Republicans expand special session to include transgender birth certificates, worker furloughs

Republican legislative leaders spent the first day of their special session expanding the scope of the gathering. (Stan Parker)

HELENA – On the first day of the special session Tuesday, lawmakers expanded the agenda to consider furloughs for state employees and to stop a proposed health department rule making it easier for transgender Montanans to change their gender status on their birth certificates.

Lawmakers also broadened their agenda to divert some money budgeted for a state institution in Boulder and to consider halting some state income tax credits.

The four proposals, all sponsored by Republicans, needed the approval of at least 76 of the 150 legislators, either by a floor vote or petition. All will lead to bills being introduced that will be subject to hearings in the special session.

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock called the session to address a $227 million budget and revenue shortfall facing state government.  Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, expanded the call to consider some of their ideas to address the shortfall.

The most controversial expansion would intervene in a proposed Department of Public Health and Human Services rule allowing transgender Montanans to change the gender on their birth certificates by going to the state agency instead of having to go to a district court.

The Montana Senate has its first debate of the special session on revised rules. (Chuck Johnson)

Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, made the motion to expand the session for that purpose.  He said the Legislature and public should have had a say in the proposed rule.

Lenz disputed the department’s claim that the rule would have no fiscal impact and said at a time “when we are struggling to find money,” the state shouldn’t be increasing its costs.

Over in the Senate, Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, said it could cost millions of dollars to reprogram computers for various state government forms if the rule is adopted.

Democrats protested the inclusion of the proposal in the special session.

“We’re here, and we’ve all heard we’re here to address a fiscal crisis, a revenue crisis, in this state,” said Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena.  “This has nothing to do either. It allows people to get a correct ID in the state that accurately reflects who they are.”

Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, said she attended the rules hearing at the health department and five people testified for the rule, while one opposed it.  She said the rule complies with federal law and is humane.

There was no discussion about the proposal to authorize state employee furloughs, because it was done by petition. It calls on the Legislature to consider furloughing state workers and using the savings to help balance the budget and provide budget stability.

Another proposal that received the needed 76 votes would divert more than $25 million in budget funds intended to go the Montana Development Center, an institute for developmentally disabled people in Boulder, and put the money toward the budget shortfall.  The institution is to be closed by mid-2019

Another proposal to expand the session’s agenda to eliminate some income tax credits also wasn’t debated because too was done by petition.

Two other expansion attempts failed to muster the needed votes. One would have diverted money from the state coal severance fund and used it replenish the state’s wildland firefighting fund. The other would have eliminated the six health-care clinics that serve state employees in communities across Montana.