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Document outlines GOP’s potential legislative agenda under GOP governor

Tax cuts, school choice, less emergency powers
House floor 2019.jpg
Posted at 12:15 PM, Oct 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-30 20:36:53-04

HELENA — Cutting Montana’s top income-tax bracket, using bed-tax revenues to cut property taxes, and restricting the power of local health boards and the governor to enforce Covid-19 regulations are among top priorities for many House Republicans at the 2021 Legislature, according to an internal GOP document obtained by MTN News.

The seven-page list, drafted by lawmakers from the GOP’s conservative wing, outlines a list of policy changes that some Republicans hope to advance if Republican Greg Gianforte becomes governor.

In addition to standard GOP goals of cutting certain taxes and ratcheting down government spending, it also includes expansion of “school choice” – which is public assistance for private schools and other education options – taxes on renewable energy, eliminating dollar limits on campaign contributions, restrictions on abortion, elimination of Election Day voter registration, and more liability protection for business.

See the full plan here:
GOP Legislative Plan

Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell, one of the lawmakers involved in drafting the document, said Republicans want to be prepared to make positive changes after having many efforts blocked during the last 16 years of Democratic governors.

“We want to hit the ground running,” he told MTN News. “We want to capitalize on having a Republican governor. … We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of us are focused on getting it done.”

However, he said the list, dated last month, also said it’s an “evolving draft that provides options for the House Republican caucus.”

Gianforte, currently Montana's U.S. Representative in Congress, is running against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Libertarian Lyman Bishop for an open governor’s chair. The race is seen as close, although most public polls have shown Gianforte with a slight lead over Cooney.

Election Day is next Tuesday, and as of Friday morning, more than 480,000 Montanans had already voted.

Skees said Republican legislative leaders have had discussions with Gianforte about their agenda and that some of it reflects Gianforte’s priorities.

“We want the same things, and I don’t see that there will be a lot of conflict,” he said.

However, Skees emphasized that the Legislature is its own branch of government and that its priorities won’t always be the governor’s priorities.

A spokesman for Gianforte said he outlined his priorities in July, as part of his “Montana comeback plan,” and that the plan will be his guidepost, should he win the governorship.

The GOP legislative list laid out five “top priorities”:

  • Reducing property taxes, by using a portion of state lodging taxes to offset the cost to local governments.
  • Lowering the state’s top income-tax rate.
  • Holding state spending to zero increase.
  • Fighting drug addiction and related ills, with increased law enforcements and expanded drug-treatment courts.
  • Protecting “Montanans’ rights,” by limiting the power of local health boards and the governor to issue emergency orders in response to Covid-19, and expanding the scope of workers deemed “essential,” to prevent widespread business closures.

The list also included numerous proposals in other policy areas, such as:

School choice: The list said there are “many different avenues to go down,” including greatly expanding the state income-tax credit that helps scholarship organizations for children attending private schools, other tax credits for private-school tuition, and education savings accounts that allow state funds to “follow” the student to his or her choice of education.

“This is the absolute best year to bring school choice,” Skees said. “And I don’t think it will be controversial at all. … Look at the options we could offer parents.”

Health care: A ban on “surprise billing” by hospitals for emergency treatment, providing personal health-savings accounts for public employees, and increasing liability protections for health-care professionals.

Elections: Ending Election Day voter-registration, by closing registration the Friday before an election; stricter I.D. requirements for voting; eliminating Montana’s limits on campaign contributions to candidates.

Renewable energy: Creating a new tax on renewable energy sold out-of-state, and making it easier for utilities to meet required minimum levels of renewable power, by allowing them to include expanded hydroelectric power projects.

Public lands: Forbidding the selling of any federal land that’s transferred to Montana, but also forbidding the state from using hunting-access fees to buy additional private land.

Labor/workers: Removing the requirement that “prevailing” wages be paid on state-funded construction jobs; forbidding the state from automatically deducting union dues from public-employee paychecks; changing standard probation period for new employees from six months to 12 months.