Nicole Girten and Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) The Montana Legislature hit the transmittal deadline Friday – the halfway mark of the 2023 session – after sending more than 550 bills to the other chamber in the first 45 days, including hundreds during the last few days.

Republicans celebrated the accomplishments of their supermajority, citing tax relief and some of their culture-related bills against drag shows and “obscene” materials, on the mark of the halfway point of the legislative session Friday.

House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said the world is becoming a more dangerous place for youth. He referred to bills letting kids physically fight back against bullies and legislation proposed to ban drag shows on public property, saying, “kids need to be kids.”

“They should not be worried about how to deal with the bully or the pressures of the left to subtly or even overtly be sexualized,” Regier said at a press conference.

When the bullying bill was heard on the floor, Democrats said the bill could potentially open the door for more harassment, giving bullies the opportunity to make it seem like they were the victims and get away with it.

Democrats also staunchly opposed the bill proposed by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, that would prohibit drag performances on public property, standing in opposition when Republican lawmakers referred to all-ages drag shows as inherently sexual.

“The House understands that Montana has become a state for families fleeing from ‘woke’ extremism,” Regier said.

Republicans also highlighted bills — endorsed by Attorney General Austin Knudsen — that would bar companies that have policies against working with the gun industry from holding contracts with the state. They touted bills on abortion and charter schools.

Regier said he was thrilled the Republicans’ tax relief initiative, Senate Bill 121, was headed for Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. The bill will cut top earners’ tax rate from 6.5% to 5.9%, which Democrats critiqued as relief for the wealthy.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, also cited the tax relief bill as a point of pride for the party upon transmittal on Thursday evening. Additionally, Fitzpatrick pointed to bills around judicial injunctions, several of which he put forward, that also made it across the finish line. The bills would aid in ensuring legislation being litigated is implemented and puts limits on the court’s ability to enjoin bills that are being challenged.

House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said in a response to a question about the two different proposals surrounding Medicaid provider reimbursement rates, one that passed on the House floor Thursday night and the other out of an Appropriations subcommittee, his preference is always House Bill 2 from Appropriations.

“But obviously, we have to take a look at all factors to ensure that our nursing homes providers are treated respectfully across Montana,” he said.

Following the failure of several bills aimed at changing the framework of the judiciary in Montana, Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, said he drafted a Constitutional Amendment to put forward to Montanans whether Supreme Court Justices be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate to be considered by the body in the latter half of the session.

Democratic leadership celebrated some wins for priorities they were able to get groups of Republicans onboard with the first half of the session and in the week before transmittal – including Rep. Mary Caferro’s bill to fully fund Medicaid rates, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy’s Indian Child Welfare Act bill, and measures on childcare.

They also criticized Republicans’ “spending spree” and move to push through a $1 billion tax cut package.

“Republicans have become the party of big government,” said Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade. “They’ve grown the budget every year they’ve been in control … with a couple of limited exceptions.”

House Speaker Kim Abbott, Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, and House Minority Whip Derek Harvey spoke at a news conference following transmittal for the 2023 session on Friday, March 3, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
House Speaker Kim Abbott, Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, and House Minority Whip Derek Harvey spoke at a news conference following transmittal for the 2023 session on Friday, March 3, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Flowers and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, spoke twice during the past week about how budget status sheets have shown spending has already topped $2 billion this session. At Friday’s transmittal news conference, they stood next to a large sign that showed the spending had already hit $2.6 billion.

Flowers called the tax cut package “candy-coated gems” aimed solely at getting votes and appealing to wealthy people in Montana. He said the property and income tax cuts were tasty one-time morsels that weren’t very filling for average Montanans.

Abbott said she hopes – though it is unlikely to happen – Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte sends the package of tax cuts back to the appropriations committee to wait until there is better investments in housing and better-targeted tax relief.

House Minority Whip Derek Harvey, D-Butte, hailed the effort from Democrats to again kill right-to-work proposals with support from public and private unions.

“They’re clearly not even Republican Montana values, but yet their party bosses keep letting them push these agendas that would directly impact Montana families,” Harvey said. “These are Koch-backed groups that wander these hallways and push these radical agendas, and that’s not Montana values.”

Democratic leadership said they had spent much of the first half of the 2023 session defending Montanans from national efforts brought to the state to impose right-wing policies on schools, teachers, the LGBTQ community, diversity and deregulation, as well as local efforts to strip power from the judicial branch.

“It is an echo chamber. And we saw some of the terrible bills that went down yesterday by a large majority that came out of that echo chamber – terrible ideas that should have never been on that floor,” said Flowers. “But they were there because they were talking to each other and reinforcing each other, and at the same time, dismissing what I think were many reasonable ideas that needed further debate that came from Montana Democrats.”

Caferro, the Helena Democrat, said she was not surprised, but rather grateful, that 65 lawmakers agreed to fully fund Medicaid reimbursement rates – one of the top goals from Democrats this session.

“People are suffering and what you saw last night was bipartisan support for people with disabilities, business owners, and that’s what you saw – just people need our help. They need our help now,” she said.

For the rest of the session, leadership said it wants to stay focused on addressing the housing crisis, efforts to build more workforce housing, working on the mental health crisis in Montana and helping parents care for their children.

They would also like to save more of the surplus money, which Republicans are largely seeking to spend or send to taxpayers in various ways, to have a cushion in the event of an economic downturn and to provide more stable budgets in the future.

But they acknowledged Friday that because of the Republican supermajority, they will need to continue working to win over Republican support for their ideas from whichever factions of the party it may come from.

“We’ll work with anyone who’s willing to work with us to protect our communities and deliver for our constituents, and that’s been sort of all brands of Republicans,” Abbott said. “… But I think we’ve been clear from Day 1 – we’re here to try to leverage our votes for our constituents, and we’ll do that however we can.”