HELENA — It took from 8 a.m. until after 9 p.m., but the Montana Senate got through debate on 70 bills Thursday, wrapping up their work for the first half of the 68th legislative session.
After a full day of debates and preliminary votes, the Senate suspended their rules and held final votes on all the bills they advanced – finishing a full day before the transmittal deadline, when bills that don’t appropriate money or affect revenue have to clear the chamber.
During the afternoon and evening, senators considered a wide variety of bills. They voted down Senate Bill 467, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, which would have prohibited cities and counties from banning short-term rentals. However, they passed Senate Bill 268, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, which would generally allow short-term rentals as a residential use for zoning purposes. SB 268 would also limit how local governments can restrict those rentals.
Senators also narrowly rejected Trebas’ Senate Bill 465, on a 24-26 vote. That bill would have required the state to implement work requirements for people covered by Medicaid expansion – regardless of whether the federal government approved of it. Lawmakers attempted to add work requirements when they reauthorized the program in 2019, but federal authorities have said they won’t approve the waiver the state needs to implement them.
SB 465 would have wound down Medicaid expansion in Montana if the feds threatened to block work requirements or pull the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding they provide the state.
The Senate also gave final approval to Senate Bill 419, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, which would ban the app TikTok from operating in Montana. Supporters cited concerns based on its ownership by a Chinese company and on claims that it collected significant data on its users against their will.
TikTok pushed back in a statement:
“Every day, Montanans come to TikTok to learn something new, to share their voice and creativity, to chronicle Montana's natural beauty, and to help build their businesses,” said chief operating officer V Pappas. “This piece of legislation is an egregious violation of Montanans' free speech rights, and it will close off Montana from the 100 million strong TikTok community in the United States. We hope that Montana legislators will consider those serious consequences—and the disastrous precedent they're setting—and weigh them against the deeply flawed arguments put forward to justify this ban.”
Also, Senate Bill 337, sponsored by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, fell short on a tied final vote, 25-25, after passing a preliminary vote earlier in the day. The bill would have revised laws involving parental involvement in education, including requiring parents to opt-in to any sex education program, requiring teachers to get parental permission before referring to a student by a different name or pronoun from their name at birth, and allowing parents to withdraw their students from any instruction they object to on moral and religious grounds.
The Senate is now on their transmittal break. Leadership says they’ll return and gavel in for a brief session next Thursday, then get into the work of the second half of the session.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include late action in the state Senate. The original post is below.
The Montana House and Senate debated big policies Thursday, as they moved into their second full day of marathon debates. Lawmakers considered which bills to advance and which to shoot down before Friday’s transmittal deadline, when any general bill that hasn’t passed one of the two chambers will die.
At the end of the Senate’s floor session on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said they would likely consider 60 to 70 bills, many of them controversial.
Many of the bills heard Thursday morning dealt with courts and the justice system.
Senate Bill 439, a proposal intended to allow Montana to resume conducting executions failed on a tied vote, 25-25. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County, would change a section of state law that currently requires the Montana Department of Corrections use an “ultra-fast-acting barbiturate” as part of its procedure for giving a lethal injection.
Since 2015, the state has effectively been unable to administer the death penalty. A district judge ruled that pentobarbital – the drug the state was planning to use – did not meet the “ultra-fast-acting” requirement, and he blocked the state from using it unless the statute was changed.
“This bill is not about the death penalty – on whether or not it’s legal, whether or not it should be legal,” Usher said. “This is actually following that court order.”
Leaders have said the companies that manufacture drugs meeting the “ultra-fast-acting” requirement no longer provide them for executions.
Opponents of the bill said it was effectively about whether the death penalty will start again, and that it opened too many questions.
“This is just not something that I would want to put on our hard-working staff in Corrections with too many unanswered questions,” said Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings.
Usher made a motion to reconsider the vote, but that also ended in a 25-25 tie.
The Senate endorsed Senate Bill 277, sponsored by Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, 43-7. The bill would remove the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse victims to file a civil claim for damages. Current law says victims must file those claims within three years of discovering the abuse or by the time they turn 27.
Sen. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, made an emotional statement, saying that he had been a victim of abuse, and it had taken him years to be willing to come forward.
“If this does nothing more than to let those people know that no matter what, at no matter what point in time in your life, you may be held accountable for what you have done to some small child that didn't have the strength to resist, then it is a success – because you live with that every day,” Brown said. “It's not always in my memory every day, no – but it is always in my memory. It comes up.”
The Senate also gave bipartisan approval to a slate of bills that came out of the Joint Select Committee on Election Security, which was tasked with answering Montanans’ questions about how the state’s election system works. Two passed unanimously – one requiring ballot records from electronic vote tabulators to be stored, and one updating rules for how the state’s absentee ballot list is maintained. A third, Senate Bill 482, would require a regular test to ensure the source code for a voting machine has not been tampered with. That bill was endorsed 43-7.
Other bills that passed preliminary votes Thursday included:
- Senate Bill 397, sponsored by Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, would establish regulations limiting when state and local governments can use facial recognition technology, including a full ban on continuous facial surveillance.
- Senate Bill 313, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would require more public disclosure about complaints against judges filed with the state Judicial Standards Commission.
- Senate Bill 337, sponsored by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, would revise laws involving parental involvement in education, including requiring parents to opt-in to any sex education program, requiring teachers to get parental permission before referring to a student by a different name or pronoun from their name at birth, and allowing parents to withdraw their students from any instruction they object to on moral and religious grounds.
- Senate Bill 172, sponsored by Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, would change rules for bail bond agents and bail enforcement agents – otherwise known as bounty hunters. Supporters said it would add sideboards on the industry to require training and licensing before an agent attempts to take someone into custody.
- Senate Bill 419, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, would ban the app TikTok in Montana, based on its connection to China and reports of surveillance.
- Senate Joint Resolution 14, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, opposing the introduction of any bison at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana.
- Senate Joint Resolution 15, sponsored by Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, pushing back on the judicial branch by stating that they do not have the exclusive authority to interpret the constitution, and that “while the legislative and executive branches should respect the opinions of the court, the legislature and the executive have equal roles in determining the constitutionality of any statute or decision.”
- Senate Bill 488, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, would abolish common-law marriage in Montana.
In another busy day for the House of Representatives that saw lawmakers work effectively from sun up to sun down, many bills were passed on to a third reading which can be expected Friday ahead of the Legislative session’s halfway point.
The House debated bills that ranged from controversial to ‘slam dunks’ and everything in between.
One of the bills that went largely undebated, and passed unanimously, on Thursday was House Bill 690 from Rep. Katie Sullivan from Missoula which addresses facial recognition technology. Sullivan’s bill laid out guidelines that say it can only be used for the safety of students and staff, by only being used to investigate a crime, monitor the entry and exit of people on campus, among other things.
Two bills regarding religious expression schools from Rep. Greg Kmetz from Miles City were being widely debated and passed before lawmakers could finish their second cup of coffee.
House Bill 744 protects students’ and staff’s ability to both start and entertain religious discussions in schools. Proponents of the bill believe that allowing religious discussion will allow students to become worldly and well-rounded, while opponents noted that students could become susceptible to peer pressure and be proselytized into a religion.
House Bill 745 featured similar themes, but ultimately protects a person’s right to bring a religious text to school to read during school hours and permits prayer during the school day. The bill outlines an example where the school day can start with a prayer, but notes that no person can be compelled to pray.
Many iterations of abortion bills also advanced to a third reading on Thursday like House Bill 544 from Rep. Jane Gillette from Gallatin County. HB 544, if passed through both chambers, will require those seeking an abortion through Medicaid to obtain prior authorization from their insurance provider and narrowly tailored the definition of a “medically necessary” abortion, that bill passed 69-31.
House Bill 625 from Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe from Billings also passed by a similar margin of 65-35 and requires medical care to be administered to infants born following an abortion attempt and lays out penalties for Medical professionals who choose not to. Proponents of the bill said the bill largely protects and provides compassion to infants that are born following a failed abortion attempt, while opponents say that legislation like this is already on the books and could scare medical providers from moving to and getting a job in Montana in the future.
House Bill 786 from Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway of Great Falls passed the second reading as well by a margin of 65-35 and the bill states that medical providers that provide abortion medications (i.e. pills) to patients must do a follow up appointment with patients, report any adverse effects with the patient, and outlines penalties for the failure to report those effects.
Rep. Seekins-Crowe also brought House Bill 676 forward which looks at parental rights. HB 676’s premise is that parents have fundamental rights when it comes to raising, educating, and caring for the health and mental of their child and narrowly tailors when the government can involve itself in those decisions. That bill passed 67-33.
Voting was also a topic of issue on Thursday with House Bill 774 which lays out a plan to move all elections to even years and be held during the primary or general elections. The bill was brought forth by Rep. Mike Hopkins from Missoula and nearly mirrors a similar bill in the Senate which passed a third reading on Thursday. Hopkins noted during his opening statement that the bill was not quite finished and if moved on to the Senate would allow the bill to be amended alongside Senate bill 420 by Sen. Chris Friedel of Billings. House Bill 774 passed through to a third reading on a 62-38 vote.