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2021 Legislature midpoint: GOP advancing economic, social agenda

HELENA — Tax cuts, a Covid-19 liability shield for businesses, an assault on red tape and more places where you can carry firearms – these are the accomplishments and goals that Republicans tout, after the first 45 days of Montana’s 2021 Legislature, with total GOP control.

Yet they don’t often mention what minority Democrats most often criticize: Advancing a raft of conservative social policies, from restrictions on abortion to bills making it harder to vote.

“We thought we were going to be focused on jobs and the economy,” says Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena. “It really is surprising to me that most of the bills that we’ve seen from the Republicans are about taking away these rights and freedoms.”

Well, not “most of them” – but, certainly many that have garnered plenty of media coverage and howls of objection from Democrats, who cannot stop these bills on their own.

Republicans hold a 67-33 majority in the House and a 31-19 advantage in the Senate. And, for the first time in 16 years, they also have a Republican – Greg Gianforte – in the governor’s chair.

It’s also only the second time in 50-plus years of Montana history that Republicans have controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

Some conservative proposals have been defeated during the first 45 days of the Legislature, with the help of moderate Republicans, such as bills aimed at weakening unions’ ability to collect fees and dues.

But, for the most part, Republicans have been having their way.

“Our legislative agenda has been moving through,” Gianforte told MTN News on Wednesday. “The tax credits for trade scholarships, business-equipment tax reform, our red-tap relief efforts – so far we’re doing what we told the people of Montana we would do.”

Gianforte and Republicans have been diligently advancing the highlights of the governor’s “Montana comeback plan,” a 12-page blueprint he rolled out during the 2020 campaign to overhaul government and the economy.

They’ve enacted a law that shields businesses from lawsuits claiming damages from exposure to Covid-19. Gianforte followed that by lifting many restrictions on businesses, including a statewide face-mask mandate. Some local health restrictions still remain in place.

They’re also passing a series of tax cuts and revisions, including dropping the state’s top income-tax rate from 6.9 percent to 6.75 percent, exempting 4,000 businesses from property taxes on business equipment, and eliminating capital-gains taxes entirely for principals of any new business that sets up shop here for five years.

Other business-friendly proposals are moving through the GOP-controlled Legislature as well, such as more limits on liability and bans on local governments imposing certain restrictions.

“They don’t have the dramatic flashpoints of the social-conservative things, so they kind of fly under the radar,” says Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell. “But for every-day businesses, they mean quite a bit.”

Democrats also are pointing to some lesser-known accomplishments of their own, such as a bill expanding the financing of telehealth for low-income Montanans and a one enhancing the privacy of digital, personal data.

They also teamed up this week with moderate Republicans to kill several bills to weaken organized labor – most notably, a bill to make Montana a “right to work” state – and some other socially conservative initiatives, such as an attempt to ban doctor-assisted suicide and a bill allowing medical providers to refuse services that violated their personal beliefs, such as abortion.

But, when reviewing the first half of the session, Democrats talk first about their distress over the passage of abortion restrictions, restrictions on transgender youth, bills to allow discrimination based on one’s religious beliefs, or voter ID enhancements.

Republicans have passed three abortion-restriction bills and have another on the way. Gianforte has said he intends to sign them into law.

“I am pro-life,” he told MTN News Wednesday. “I think life is precious and it should be protected.”

Opponents of the bills have vowed to sue in court to overturn them, arguing they violate Montana’s privacy provisions in the state constitution.

The other bills with conservative social policy have passed only one house so far. Gianforte isn’t tipping his hand, saying he’ll examine them if and when they reach his desk – but he did say he thinks “all Montanans can agree that we need integrity in our elections.”

When lawmakers return to Helena for the second half of the session, starting next week, they’ll also dive into two big remaining issues: The state budget and recreational marijuana.

Republicans have the votes to craft the budget however they choose, and the state doesn’t appear to be facing any notable shortfalls. Democrats have said they’re worried that some service cuts may occur to offset Republican tax-cut plans, but those details are yet to be defined.

The big budget wild card, however, will be federal Covid-19 relief money – that already appropriated by Congress last year and another big wave expected if Congress passes another bill this month.

Montana has about $800 million from last year’s relief bill, and about $450 million has yet to be authorized. The next round, if Congress acts in March, is likely to contain more than $1 billion for Montana – and lawmakers may have to determine how to spend or authorize spending that money before federal guidelines are completed.

On marijuana, the Gianforte administration is drafting up its proposal, which will make some changes in how the tax revenue is spent, diverging from directions in the November 2020 ballot measure that approved legalized dope in Montana.

Gianforte wants to put more money into substance-abuse treatment and remove some of the earmark for land and wildlife conservation programs.

“I think that makes sense if we’re making a Schedule 1 drug more widely available,” he said. “We want to make sure that the people who form an addiction can have the means to recover. There will still be some money toward conservation. But I think addiction’s got to be a priority.”

Blasdel, the Senate president, said lawmakers are waiting to see the details of the governor’s plan – but will likely want to put their own fingerprints on it as well.