The Montana House of Representatives passed four laws against abortion but passed no law against transgender youth after disagreeing within the Republican majority.
House Bill 113 would have restricted access to gender-affirming care for transgender youth but failed a final vote in House 49-51 on Tuesday January 26th. The bill was tentatively passed the day before with 53 Republicans in House favor, but four other members of the party changed hands during the final vote, including Senate Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings. She called her voting change a "couple of weeks" process.
"I have examined all perspectives very carefully," said Vinton after the vote. "I think yesterday and today I voted just like my colleagues out of concern for the health and safety of our children. I still have these concerns, but I can certainly see both aspects of the problem."
A second bill banning transgender women and girls from participating in K-12 and college sports for women, House Bill 112, has passed a final house vote 61-38 and is being sent to the Senate.
After three hours of heated debate, four bills went through the house to restrict the Montans' access to abortion services.
House bills 136, 140, 167 and 171, if signed into law, would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks, require doctors to offer patients the opportunity to see an ultrasound before an abortion, and institute a referendum to demand that doctors will save the lives of babies born alive and prohibit the distribution of abortion pills in the mail.
Rep Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, presided over the day for the House, opening the debates with a plea for even heads.
"Respect is one of the most important aspects of a legislature," said Knudsen.
Democrats opposed any abortion law, and Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, opened her party's arguments against HB 136. Bishop said abortion decisions are best made between a patient and their doctor without government interference.
"This tyranny has no place in our personal health decisions, and this tyranny has no place in our state," said Bishop.
Rep Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, threw his support behind HB 136.
"This bill is about infants who feel pain in the womb," Skees said. "Don't hurt a creature that can feel pain."
The bills must be approved by the Senate before being sent to the governor's desk.
Holly Michels of the Lee Newspapers State News Bureau contributed to this story.
Bills aim to change the electoral process in Montana
A trio of bills aimed at changing the way Montana conducts its elections is moving through Montana legislation. One measure, however, is criticism from election administrators and district commissioners, who fear that the state's electoral processes could be further politicized.
Two of the bills sponsored by Senator Gordon Vance, R-Belgrade, aim to change systems of accountability in state elections.
Senate Bill 92 would require election administrators to be elected officials in their jurisdiction. A number of election administrators are currently being appointed to positions in the Montana counties. Under the new law, they would have to appoint an elected official to conduct future elections.
"I think elections are important enough that the people who run them should simply be held accountable to the people who vote," Vance said during a committee hearing.
A proponent of the bill from Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen's office argued that accountability resides in positions as important as the election administrator.
But several district officials and electoral administrators, such as that for Carbon County Commissioner Bill Bullock, argued that the move was unnecessary and that in his district the electoral administrator was directly accountable to the district clerk.
"Forcing the election of election administrators only tarnishes the water," Bullock said.
Another county commissioner, William Barron of Lake County, said appointed election administrators hold elections impartial.
“If the designated position doesn't work for large counties like Gallatin, Cascade or Yellowstone, that's fine. Let them choose, ”Barron said. "Don't let other counties change what works for them.
Vance also sponsored Senate Bill 93, a measure to allow election observers to post ballot collection points. He said the inspiration for the bill came from reports he heard from the state of election administrators who refused to allow election observers to polling stations because those locations were not "polling stations."
Clinton King, a Gallatin County resident, testified in support of the bill, saying he volunteered to be an election observer in the 2020 election but was not allowed to ask polling officers questions about postal ballot dropping points.
"I think Senator Vance, referring the word 'change' to 'depository', would be really helpful," said King.
Senate Bill 15, filed by Senator Janet Ellis, D-Helena, seeks to improve access to elections for disabled voters by allowing local elections to use electoral accessibility devices normally reserved for federal elections. The measure would also allow people with disabilities to vote from their car when no polling station is accessible to them.
The bill brought in supporters of disability rights advocacy groups and members of the public, including Great Falls' Joy Breslauer, who said it was not always easy for her to vote.
"All we as people with disabilities really want is to have the same rights and privileges as everyone else who take them for granted, including voting," said Breslauer.
SB 92 and 93 stepped down from the committee and must be approved by the Senate before going into the house.
Committee saves on use of the term "racism" while testifying on the Sanctuary City Bill
Debate in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee over a law banning protected cities in Montana turned into spewing terminology when Republican chairman Barry Usher concluded the adversary's testimony he believed was inappropriate.
The committee heard on Tuesday, January 26th, House Bill 200 – a law that would prevent local authorities from designating themselves as "shelters" prohibiting local law enforcement from complying with federal immigration investigations.
Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, carries the bill that former Governor Steve Bullock vetoed during the 2019 session. Holmlund noted that he called the bill "proactive" as there are currently no cities in Montana that are designated protected cities.
Proponents of the law said that those who entered the country illegally have committed a crime and should therefore be subject to immigration enforcement throughout the country, although some on their testimony also said that immigrants generally brought problems to their communities, that they didn't like.
Bozeman-resident Mark Limesand testified in favor of the bill, saying he once lived in an "immigrant community" in Massachusetts that was "livable" until immigrants from Mexico brought in "garbage" and started "playing" music at 5am "said Limesand Law enforcement agencies did not respond to crimes in the community for fear of retaliation for the added protection offered by the protective laws.
"The Central Americans I lived next to hated it as much as I did," Limesand said. "You see people with open containers. I'm sure there is a lot more drinking and driving – there are just all kinds of quality of life crimes that are being committed."
When Laura Jean Allen, a pastor from a church in Helena, stood up as the first opponent of the bill, Chair Usher interrupted her as she began discussing issues that some immigrants are facing with law enforcement because of their race.
"We're not going down the rabbit hole of racism because there are immigrants from all over the world who are every color on earth," Usher said.
Other opponents cited potential dangers that could allow local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration, such as potential race profiles based on skin color or spoken language. Opponents also expressed concern that legal immigrants would be afraid to report crimes to the police for fear of being detained on suspicion of being illegal residents.
Laurie Franklin, a Jewish rabbi from Missoula, testified as opposed to the bill and quit after members of the Republican committee protested that her reasoning was also based on "racism."
"This bill is specifically designed to isolate, intimidate and demonize documented and undocumented immigrant populations by identifying them as 'others'," said Franklin. "This bill is driven by an underpayment of white supremacy."
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, cut off Franklin.
"That comment is nowhere in this bill and should not be allowed on this committee," Skees said.
After Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, asked if Franklin's opinion could be accepted as a written testimony, Usher confirmed and the hearing continued, but not until other Democrats argued that Usher had allowed testimony with racist undercurrents from supporters of the law.
Later in the hearing, Kelker asked Allen to finish her testimony within the limits set by Usher. Their familiarity with Scripture challenged all of them to denounce the bill as "contrary to the teachings of Christ."
"So my question is, if Jesus Christ, the refugee himself, was standing in front of you, how would you choose?" Allen asked the committee members.
The committee heard another bill on Wednesday requiring local law enforcement agencies to comply with requests from federal immigration detainees. HB 200 passed the committee with 12 to 7 votes and is going to the full house for further debate.
Before the committee could move on to any other bill, Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula, Rep. Derek Skees left the room. Skees said he wouldn't hear a testimony on the bill because Tenenbaum wasn't wearing a tie, which Skees described as "violating the rules of decency."
The committee was particularly heated at this meeting, both because of the type of bills it sees and because of controversy over procedures and rules. During the caucus debates on bills, several Republican members of the committee refused to let the public or press into the room, claiming that there weren't enough members in the room to present a "quorum," and so the Session not considered a public session.
Bill would allow municipalities to introduce local sales tax
A bill that would allow Montana cities to introduce local sales tax has re-emerged in Montana legislation.
Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, sponsored House Bill 187 and introduced it to House Taxation Committee members on Wednesday, January 26th. Fern had tabled a similar bill in the 2019 legislative session that would have allowed a local luxury sale tax, but it died on committee.
The tax cannot exceed 2% and cannot last more than 20 years. The bill also includes a measure to provide tax breaks for residents of the community, which is introducing the income tax – designed so that non-state travelers bear the brunt of the tax.
Proponents of the bill said it was time to reduce and diversify the tax burden on Montanans and that HB 187 would improve local control over revenue.
Darryl James, the executive director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, said the bill would help Montana property taxpayers who are "crying out for help" and suggested that visitors to the state can take more of the burden.
"We just need another tool to collect the usage fee from those who really have a free ride today," said James.
Opponents of the bill included the Montana Taxpayers Association, the Montana Budget and Policy Center, and others who said sales tax still weighs more heavily on residents than tourists.
SJ Howell, executive director of Montana Women Vote, said the bill would be particularly harmful to low-income tenants because the bill did not provide for property tax relief.
"We are deeply concerned that low-income families in these communities will be under further pressure from this bill and in fact not getting any tax breaks," Howell said.
Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, said she was frustrated that the local sales tax kept dying on the committee.
"I want to support this bill because frankly I am at the end of my joke," said Dunwell, citing numerous attempts in the past to pass other forms of residential tax breaks. "Local governments have a very real problem with tourists coming in, using and abusing services, and then leaving without paying their fair share."
In his closing remarks, Fern seemed content that his latest version of the bill was likely to fail, but insisted that the Montans desperately needed property tax reform.
"People love Montana, they love the amenities, and we need to do a better job to capitalize on it," said Fern.
Gianforte outlines plans for a comeback in Montana; Democrats answer
Gov. Greg Gianforte, the first Republican governor in Montana in 16 years, praised a “resilient” Montana and outlined his plans for tax breaks, job growth, and help with recovery from addiction in his address in Montana on Thursday, Jan. 28.
Gianforte spoke to more than a hundred state officials, senators and guests in the chamber of the house and praised the “heroes” of the pandemic such as teachers, truck drivers and healthcare workers.
"In Montana, neighbors help neighbors," said Gianforte. "It is what we do and it is what we did during this difficult year."
The governor said fighting the pandemic was his top priority, adding that he had asked President Joe Biden to ramp up vaccine production.
"I'm looking forward to the day when we can take off our masks, throw them in the trash and safely get on with our lives," said Gianforte, receiving a standing ovation and applause from lawmakers. Most Republicans did not wear masks at the event. Gianforte wore a mask when entering and exiting the chamber and only removed it to speak. He also said he would continue to wear a mask and encouraged his audience to do the same.
In the nearly hour-long speech, the governor addressed many points of his campaign and initial introduction of his proposed budget, including the goal of increasing teachers' salaries, liberalizing agriculture and the economy, lowering the highest income tax rate, and funding addiction recovery programs with marijuana and tobacco tax revenues .
Gianforte announced that he had directed his employees to move dismissal of lawsuits filed by his predecessor, former Governor Steve Bullock, against companies in Flathead for failing to enforce the mask mandate, which was in line with his earlier decision, most of Bullocks State to take back orders that limit restaurant hours and capacity.
"A pandemic with serious economic consequences is bad enough," said Gianforte. "We don't need a government that accumulates."
The governor argued that incentives and ownership work better than "impractical government mandates" in containing COVID-19 and praised lawmakers for rushing a bill to protect businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits by lawmakers.
Gianforte also lamented Montana's low starting teacher salaries and extolled the proposed "TEACH" law – "Tomorrow's Teachers Coming Home" – which would offer school districts $ 2.5 million in incentives for starting teacher salaries increase. The bill is passed through legislation as House Bill 143.
"Let's strengthen our communities and improve our classrooms by using great teachers for beginners." Let's make your pay more competitive, ”said Gianforte. "Our children will thank us for that one day."
As noted in his inaugural address, Gianforte advanced his plans to fight drug addiction in Montana through a grant program to support nonprofits fighting drug prevention and recovery, as well as the addition of five drug treatment courts.
“Treatment dishes work. They reduce relapses. They reduce drug use. They increase public safety. And they are much cheaper than incarceration, ”said the governor.
With four anti-abortion bills en route to Senate hearings after crossing the house, Gianforte reiterated his support for two of the measures: Bills 136 and 167, which ban abortions after 20 weeks and require doctors to provide life-saving treatments for infants who are after botched abortions were born alive.
Montana Democrats shortly thereafter argued against the governor's speech in which Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, described Gianforte's plan for the state as "a vision limited to massive giveaways for Montana's richest," and accused him To "keep calm" consent to bills to limit abortion and the rights of transgender youth.
Bishop said Democrats have plans to rebuild the economy and create jobs that benefit all coal and steel workers.
"A month into this term, the Democrats continued to focus on that mission," Bishop said. "Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle cannot say the same thing."
Bischof also outlined the Democrats' plans for tax cuts for the middle and lower classes and for extensive infrastructure projects to expand the rural broadband network. However, unless the party can find bipartisan ground with Republicans, much of its legislation is unlikely to become law. Republicans have firm majorities in both houses of law, and without a Democratic governor with veto power, Democrats will be unlikely to prevent a traditionally conservative agenda from becoming law.
Gianforte concluded his remarks by describing his plans as "ambitious", but expressed his confidence in his new cabinet representatives and Montananer to make them come true.
"The state of our state is strong, but it is more than strong. The state of our state is resilient," said Gianforte. "And we are ready for our comeback in Montana."