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Montana lawmakers wrap up 2021 session with marijuana delay, parting barbs

The House and Senate adjourned a few minutes before 5 p.m., long after they had voted to approve the two major budget bills, including one that authorizes spending of some $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. (MATT VOLZ / KHN)

HELENA (KPAX) — Montana lawmakers wrapped up the 2021 regular session here Thursday – but not without a technical glitch, big delays on an aborted marijuana bill and some parting, partisan barbs.

The House and Senate adjourned a few minutes before 5 p.m., long after they had voted to approve the two major budget bills, including one that authorizes spending of some $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

In parting remarks, Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith, R-Billings, emphasized that newly empowered Republicans had passed $120 million in tax cuts over the next two years, and passed many bills that stripped away regulations on business.

“We passed bills that made it easier to have things like tele-medicine take place,” he said. “We had bills that made it easier to set up programs with health-care providers where you didn’t have to be burdened by the high cost of insurance.”

He also said voters gave Republicans big majorities and a new GOP governor – Greg Gianforte – because they were tired of the “tyranny” of Democrats and bureaucrats who had imposed business and personal restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The people of Montana made it clear that they did not like the tyranny that was taking place – both the tyranny that was taking place with the executive branch and the tyranny that was taking place with the local health officials,” he said.

Republicans control a 67-33 majority in the House and a 31-19 margin in the Senate.

While the main budget bill passed the Senate with some bipartisan support Wednesday evening, not a single Democrat in the House voted for it Thursday.

They said it contained spending and language that trampled on individual rights, particularly those of women.

“I was sent here by my constituents to help fight for them to be able to have lives of dignity, respect and possibility, and that is not in this budget,” said Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings. “Instead, at almost every turn, we’ve created jobs for lawyers and found ways to flout our constitution.”

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Missoula, said Republicans rarely collaborated with Democrats on any key issues, and also wasted time and money going after the state judiciary.

Republicans formed a special committee two weeks ago to investigate alleged bias within the state’s judiciary – which likely will be called on to decide the constitutionality of many new laws that Democrats promised to challenge.

“Over the last few weeks, the majority has been hell-bent on attacking the reputation of the Supreme Court,” Cohenour said. “I think it would have been easier and saved the taxpayers a heck of a lot of money to focus on passing constitutional bills.”

Lawmakers had finished votes on the two major budget bills by Thursday morning, but an erroneous amendment forced them to recall the main bill hours later and vote on it again.

A small group of Republican lawmakers also made a last-ditch effort to make more changes in the state’s medical-marijuana and new recreational marijuana program, delaying the close of the session for at least three hours.

Republicans attached some amendments to a new bill and brought it to the floor of both chambers and actually passed it in the House, over the objections of Democrats.

But, minutes later, the Senate killed the measure on a 28-22 vote, and lawmakers then voted to adjourn the session.