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Biggest stories of 2021: GOP majority sets tone in legislative session

From the From fire season to surging COVID cases, here are the IR's biggest local stories of 2021 series
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Republican leadership

Republican leadership holds a press conference after the close of the legislative session on April 29, 2021.

A Republican juggernaut coupled with the coronavirus made Montana’s 2021 legislative session one of the most unique and combative political bouts in years.

The 80-day session kicked off in January, about two months after Republicans gave Democrats a shellacking at the ballot box for all the top state offices, giving Montana its first GOP governor in 16 years.

Republicans also increased their majorities in the state Senate and House.

Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, left, and Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell,

Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, left, and Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, recite the Pledge of Allegiance before the State of the State address in the state Capitol Jan. 28.

Through the session, Republicans advanced bills that previously died via veto during the last decade and a half by a Democratic governor. That included legislation to restrict access to abortion, broadly expand where firearms can be carried, end same-day voter registration and more.

“Because of the policies that we enacted, Montana families, businesses and individuals have more freedom to thrive. We gave $120 million back to the taxpayers and simplified our tax code,” Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R- Martinsdale, said in late April at the end of the session. “We gave more power back to the people and the legislative branch of government. We expanded individual rights and freedoms. We cut regulations. We opened Montana back up to business. We also modernized our health care and education system, and thankfully we have a governor who will sign these policies into law.”

The Montana Free Press recently reported that legal challenges have been filed against 18 of those bills passed by the 67th Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte. All the lawsuits allege the new laws violate the U.S. or Montana constitutions.

67th Montana Legislative session

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, in a scene from the opening day of the 67th Montana Legislative session at the state Capitol.

Democrats said the change in power dynamic took a turn for the worse.

“I think the tone of this Legislature was much different than I've ever seen it before, and I think it has to do with the fact that there wasn't balance. … We might have had Republican majorities in the Legislature, but we had a Democratic governor, so it forced folks to come to the table and actually work in this middle ground where I think most Montanans are," said Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, at the end of the session.

Lawmakers also carried bills aimed at changing the state's response to the pandemic, from a bill to provide a legal liability shield for businesses that led to Gianforte lifting the statewide mask mandate and new laws that limit public health officials' previous power to enact public health restrictions.

Some of the major fights during the session included $100,000 in funding for lawsuits filed over new laws that tighten access to voting and $285,500 to pay for a committee formed by Republicans to investigate their allegations of bias and improper behavior in the judiciary. And lawmakers weighed in on recreational marijuana.

They set up a system in Montana similar to "dry counties" in relation to alcohol. Cannabis use and possession remains legal statewide, but whether counties allow recreational cannabis sales now depends on whether or not that county approved legalization in the 2020 election. Of the state's 56 counties, 29 are "green" counties and 27 are "red."

Gov. Greg Gianforte

Gov. Greg Gianforte answers questions from the press after signing Senate Bill 65 into law on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021 in the State Capitol. The bill creates a liability shield for businesses, nonprofits, churches, health care providers and other organizations over exposure to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted Democrats to raise concerns over gathering 150 lawmakers and the potential for hundreds of staff, lobbyists, the public and news media into the Capitol in close quarters. Republicans offered a hybrid plan, which for the first time allowed remote participation. By the end of the session, six legislators and the governor had announced they tested positive for COVID-19. A lobbyist's case shut down two days of floor sessions in mid-April.

In terms of voting, Republicans passed bills that require voters to register no later than noon on the day before an election and also OK'd a bill that requires any voter who does not have a government-issued photo ID or a state concealed carry permit to produce two forms of identification to vote at the polls. 

Lawmakers passed along party lines the state's $12.6 billion budget, the only thing law requires them to accomplish during the session.

Gov. Greg Gianforte

Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks at a press conference in the State Capitol on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Republicans also passed Gianforte's tax plan, which the party estimates will reduce income and property taxes by $120 million over the two-year budget through lowering the state's top income tax rate and making other changes to things like the business equipment tax.

Another major component of the state's budget — legislation to spend about $2 billion in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act — cleared with broad bipartisan support.

Cohenour listed the ARPA bill as one of the Democrat wins during the session, saying they shaped how Montana will spend its allocation of the American Rescue Plan to fund infrastructure projects, education and opportunity for working families.

There was action on the judicial front as well.

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell speaks during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, introduced Senate Bill 140, which eliminated the panel installed 50 years ago to forward judicial nominations to the governor and instead gives the governor the ability to directly select judges he prefers. The law was later challenged and upheld by the state Supreme Court.

Republicans also squared off against the state Supreme Court.

Lawmakers issued the subpoenas to the court in April after learning about an internal email poll of judges during the session on pending legislation related to judicial functions. They say the communications represented a predetermination on legislation the judges may rule on later.

The court ruled the lawmakers overstepped their authority when they subpoenaed them without a legislative purpose and refused to reconsider their decision.

“Cleanup" legislation for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks became one of the most hotly debated hunting bills of the session. A late amendment to House Bill 637 allows outfitted nonresident hunters who were unsuccessful in getting a big game license this year in the lottery to purchase one. It also revamps nonresident preference points to give hunters using an outfitter an advantage in the draw over do-it-yourself hunters.

This story was compiled from previous reporting by the Montana State News Bureau, including Holly Michels, Tom Kuglin, Seaborn Larson and Sam Wilson. 

Assistant editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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