HELENA — In less than 24 hours, Montana lawmakers went from finalizing key bills to packing up their offices and heading back to their homes across the state.
The Montana Legislature’s 68th session wrapped up late Tuesday, after 87 days tackling big debates and a huge volume of bills. According to data from the state Legislative Services Division, 1,698 pieces of legislation were introduced, and 748 of them passed through the Legislature.
The Senate adjourned Tuesday afternoon, after an unexpected sine die motion. The House wrapped up its work that evening, after finalizing House Bill 2, the main state budget bill that lays out $14 billion in spending over the next two years.
Republicans held a two-thirds supermajority in both the House and the Senate, and GOP leaders said Wednesday that they were proud of what they accomplished during the session.
The 68th session focused extensively on the state budget – particularly how to use the more than $2 billion surplus the state had at the start of the year.
House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, and the rest of the Republican leadership team held a news conference Wednesday morning. They touted a package of significant tax rebates and long-term tax reductions; school choice measures, including bills encouraging development of charter schools; and bills on issues like gender transition and obscenity, which they said were focused on “protecting Montana children.”
“We appreciate the people from this great state of Montana for sending us here and putting your trust in us, the Republican supermajority,” said Regier. “We came into this session unified behind a set of policy principles, which I'm proud to say that we have accomplished.”
Speaking to MTN Wednesday afternoon, Senate President Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, also highlighted the money returned to Montana taxpayers, as well as the investments lawmakers made in areas like infrastructure and behavioral health services. He also pointed to bills aimed at encouraging housing development, both by investing money and by making changes to zoning and other policies.
“I think all of those things – and they are not little subjects, they are huge subjects – we had not just baby steps, but giant leaps and bounds,” Ellsworth said.
Speaking at their own news conference Wednesday morning, Democratic leaders said it was a tough session serving in a “superminority.” House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, said they were also proud of what they were able to achieve, but that much of the session was spent pushing back what they called Republicans’ overreach.
“When I think about what we accomplished with just 32 members, I’m incredibly proud, and when I think of what we were able to defend against on the floor every day, the attacks against families and children, I'm incredibly proud of the work we did,” Abbott said. “Now, of course, we weren't able to defend against all of it.”
They highlighted amendments to HB 2 to increase reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers, as well as the fact that no constitutional amendment proposals got enough support to make next year’s ballot. However, they believed the Legislature left without doing enough to provide long-term property tax relief or to help renters struggling to afford housing.
While lawmakers are leaving Helena for now, they’ll be back at the Capitol starting this summer for interim committee meetings. The Legislature passed a bill that would change those committees from evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats to having more members from the majority party.