2019 Montana Legislature adjourns; leaders hail ‘historic’ creativity, compromise

House Minority Leader Casey Schriener (left), D-Great Falls, speaks with Representatives Derek Skees (middle), R-Kalispell, and Forest Mandeville, R-Columbus, on the House floor Thursday. (Shaylee Ragar / UM Legislative News Service)

(UM Legislative News Service) The 66th Montana Legislature officially ended Thursday with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle celebrating what they called an historic legislative session.

“This session will go down as one of the more innovative sessions,” said Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville. Thomas also said the 2019 Legislature was one of the most productive.

Bills that have been stuck in a legislative logjam in previous sessions passed in 2019, including  a state “bonding” infrastructure bill, which borrows money to complete public works projects across the state.

Another was the bill that raises the state bed tax to build and maintain museums and historic sites across the state and funds a new location for the Montana Historical Society. Both of those bills have been trying to move through the Montana Legislature for more than 10 years.

Despite Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate, Democrats got several of the big pieces of legislation they wanted, including Montana Medicaid expansion and the “bonding” bill.

The so-called “Solutions Caucus,” a self-titled group of moderate Republican lawmakers, worked together with Democrats to move several of the big bills of the session. One of the members is Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, who sponsored House Bill 652, the $80 million bonding bill. Hopkins said lawmakers were able to finally pass a comprehensive infrastructure plan by coming together to build a sensible approach to managing state debt.

“Everybody needs to be involved. I represent 10,000 people. The guy sitting next to me represents 10,000 people. It doesn’t matter if we disagree with each other on something, if you are going to go over a big topic that impacts everybody in the state of Montana, everybody needs to be involved,” he said.  

Senate Republican Leaders Scott Sales of Bozeman and Fred Thomas of Stevensville speak during a press conference after the 66th Legislature adjourned on Thursday. (Shaylee Ragar / UM Legislative News Service)

While infrastructure bonding passed by wide margins, the bill to continue Montana Medicaid expansion passed the Senate by only three votes, with just eight Republicans in support. The program, which is largely funded by federal money, offers health insurance to about 96,000 Montanans.

Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said while he voted against the bill because it spends too much federal money, Republicans did successfully put in some sideboards.

“We took a sow’s ear and turned it into a silk purse, the best we could,” he said. “We tried to put accountability into it, we got a sunset on it. That’s what we heard from the people, loud and clear. If Medicaid expansion was to pass, they wanted more sideboards on the bill. Not as much as we’d like, but we did the best we could in that area.”

Sales said although Republicans were split on Medicaid expansion and other big issues, the party is still unified.

“Republicans are a very diverse bunch of people. We understand that. We agree on some things, and on others we don’t. In the past, in my opinion, you get less done if you poke people in the eye than if you work with them on the issues you agree with them on,” Sales said.

The Legislature also passed a series of bipartisan bills addressing missing and murdered indigenous people, including House Bill 21, or “Hanna’s Act,” the bill named after a murdered Northern Cheyenne woman, which would create a specialist position in the state Department of Justice to investigate all missing persons cases across the state. Also included was Senate Bill 312, which would create a unified network of collected data on missing indigenous people.

A few big bills didn’t make it out of the session. House Minority Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner of Great Falls sponsored House Bill 225, which would create a public preschool system, but the bill never left committee. An attempt to revive a public preschool program, one of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s priorities this session, died on the last day.  

“We didn’t accomplish those because we don’t have enough votes to get that done,” Schreiner said. “At the end of the day, we can bring as much people to the table as possible, but if people aren’t willing to prioritize what’s important to the people of Montana, we have a problem in our state. I hope in legislatures in the future, they fix that.”

A bill that would incentivize NorthWestern Energy to buy shares of the Colstrip power plant also failed.

The session ended Thursday shortly after lawmakers passed the main budget bill, House Bill 2, which mixes $10 billion in state and federal dollars to fund state agencies for the next two years.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.