Bills roundup: Gender-affirming care, Indigenous People’s Day, obscenity, ed tax credits, more

By: - February 13, 2023 11:00 am

The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Senate Bill 99, which aims to ban gender-affirming care for transgender children in Montana and subject medical professionals who perform it to criminal charges, passed the Senate in a 30-20 vote Wednesday. The day before, senators got into heated exchanges involving rhetoric about amputations and lobotomies during debate on the bill’s second reading. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, voted in favor of the measure on third reading after voting against it a day earlier.

Missoula Democrat Jonathan Karlen’s bill that would let schools decide whether to put mental health school screening programs in place to identify suicide risks, depression and anxiety in middle and high school students failed 49-51 on second reading in the House last Monday. But the House voted the next day 53-45 to put House Bill 252 back on second reading for Monday, Feb. 13. Karlen told the House he would look to adopt an amendment addressing some concerns on the measure and said it was an important enough issue with plenty of nuance he believed was worth reconsidering “as something that’s an important issue to all of us.”

A joint resolution that aims to call on Congress to designate a day of remembrance for children who died at Indigenous boarding schools, sponsored by Browning Democratic Sen. Susan Webber, cleared the Senate last Friday in a 44-6 vote. Those switching votes from second to third reading wereincluded Republican Sens. Jeremy Trebas, Daniel Zolnikov and Mike Lang, who switched from no to yes, and Sens. Butch Gillespie, Theresa Manzella, Mark Noland and Shelley Vance, who switched from yes to no.

The House sent Rep. Bob Phalen’s House Bill 234 to the Senate Thursday in a 53-45 vote. The Lindsay Republican’s bill aims to apply a criminal penalty to public school employees if they show or provide children at school with materials deemed to be obscene. Some opponents say the bill is an attack on LGBTQ educational materials, while others say it’s a government overstep and infringes on local control by school boards that already vet material.

Dozens of people – many of them Indigenous – testified in committee this week in favor of Senate Bill 141 from Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, that would replace Columbus Day in October with Indigenous People’s Day as the official state holiday. No one testified in opposition. Morigeau said making the day a holiday would help educate Montanans, the healing process for Indigenous people, and keep the state from celebrating a man who attacked Indigenous people.

House Bill 356, which would prevent the state from contracting with companies that have policies that “discriminate against firearm entities or firearm trade associations” passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday on a partisan 13-6 vote. 

The House Judiciary Committee also took executive action on HB 361, which would remove the discretion for local schools to discipline the misgendering of transgender students. The committee voted to amend the bill to stipulate that misgendering be permissible so long as it doesn’t reach the level of bullying as defined in the Montana Code Annotated. The bill passed out of committee along partisan lines.  

A bill that would prohibit private funds to help conduct an election at any level of government in Montana passed out of the Senate State Administration Committee on Wednesday. The original bill was opposed by the Montana American Indian Caucus, however, bill sponsor Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, said she worked with tribes on an amendment that addressed their concerns. These included ensuring tribes can still donate space for remote polling locations or using tribal funds for elections. 

A bill that changes the way people are appointed to the Judicial Standards Commission has advanced to the Senate. Carried by Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, House Bill 326, passed 66-32 in the House on third reading. Seekins-Crowe said the problem now is “we have judges judging judges.” She said oversight of judges is lacking on the commission: “That’s where ethics complaints go to die right now.”

The five-member body oversees judicial conduct. Currently, district court judges elect two judges, the Supreme Court chooses one attorney, and the governor selects and Senate confirms two people who aren’t judges or lawyers. The bill would have the Speaker of the House appoint two judges and the attorney general pick the lawyer instead.

During debate on the House floor, Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, said the change infuses partisanship into the process: “We stand to find ourselves in a place of really tipping the scales and losing the separation of powers that we have.” (She started her comments with a pause: “I’ve got to take a deep breath.”) Opposing the bill, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, cautioned his colleagues on the other side of the aisle that political winds change: “Be careful what you wish for.” 

On a 17-4 vote, the House Taxation committee tabled House Bill 23, which the sponsor said was designed to fix “inequity in educational opportunity.” Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula, said he didn’t want to debate the merits of the program, but he did want to address the tax consequences. Last session, the legislature bumped up the limit on single donations for the dollar-for-dollar tax credit from $150 to $200,000. “School choice” advocates praised the change as a helpful way to support private school scholarships. (The credit supported two programs, one public and one private.)

This year, Thane wanted to push the limit down to $2,000 to allow more people to participate and not “absolve” one individual taxpayer of their entire tax liability for three years. When that happens, he said the result is they don’t contribute to any other state programs. As currently designed — and as praised by opponents of Thane’s bill — the ceiling for each program increases by 20% if contributions reach 80% of the total available credits, which was $2 million in 2023 for each program.

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