Gov. Greg Gianforte, the first Republican governor in 16 years in Montana, praised a “resilient” Montana and outlined his plans for tax relief, job growth and addiction recovery support in his State of the State address at the Montana State Capitol on Jan. 28.

Gianforte spoke to more than a hundred state representatives, senators and guests in the House chamber, and opened with praise for the “heroes” of the pandemic like teachers, truck drivers and health care workers.

“In Montana, neighbors help neighbors,” Gianforte said. “It’s what we do, and it’s what we’ve done in this difficult year.”

The governor said addressing the pandemic is his top priority, adding that he asked President Joe Biden to ramp up vaccine production.

“I look forward to the day when we can take off our masks, throw them in the trash, get on with our lives in a safe manner,” Gianforte said, earning a standing ovation and cheers from lawmakers. Most Republicans were not wearing masks at the event. Gianforte wore a mask when entering and exiting the chamber, removing it only to speak. He also said he will continue to wear a mask and encouraged his audience to do the same.

In the nearly hour-long speech, the governor hit on many points from his campaign and his first rollout of his proposed budget, including goals of raising starting teacher pay, deregulating agriculture and business, lowering the top income tax rate and funding addiction recovery programs with marijuana and tobacco tax revenue.

Gianforte announced he had directed his staff to seek dismissal of lawsuits filed by his predecessor, former Gov. Steve Bullock, against businesses in the Flathead for failing to enforce the mask mandate, keeping in line with his previous decision to roll back most of Bullock’s statewide orders limiting restaurant hours and capacity.

“A pandemic with severe economic fallout is bad enough,” Gianforte said. “We don’t need government piling on.”

The governor argued that incentives and personal responsibility work better than “impractical government mandates” at containing COVID-19 and praised lawmakers for hurrying a bill to protect businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits through the Legislature.

Gianforte also lamented Montana’s low starting teacher pay rate and touted the proposed “TEACH” Act — “Tomorrow’s Educators Are Coming Home” — which would provide $2.5 million in incentives for school districts to increase starting teacher pay. The bill is moving through the Legislature as House Bill 143.

“Let’s make our communities stronger and our classrooms better with excellent starting teachers in them. Let’s make their pay more competitive,” Gianforte said. “Our kids will thank us for it one day.”

As mentioned in his inaugural address, Gianforte promoted his plans to combat drug addiction in Montana through a grant program to support nonprofits tackling addiction prevention and recovery, as well as the addition of five drug treatment courts.

“Treatment courts work. They reduce recidivism. They reduce drug use. They increase public safety. And they are much more cost effective than incarceration,” the governor said.

With four anti-abortion bills on their way to hearings in the Senate after sailing through the House, Gianforte reaffirmed his support for two of the measures: House Bills 136 and 167, which ban abortions after 20 weeks and require doctors supply life-saving treatment to infants born alive following botched abortions.

Montana Democrats delivered a rebuttal to the governor’s speech shortly afterward, in which Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, called Gianforte’s plan for the state “a vision that is limited to massive giveaways for Montana’s wealthiest,” and accused him of granting “quiet approval” to bills limiting abortion and the rights of transgender youth.

Bishop said Democrats have plans to rebuild the economy and bring in jobs that benefit all Montanans.

“A month into this legislative session, Democrats have remained laser-focused on that mission,” Bishop said. “Our colleagues across the aisle cannot say the same.”

Bishop also outlined Democrats’ plans for tax cuts for the middle and lower classes and for sweeping infrastructure projects expanding rural broadband, but unless the party can find bipartisan ground with Republicans, much of their legislation will likely not become law. Republicans hold firm majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, and without a Democratic governor with veto power, Democrats will be hard-pressed to prevent a traditionally conservative agenda from becoming law.

Gianforte closed his remarks by calling his plans “ambitious,” but expressed faith in his new cabinet appointees and Montanans in bringing it to fruition.

“The state of our state is strong, but it’s more than strong. The state of our state is resilient,” Gianforte said. “And we are ready for our Montana comeback.”

Abortion bills advance to Senate; anti-transgender bill dies in House

Lawmakers in Montana’s House of Representatives have approved four anti-abortion bills but failed to advance an anti-transgender youth bill after dissent within the Republican majority.

House Bill 113 would have restricted access to gender-affirming care for transgender youth but failed a final vote in the House 49-51 on Tuesday, Jan. 26. The bill passed a preliminary vote in the House the day before with 53 Republicans in favor, but four more members of the party switched during the final vote, including Senate Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings. She called her vote switch a “couple-of-weeks-long” process.

“I’ve been really carefully considering all perspectives,” Vinton said after the vote. “I think yesterday and today, just like my fellow representatives did, I voted out of the concern for the health and safety of our children. I still have those concerns, but I can certainly see both aspects of the issue.”

A second bill restricting transgender women and girls from participating in women’s K-12 and college sports, House Bill 112, passed a final House vote 61-38 and is headed to the Senate.

Four bills seeking to add new restrictions on Montanans’ access to abortion services sailed through the House after three hours of heated debate.

House Bills 136, 140, 167 and 171, if signed into law, would ban abortions after 20 weeks, require doctors offer the chance for patients to view an ultrasound before an abortion, introduce a referendum to require that doctors save the lives of infants born alive and ban the distribution of abortion-inducing pills in the mail.

Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, chaired the House for the day and began the debates with a plea for even heads.

“Respect is one of the most important aspects of a legislative body,” Knudsen said.

Democrats spoke out against every abortion bill, with Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, opening her party’s arguments against HB 136. Bishop said decisions involving abortion are best left between a patient and their doctor, without government interference.

“This tyranny has no place in our personal healthcare decisions, and this tyranny has no place in our state,” Bishop said.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, threw his support behind HB 136.

“This bill is about infants feeling pain in the womb,” Skees said. “Do not hurt a creature that can feel pain.”

The bills need approval from the Senate before moving to the governor’s desk.

(Holly Michels with the Lee Newspapers State News Bureau contributed reporting to this story.)

Bills target change to Montana’s elections process

A trio of bills aimed at changing the way Montana runs its elections is moving through the Montana Legislature, though one measure is drawing criticism from election administrators and county commissioners who worry the state’s election processes might be further politicized.

Two of the bills, sponsored by Sen. Gordon Vance, R-Belgrade, seek to alter systems of accountability in state elections.

Senate Bill 92 would require that election administrators be elected officials in their jurisdiction. Currently, some election administrators in Montana counties are appointed positions. The new bill would require them to appoint an elected official to run elections going forward.

“I think elections are important enough that the folks that run them should be held accountable to the people that vote, pure and simple,” Vance said during a committee hearing.

One proponent of the bill from Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office argued accountability should be found in positions as important as the election administrator.

But several county commissioners and election administrators, like Carbon County Commissioner Bill Bullock, argued the move is unnecessary, and that in his county, the election administrator is directly responsible to the county clerk.

“Forcing election administrators to be elected only muddies the waters,” Bullock said.

Another county commissioner, William Barron from Lake County, said appointed election administrators keep elections nonpartisan.

“If the appointed position doesn't work for large counties like Gallatin, Cascade or Yellowstone, fine; let them elect,” Barron said. “Don’t make other counties change what works for them.

Vance also sponsored Senate Bill 93, a measure that aims to allow poll watchers at collection sites for mail ballots. He said the inspiration for the bill came from reports he heard from around the state of election administrators refusing to allow poll watchers at ballot drop-off sites because those sites were not “polling places.”

Clinton King, a resident of Gallatin County, testified in support of the bill and said he volunteered to be a poll watcher in the 2020 election, but was not allowed to ask questions to election officials about mail ballot drop-off locations.

“I think Senator Vance bringing up the word change to include ‘places of deposit’ would be really helpful,” King said.

Senate Bill 15, brought by Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, seeks to improve access to voting for disabled electors by allowing local elections to use voting accessibility equipment normally reserved for federal elections. The measure would also allow people with disabilities to vote from their car if there is no polling place accessible to them.

The bill brought proponents from disability rights advocacy groups and members of the public, including Joy Breslauer of Great Falls, who said she hasn’t always had it easy casting her vote.

“All we really want as people with disabilities is to have the same rights and privileges as everyone else has that they take for granted, including voting,” Breslauer said.

SB 92 and 93 passed out of committee and must receive approval from the full Senate before heading to the House.

Committee spars over using the term “racism” during testimony on sanctuary city bill

Debate in the House Judiciary Committee on a bill to prohibit sanctuary cities in Montana devolved into a spat over terminology as Republican Chairman Barry Usher shut down opponent testimony he said he deemed inappropriate.

The committee heard House Bill 200 on Jan. 26 — a bill that would prevent municipalities from designating themselves “sanctuary cities,” where local law enforcement is prohibited from complying with federal immigration investigations.

Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, is carrying the bill, which was vetoed by former Gov. Steve Bullock during the 2019 session. Holmlund noted he designed the bill to be “proactive,” as there are no cities in Montana currently designated as sanctuary cities.

Proponents of the bill said individuals who entered the country illegally committed a crime and should therefore be subject to immigration enforcement anywhere in the nation, though some also said in their testimony that immigrants generally brought issues to their communities they didn’t like.

Bozeman resident Mark Limesand testified in favor of the bill and said he once lived in an “immigrant community” in Massachusetts that was “livable,” until immigrants from Mexico brought in “litter” and began to “blast music” at 5 a.m. Limesand said law enforcement didn’t respond to crime in the community for fear of retribution due to protections extended by sanctuary laws.

“The Central Americans I lived next to hated it as much as I did,” Limesand said. “You start seeing people with open containers, I’m sure there’s far more drinking and driving going on — there’s just all kinds of quality of life crimes that are committed.”

But when Laura Jean Allen, a pastor from a church in Helena, rose to speak as the bill’s first opponent, Usher cut her off when she began to discuss issues some immigrants face with law enforcement due to race.

“We’re not going down the rabbit hole of racism, because there are immigrants from all over the world that are every color on Earth,” Usher said.

Other opponents proceeded to cite potential dangers of allowing local law enforcement to enforce immigration, like potential racial profiling based on skin color or spoken language. Opponents also expressed concern that legal immigrants would be afraid to report crimes to police for fear of being detained on suspicion of being illegal residents.

Laurie Franklin, a Jewish Rabbi from Missoula, testified as an opponent to the bill and stopped after Republican committee members protested that her argument was also based in “racism.”

“This bill is specifically intended to isolate, intimidate and demonize both documented and undocumented immigrant populations by identifying them as ‘other,’” Franklin said. “This bill is driven by an underlayment of white supremacy.”

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, cut Franklin off.

“That comment is nowhere in this bill, and shouldn't be allowed in this committee,” Skees said.

After Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, asked if Franklin’s opinion could be accepted as written testimony, Usher affirmed and the hearing continued, though not before other Democrats argued that Usher had allowed testimony with racial undercurrents from proponents of the bill.

Later in the hearing, Kelker asked Allen to finish her testimony within the bounds set by Usher. Allen called upon her familiarity with scripture to denounce the bill as “antithetical to the teachings of Christ.”

“So, my question is, if Jesus Christ, the refugee himself, stood before you in the room, how would you vote?” Allen asked committee members.

The committee heard another bill on Jan. 27 that would require local law enforcement comply with federal immigration detainer requests. HB 200 passed the committee in a 12-7 vote and is heading to the full House for additional debate.

Before the committee could move on to another bill, from Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula, Rep. Derek Skees left the room. Skees said he would not hear testimony on the bill because Tenenbaum was not wearing a tie, which Skees called a “violation of the rules of decorum.”

The committee has been a particularly heated one this session, both because of the nature of the bills it sees, but also for controversy over procedures and rules. During caucus discussions on bills, several Republican members of the committee have refused to allow public or press into the room, claiming there were not enough members in the room to constitute a “quorum” present and therefore, the meeting was not considered a public meeting.

Bill would allow communities to implement local sales tax

A bill that would allow Montana towns and cities the option to implement a local sales tax has resurfaced in the Montana Legislature.

Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, sponsored House Bill 187, and introduced it to members of the House Taxation Committee on Jan. 26. Fern carried a similar bill in the 2019 Legislative Session that would have allowed for a local luxury sales tax, but it died in committee.

The tax would not be allowed to exceed 2% and could not last longer than 20 years. The bill also includes a measure to allow tax rebates to residents of the municipality that implements the income tax — designed so that out-of-state travelers bear the brunt of the tax.

Proponents of the bill said it’s time to ease and diversify the tax burden on Montanans, and that HB 187 would increase local control of revenues.

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 carry more of the load.

“We simply need another tool to capture what’s really a user fee from those who, today, really have a free ride,” James said.

Opponents of the bill included the Montana Taxpayers Association, the Montana Budget and Policy Center, and others who said the sales tax would still weigh heavier on residents than tourists.

S.J. Howell, the executive director of Montana Women Vote, said the bill would hurt low-income renters especially hard, due to the bill not mandating property tax relief.

“We’re really deeply concerned that low-income families in these communities would be further squeezed by this bill and not, in fact, find tax relief,” Howell said.

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, expressed frustration that the local sales tax bill has continually died in committee.

“I want to support this bill, because I’m frankly at my wit’s end,” Dunwell said, citing numerous attempts in the past to pass other forms of residential property tax relief. “Local governments are experiencing a very real problem of tourists coming in, using and abusing services, and then leaving without paying their fair share.”

In his closing remarks, Fern seemed resigned to the fact that his latest version of the bill was likely to fail but insisted that Montanans desperately need property tax reform.

“People love Montana, they love the amenities, and we have to do a better job to capitalize it,” Fern said.

• • •

Austin Amestoy 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. He can be reached at austin.amestoy@umontana.edu.