Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) A bill that would give a tax break to top earners in the state looks likely to land on Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk soon.

Also, a bill letting kids fight back against bullies in school passed second reading Tuesday, as did another requiring the Secretary of State to investigate whether people registering to vote are U.S. citizens.

These votes come as committees are pushing bills to the floor in the run up to the transmittal deadline on Friday, requiring all general bills without a fiscal note to pass through at least one chamber of the legislature.

Democrats pushed back during debate on the floor on Senate Bill 121, on tax breaks, but ultimately it passed second reading on the House floor along party lines, 68-32.

The bill would lower the top income tax rate from 6.5% to 5.9% and increase the earned income tax credit, which helps lower income families get a tax break from 3% to 10%.

The fiscal note for the bill reports the state will lose more than $150 million per fiscal year in the general fund, with changes set to start at the end of this calendar year in December. The fiscal note forecasts the state will lose $180 million in the fiscal year 2027.

Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said this tax cut was being rushed, and decisions on cuts to spending should be made alongside the budgeting process. She said there’s currently $1.9 billion in spending outside of House Bill 2, the appropriations bill that funds state government for the next two years.

“We need to slow it down and take care of our budget first, alongside what we’re giving back, alongside what we’re investing,” she said. “That’s the right thing to do. I don’t understand what rush we’re in.”

Abbott also pointed to whom the bill helps.

“This disproportionately helps wealthy folks, and disproportionately leaves middle class folks behind,” she said.

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said that taxpayer money should be given back to taxpayers because it’s their money.

“We’ve got a surplus. Everybody knows that. We have over-collected their money for the last two years,” he said.

He said it was a pro-business bill to in part compete for businesses from the region to come to Montana.

The bill, which also received pushback when it was heard in the Senate, will go onto third reading tomorrow before making its way to the governor’s desk.

House Bill 450: Bullying in schools

The House also advanced a bill from Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R- Belgrade, that would let a student be able to use force to defend themselves or another student if being physically bullied.

Educators in the body said this bill would not work in practice.

A teacher for 24 years, Rep. Eric Matthews, D-Bozeman, said that reality is, fights don’t happen in front of cameras, and kids could make it seem like another kid started the fight and make themselves the victim.

Other representatives talked about their own bullying experiences, with Rep. John Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Anaconda and father to Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, talking about the advice on bullying passed down in their family.

“I passed down grandpa’s instructions: punch him back in the face,” said the senior Fitzpatrick. “The most important class any child will ever take in school is ‘playground,’ and if he doesn’t learn to pass ‘playground,’ he’s going to be a victim for the rest of his life.”

The bill passed second reading 70-30.

Voter registration investigations, ICWA, abortion, blood donations

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, sponsored a bill that narrowly passed second reading Tuesday that would require the Secretary of State’s office to investigate residents’ citizenship status when they register to vote.

The bill passed 51-49, after some critiqued it for being a response to the case out of Phillips County where two Philippine citizens voted in 2021. Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, said bill supporters were just “chasing phantoms” as cases like this are so rare, and in Montana’s case they were caught.

A similar bill from Rep. Zack Wirth, R-Wolf Creek, that would ban noncitizens from voting in Montana elections, which is already prohibited, passed third reading 70-29 and is going to the Senate.

Another bill that passed third reading in the House on Tuesday is a bill that would codify the Indian Child Welfare Act in Montana law. ICWA established standards for removal of Native children at a federal level, currently being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. Proponents noted it as the “gold standard” for child custody proceedings and practices.

House Judiciary forwarded three abortion bills on Tuesday to the House floor, including Speaker Regier’s bill banning most surgical abortions after 12 weeks, the resurrected LR-131 bill from Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R- Billings, and a bill from Republican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway of Great Falls that would require reporting of potential adverse effects from abortion pills.

House Health Services tabled a bill Monday that would have banned vaccinated people from donating blood, with a 19-1 vote.

The House and Senate will convene Wednesday morning to hold all day floor sessions in order for bills to meet the Friday transmittal deadline.