorize the creation of charter schools. Lawmakers also voted down bills that would have, for example, enacted a work requirement for people on Montana’s expanded Medicaid program and provided for partisan judicial elections.

According to a Montana Free Press tally, lawmakers have introduced 1,413 measures so far this year, 1,316 of them bills that would amend state law or allocate state dollars, as opposed to resolutions, constitutional amendments or ballot proposals.

As of Friday, 802 bills had cleared at least one of the two legislative chambers that must endorse them before Gov. Greg Gianforte can sign them into law — 484 introduced in the Montana House and 318 in the Montana Senate. More budget bills, which face a later April 3 transmittal deadline, will likely clear their first-chamber milestone in the coming weeks.

Both budget bills and constitutional amendment proposals, which face an April 7 transmittal deadline, will likely be a focus of the session’s second half. For example, Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, pledged Friday to bring a constitutional amendment proposal that, if approved by lawmakers and then passed by voters, would make the Montana Supreme Court an appointed body.

“The real work begins after transmittal. That’s when we begin to tackle the big bills,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, told lawmakers as the Senate concluded a day-long floor session Thursday evening. “More importantly, we need to come to a collective agreement here on how we’re going to use the remainder of the surplus. There are issues we need to address in the state.”

As they headed home for their post-transmittal break, Republicans touted their legislative victories, especially the passage of a package of bills that would put more than $1 billion of the state’s estimated $2.5 billion budget surplus toward spending measures including one-time property and income tax rebates.

The rebate bills, which authorize spending $764 million on income tax rebates of up to $1,250 per taxpayer and property tax rebates of up to $1,000 per  homeowner. Other bills in the package cut business equipment and income taxes on an ongoing basis and direct money toward infrastructure funds and paying down some state debt. The bills have passed both the House and Senate. The governor, a Republican, has said he will sign them.

“Montanans sent the Republican supermajority to Helena this session, and we are delivering the property and income tax rebates that they deserve,” Speaker of the House Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said in a Wednesday press appearance.

Regier also touted the GOP’s social agenda, citing the drag show bill, a measure that makes it easier to prosecute teachers for sharing allegedly obscene materials with students, and a bill that would require content filters on electronic devices as efforts to protect children from obscenity. 

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

The Montana Senate has also passed a bill that bans gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, a measure that will head to the House in the second half of the session.

The GOP has also shepherded several bills to remake the court system and its procedures, including changes to injunction standards and the appointment process for the state’s judicial discipline commission. Republicans have called those reasonable checks on judicial power, while Democrats and other defenders of the judiciary have criticized them as a naked partisan power grab. 

“We’ve passed a very impressive array of injunction bills, and we’ve also really moved through a tremendous package of bills across this floor dealing with a variety of subjects — housing, legal reform, there’s just so much we’ve done here,” Fitzpatrick said Thursday.

At their own press event Friday, minority-party Democrats touted their own legislative victories, such as killing anti-union right-to-work legislation and advancing a bill to increase nursing home funding. They also lambasted what they called “reckless” spending by the Republican majority.

“We have a generational opportunity right now to invest in real problems in our communities, in childcare, affordable housing, and things that we’re hearing from families and businesses every day that are real issues,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena.

Senate Majority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, criticized Republicans’ focus on what he called “pop politics,” the nationalized debates over subjects like transgender expression and school curricula. 

“Nationwide, they import them and they run them through here,” Flowers said. “Suddenly teachers are bad. Why is that? Because it’s a national theme. They’re somehow polluting our children.”

Flowers also criticized the GOP tax rebates as short-term, regressive fixes to property tax and cost of living issues facing working-class Montanans.

“You get checks in the mail. It’s great. You’re happy for two weeks and then you’re back to figuring out how you’re going to pay your bills. And we don’t see any meaningful long-term tax relief.” 

The Legislature resumes after a post-transmittal break pause on Thursday, March 9.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.