Brittany Trushel: Montana 86th Legislative Session Summary

The legislative session made national headlines, but not for developing policy to tackle the housing crisis or improve the lives of Montanans. Instead, politicians widened socioeconomic gaps, created discriminatory policy, and dismantled environmental regulation. 

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte called the legislative session:

“Clean up on aisle four; we’ve been peeling the red tape back, reducing the tax burden on hard working Montanans, and there’s a bunch of other stuff to celebrate.” 

Now it’s clear what the governor meant: give industry carte blanche, oppress different cultures, subsidize wealthy allies, and deny basic needs to vulnerable Montanans. 

So, what actually happened? Is it as bad as Democratic legislators and news outlets report?

In total, legislators introduced 1,698 bills, of which 790 passed both the House and Senate for the Governor’s review. As of June 12, 2023, 752 bills were signed into law by the Governor. 

The good

The legislature passed a series of laws to add protections for Native Montanans, including:

The legislature also expanded the state’s child care scholarship program, which provides subsidies for child care to eligible low-income families. Rep. Alice Buckley (D-Bozeman) championed the bill, which the governor has still not signed as of June 12, 2023. 

Insurance now covers a 12-month supply of birth control for Montanans; this legislation, introduced by Alice Buckley (D) of Bozeman, conserves time and money, especially for rural patients. 

Lawmakers provided $26 million in grant funding for water, sewer, and irrigation projects, $6 million in environmental reclamation and remediation grants, and $11 million in historic preservation funds. 

The bad

Lawmakers voted to empower themselves, expanding their investigative and subpoena powers and muddying checks and balances among government branches. The body also granted themselves “standing”, to bring lawsuits over legislation. 

Passing several laws preventing local governments from creating policy, Republican lawmakers continued efforts to preempt municipal government. Local governments now cannot regulate petroleum fuels, utility lines, renewable energy infrastructure in new home construction. 

Legislators propped up the dying coal industry. Lawmakers removed the standard to define damage to water quality from coal operations, exempted certain mining expansions from state review or public notice, and made litigation more costly and difficult.

Utility monopolies were given a blank check. Lawmakers adopted blanket preapproval, a process that was abused in the past and allows utilities to make customers pay exaggerated costs for new projects, while pocketing the difference.

Unlike industry, electric vehicle (EV) owners got a double punch, as lawmakers levied taxes to charge EVs at public stations and rendered an additional annual EV registration fee. 

Introducing ballot measures became more difficult and expensive. Now, citizens must pay $3,700 to petition the state government. In addition, citizens cannot bring a measure similar to one defeated in the past four years.

Legislators exerted authority over public education, passing Montana’s own “Obscenity Bill” to crack down on “obscene” materials in schools, libraries, and museums. Schools also need parental permission to use a student’s name or nickname, if it differs from their assigned birth gender.

Beginning in 2024, social media platform TikTok is banned within state borders. Citing “foreign adversaries,” Montana swipes at free speech and tribal sovereignty by blocking access to a video communication platform.  

The ugly

Republicans fully committed to their culture war. They legally overlooked transgender and intersex Montanans by narrowly and needlessly defining “sex,” opening us up to lose billions in federal funding because of discrimination. Legislators banned drag story hours and “sexually oriented” shows in public, prompting First Amendment questions; “sexually oriented” includes “salacious dancing–” cue Kenny Loggins

The Montana legislature also dipped their authority into medical privacy. The majority party outlawed “gender-affirming” healthcare for minors, making national headlines when they silenced a Democrat colleague who spoke against the measure. The legislature also adopted a “medical conscience” bill allowing providers (and insurers) to deny healthcare to patients for any reason–with no exception for emergencies. Bucking voters and weakening reproductive rights, lawmakers excluded abortion from constitutional privacy, banned pre-viability abortion, restricted funding options for abortion, added unnecessary medical procedures to access abortion, adopted misleading “born alive” policy, and enacted several reporting provisions.  

Lawmakers also focused on deregulating environmental protections, infringing upon Montanans’ right to a clean and healthful environment. Stripping provisions from the Montana Environmental Policy Act, agencies no longer consider greenhouse gasses or climate change impact for large projects, mid-sized subdivisions now enjoy limited oversight, and nonprofit litigants face a difficult, pay-to-play battle to access our court system. 

Conservative legislators made sure to carve out capacity to protect firearms. Lawmakers provided more privacy for gun purchases, denied state contracts to businesses that prohibit firearms, and enhanced concealed carry outside state borders.  

Budget & tax cuts 

The only constitutional requirement of the Montana Legislature: to create a balanced budget for the next two years. The proposed 2023-2025 state budget is a $14.4 billion behemoth. Half of the budget, $7.1 billion, is a federal passthrough for health programs and highway infrastructure. The $7.3 billion of state funds is largely slated for health and human service programs, as well as education. 

As of June 12, 2023, legislators have not sent the budget to the governor for review and signature, with three weeks remaining until the budget takes effect. 

Proposed budget for 2023-2025 Fiscal Year, State of Montana. Data are from House Bill 2: General Appropriations Act.

Moving into the legislative session, Montana’s $2.5 billion budget surplus made headlines. Instead of investing in critical services, Republican lawmakers passed a $764 million tax package, consisting of $284 million in short-term property and $480 million income tax rebates.

Similar to the inequity of the 2021 tax package, the 2023 package mainly benefits White, wealthy Montanans. Currently, low income Montanans pay a higher tax rate than those with higher incomes, and households with investment income pay a lower effective tax rate than wage earners. Currently, the effective state and local tax rate for White Montanans is 6.7%, while Native American Montanans pay 6.9%. 

Over 96% of the income tax rebate will go to White Montanans with disproportionately higher incomes; similarly, the wealthiest households will get more than 80% of the property tax rebate, essentially subsidizing Montanans who own property. The total amount funneled to out-of-state owners of second homes, short-term rentals, and capital investment firms by this property tax rebate is unknown. 

Went big, went home

Even with a 102-seat supermajority, Republican lawmakers did not pass a constitutional amendment. However, 19 amendments were introduced, including major policy changes, like expanding legislative control over Board of Regents, changing selection of Supreme Court justices from voter elections to governor appointments, and a new rule for redistricting that prohibits consideration of partisan affiliation of voters. Our progressive 50-year-old State Constitution remains intact, for now.     

Flying blind: gubernatorial vetoes

The governor used his veto power to reject a number of legislative proposals. Surprising pundits and prompting several veto override efforts, the governor rejected:

  • Require sharing of abuse and neglect reports from Montana State Hospital. The popular legislation came after the Hospital’s loss of federal certification and funding, following a continuing series of patient deaths and injuries. Legislature overrode veto.
  • Require warrants to remove children from homes, except in abuse emergencies. Dubbed “The Child Removal Capital of America,” Montana takes children from homes at rates double the national average, also showing a clear racial and socioeconomic bias. The bill was developed after two years of research by a bipartisan committee. Veto override failed. 
  • Transfer Alzheimer’s, dementia, or brain-injury patients out of Montana State Hospital and into facilities equipped to care for such diagnoses. Republicans pushed for the legislation. Legislature overrode veto.
  • Increase funding for ambulance responders and services. The bipartisan bill is a stop gap for low payer reimbursement rates, which resulted in low wages, recruitment, and service retainment. Veto override failed.
  • Increase legislator wage. Senator Chris Pope identified the low pay as a hurdle for young or working Montanans to engage in lawmaking. Conversely, the governor did not veto HB 28, which increased legislator per diem (i.e., reimbursement for lodging, meals, and travel); thereby creating a feedback loop: only the wealthy or retired can afford to participate in state government, but financial incentives exist once you have a seat at the table.
  • Designate Montana’s marijuana tax revenue to rural road repair, conservation, and veterans. The bill provides $30 million to Habitat Montana, a 30-year wildlife program hailed as, “Montana’s premier habitat program.” Weeks after vetoing this bill, the governor staged a photo opportunity praising Big Snowy Wildlife Management Area as a public lands victory–a victory made possible by Habitat Montana. Touted as a model of bipartisan cooperation, the governor rejected the bill, citing a “slippery slope” for the state assuming additional responsibility for local road maintenance. Conservation groups are suing to allow legislators an override vote.
  • Create stronger protections for mobile home residents. Instead of protecting seniors and low-income citizens, the governor chose out-of-state private equity firms who purchase mobile parks and inflame Montana’s housing crisis. 
  • Bolster support for seniors in long-term care facilities. The bill includes periodic cost analyses to account for inflation, demand, and industry changes. Veto override in progress.
What didn’t happen

Democratic lawmakers introduced policy to benefit everyday Montanans, but their efforts fell short as the minority party. Efforts failed to refund rental application fees, include a tax rebate for renters, support low-income and affordable housing, increase wage transparency and create a living wage, or protect right-to-repair for agriculture.  

The majority party blocked efforts to provide for our most-vulnerable Montanans: seniors, hungry children, low-income families, and veterans. In fact, after the school lunch bill failed, the state opted out of $10 million in federal food assistance, because of the “administrative burden”. 


Instead of developing sound, timely policy to govern a state with a growing populace and a wealth of natural resources, Montana legislators regulated culture, benefitted the top 1%, and kicked climate action down the road.  

It’s also clear – even with cooperative, bipartisan agreement, the governor will stonewall policy and funding to benefit average Montanans for clandestine political gain. We’ve seen enough.   

As we approach 2024, Montanans must evaluate whether these values are acceptable. Do we build a livable future and invest in a community of care? Do we protect our natural heritage and use it sustainably or do we portion it off for privatized financial gain? Do we use our wealth to fund service for all or continue to subsidize the 1%? 

The path forward is obvious: we need Democratic legislators to push back on regressive policy and fight for a more-inclusive government–For the People.