One of this legislative session’s defining issues was also the subject of its final (and among its most chaotic) debates — the implementation of recreational marijuana in the state.
Lawmakers sent House Bill 701, the flagship plan for implementing the ballot initiative legalizing adult-use marijuana that passed last year, to the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte earlier this week. But all week, rumors swirled about a second bill, HB640, with a similar title that could theoretically be used to make last-minute changes to the program even after a bipartisan group of lawmakers versed in marijuana policy negotiated a fragile deal to get HB701 out the door despite opposition from members in both caucuses.
Fears among the cannabis industry materialized Thursday, the last day of the session, when leadership appointed a conference committee to pass an amendment backed by a coalition of conservatives to HB640 that would overhaul the allocation of marijuana tax revenues in the main bill and also significantly tighten eligibility requirements for those who have medical marijuana cards to treat chronic pain — the vast majority of the 42,000 cardholders in the state.
Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, argued that this change would effectively eliminate the medical program in the state and called the HB640 amendments “poison pills” introduced at the last minute that threatened a bill that had already passed.
The House passed the HB640 amendments, but the Senate, thanks to a series of Republicans who joined with the minority, did not. The chaos quickly subsided. Within minutes, the 67th Legislature adjourned sine die, ending their official work for the next two years.
It was a fitting end to an unprecedented legislative session marked by the coronavirus pandemic, the first in which Republicans have controlled both the Legislature and the executive branch in decades. Montana lawmakers passed on Thursday their $12.6 billion budget bill and authorized nearly $3 billion in federal COVID-19 aid, confirmed, after some back-and-forth, the one remaining judge appointed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, and escalated a fight with the Supreme Court and the judicial branch stemming from a series of bills passed over the session clearing the way for more conservative control over the courts.
One key provision in the budget ended year-round continuous eligibility for Medicaid, which opponents warned could result in those who are eligible for government-backed healthcare to lose their coverage through bureaucratic “churn.”
Only a handful of legislators were infected with COVID-19 during the session despite their decision early on to refrain from instating a mask mandate. However, partway through the session, the governor and his wife both tested positive for the coronavirus.
The coronavirus pandemic also prompted various bills, such as setting limitations on the authority of local health boards and prohibiting businesses from requiring vaccines as a condition of employment or service.
The legislature also was memorable for a testy fight over a dress code spurred by one lawmaker’s refusal to wear a tie and for the number of measures that died only to reappear in the form of another bill or amendment to separate legislation, especially in the latter days of the session. This was the case for one bill, House Bill 113, that would have banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth only to be killed and brought back in a slightly mitigated form in House Bill 427, which itself died after slick parliamentary maneuvers by Senate Democrats. However, another bill from the same sponsor, Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, to require that transgender student athletes only play on sports teams corresponding to their sex assigned at birth, is heading to the governor’s desk.
In addition to those bills, lawmakers passed several other policies this session as part of a broader conservative social program, namely limiting access to abortion. They also ended same-day voter registration and beefed up voter ID requirements, among others, leading to accusations of voter suppression from Democrats.
Although the session was full of controversy, some high-profile bills didn’t make it across, including a bill making Montana a right-to-work state that died early in the session after coordinated opposition from organized labor groups with deep roots in the state.
Overall, Republicans relished in what they said was one of their most successful sessions.
“The Republicans have brought freedom back to Montana,” said Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith, R-Billings.