This week in Helena, Feb. 1-5 | Montana Free Press

This week in Helena, Feb. 1-5 | Montana Free Press

The fifth week of Montana’s 2021 legislative session saw several major bills advance, with a few pieces of priority legislation for majority party Republicans clearing their final votes en route to the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte.

COVID-19 LIABILITY

A COVID-19 liability shield bill that Gianforte wants enacted before he’ll consider lifting the state’s mask mandate has cleared its last significant hurdle in the Legislature.

Senate Bill 65 shields businesses and other private entities from legal liability if someone is injured or dies after being exposed to COVID-19 on their premises. Its provisions don’t apply in situations legally classified as “gross negligence” or “willful and wanton misconduct.”

The bill passed its final vote in the Senate Thursday and now heads to the governor’s desk.

CONCEALED CARRY

A measure expanding the locations where Montanans can legally carry concealed firearms has cleared the Legislature

If it becomes law, House Bill 102 would allow  Montanans to carry concealed firearms in public settings such as banks and bars, regardless of whether they have a concealed carry permit. People with permits would also be allowed to carry firearms in government offices, and the state university system would have limits imposed on its ability to restrict firearm possession on campuses.

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The bill passed its final vote in the House Friday. It previously passed both the House and Senate, but needed another House vote so lawmakers there could endorse amendments made in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

ABORTION RESTRICTIONS

Four abortion-restriction bills passed by the House last week had their initial hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

House Bill 136 would broadly restrict access to abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, while House Bill 167 would create a ballot referendum asking Montanans to vote on whether to establish penalties for health care providers found to have not given life-preserving care to newborns.

Also heard this week were House Bill 140, which requires medical providers to offer patients a fetal ultrasound before an abortion, and House Bill 171, which would require that all medications to induce an abortion be distributed in person, as opposed to via mail.

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Gianforte signaled explicit support for HB 136 and HB 167 in his State of the State address last week. A vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee is the next procedural step for all four measures.

ELECTION LAW

A bill that would end the state’s policy of allowing Montanans to register to vote on Election Day passed the House over opposition from minority Democrats and a handful of Republicans Friday. House Bill 176 would instead close voter registration at noon the day before Election Day. It now heads to the Senate for further debate.

Separately, Senate Bill 92, which would have turned all county election administrator positions in the state into elected offices, was voted down on the Senate floor Tuesday.

TEACHER PAY

A teacher pay bill called for by the governor is also moving through the Legislature, clearing its first chamber this week. House Bill 143, which provides incentives designed to help locally administered school districts pay starting teachers better wages, is heading to the Senate after passing the House on a near-unanimous vote Thursday.

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AGENCY DIRECTORS

A number of the new state agency heads nominated by Gianforte have been confirmed by the Senate. As of Friday, the Senate had endorsed the governor’s picks for the Department of Labor & Industry, Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Transportation, Department of Revenue, and Department of Corrections with unanimous votes. 

Nominations for the Department of Natural Resources & Conservation, Department of Agriculture, Department of Public Health & Human Services, and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks are pending. Senate resolutions to confirm other agency heads have yet to be introduced.

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