The One with the Mandates: Legislative Session Wrap Up

July 2021

by Daniel J. Brooks, Director; Business Advocacy – Billings Chamber of Commerce

2021 Legislative Session shaped by coronavirus pandemic and GOP wave

Two factors fundamentally shaped the 67th Legislative Session: the global coronavirus pandemic and sweeping election victories by the Montana GOP. The first, which will be remembered for its catastrophic death toll, social distancing guidelines, and mask mandates, prompted debate on how to participate safely. The result was a hybrid session, providing for in-person or remote testimony during committee hearings. It gave access to Montanans who would otherwise NOT have participated. Speaker of the House Wylie Galt claimed this session was the "most accessible in history." Agreed. 

The other mandate shaping the session came from Montana voters who determined state government would no longer be purple but deep red. Republicans swept into office with massive majorities and the governor’s office. As a result, conservatives could now pass bills previously dealt fatal blows by Democrat veto pens with a unified state government.  

67th Legislative Session | Bill Sponsorship by Legislator (Representatives on top, Senators on bottom, District #s ascending L-R

The title of this article is a reference to episode titles of the tv sitcom Friends. But make no mistake, the session was anything but friendly. Despite the tenor of the session, the outcome was good for business. Numerous bills were passed with positive results for the priority issue areas identified by chamber membership: workforce development, tax reform, and public safety. 

Montana's Workforce 

Whether it needs to better prepare graduates to enter the workforce or provide incentives to attract skilled workers, both are necessary to help our businesses grow. House Bill 246 expands opportunities for work-based learning by empowering local school boards to provide credit for experiential learning and custom-designed courses. It also allows more industry experts to instruct students. House Bill 143 addresses Montana's dismal starting teacher pay by incentivizing school districts to meet a competitive base pay goal for starting teachers, hopefully keeping our best and brightest graduates from leaving the state.  

Tax Reform 

Two bills SB 159 and SB 399, will significantly rewrite our tax code. By 2024 the state's top personal income tax rate will be 6.5%, down from 6.9%, the top rate relative to other mountain west states. Additionally, tax filing will be simplified by reducing the number of tax brackets from seven to two and basing Montana taxable income on federal taxable income. Because most of our members are small businesses that file as pass-through entities, the reduction and simplification will greatly benefit them.  

Public Safety 

Violent crime, jail overcrowding, and addiction issues continue to impact our community and our businesses. Billings-area legislators proposed several different options to address these issues, such as providing rewards for tips leading to human trafficking and drug dealing convictions or establishing an education program for inmates aimed at reducing recidivism rates. Not all bills passed, but a couple of note are HB 578 that addresses jail overcrowding. Additionally, the recreational marijuana bill provides funding for the governor's healing and ending addiction through recovery and treatment (HEART) fund.  

I've greatly enjoyed the opportunity to represent and advocate for our Billings business community and want to thank our citizen legislators for their hard work at the Capitol. 

Originally printed in the July 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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