HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Republican lawmakers in Montana are pushing a series of bills that would limit abortion access and remove gun restrictions, hoping to capitalize on GOP control following the November election.
Montana has a Republican governor for the first time in 16 years, opening the door to pass into law bills previously vetoed by Democratic governors.
Republican lawmakers, who increased their majorities in the Senate and House in November, have promised to take advantage of their mandate to advance a conservative agenda.
The House Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to advance four abortion bills to votes on the House floor, with all committee Republicans voting in favor of the bills and all committee Democrats opposed. Three of the bills are repeats of measures vetoed by then-Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, during the last legislative session in 2019.
Gov. Greg Gianforte, who took office early this month, promised during his campaign to “staunchly defend life.”
When asked if he would support the abortion bills, his spokesperson Brooke Stroyke said in a statement that Gainforte “believes all life is precious and must be protected, and he will carefully review any bill the legislature sends to his desk.”
House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, said in December that House Republicans hoped the bills brought back this session would “find a more friendly spot on the second floor this time around,” referring to Gianforte’s office in the Capitol.
A bill requiring abortion providers to offer women the opportunity to view an ultrasound of their fetus was vetoed in 2019 by Bullock, who said the bill was “about harassing and shaming women for choosing abortion and questioning women’s ability to make their own decisions.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, said Wednesday that “the patient is not required to view or hear. The provider is required to offer the option,” adding that “informed decision-making will provide for less regret in the future.”
A measure that would require health care providers to give medical care to infants born alive during abortion procedures was vetoed by Bullock in 2019, who said it “sought to address a medical practice that does not exist.” He noted Congress passed a bill in 2002 to protect babies born alive during abortions.
It returned on Wednesday as a referendum, meaning that if passed by the Legislature, it would go to Montana voters, circumventing the governor.
Bill sponsor Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said Montana voters should have the final say on the issue because it is “a defining issue that goes directly to who we are.”
Bills that would prohibit abortions beyond 20 weeks of gestation were passed by the Legislature in 2017 and 2019 and were vetoed by Bullock both times. The resurgent bill was debated again this week, generating opposition from pro-choice activists who said it would interfere with the medical judgment of health care providers.
Opponents have said the bills restricting abortion access violate women’s constitutional rights.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said that when it comes to some bills making a comeback this year - including legislation limiting access to abortion - the Democratic caucus hopes that enough Republicans join them “to prevent those bills from reaching Gianforte’s desk.”
GOP lawmakers are also advancing a gun-related measure that would permit concealed firearms to be carried in most of the state, including local and state government buildings, after Bullock vetoed in 2019 two gun related bills that would have allowed guns in the Capitol and eliminated local governments’ ability to restrict concealed firearms.
The bill has already passed the House and a Senate committee is expected to vote on it in coming days.
Before the session began, Republican leaders said lawmakers were compiling a list of bills vetoed by Democratic governors to advance this session, spurred by the prospect that fewer bills would be vetoed by the new Republican governor.
They include revived proposals that would eliminate state taxation of Social Security income, and provide tax breaks to telecommunication companies for building internet infrastructure.
In vetoing those bills in 2019, Bullock said they would reduce the state’s income to a degree that would jeopardize critical services and would give large corporations tax breaks rather than focusing on rural telecommunication cooperatives.
Kurt Alme, Gianforte’s budget director, told Senate committee members on Tuesday that the new governor supports the broadband tax measure.
Democratic lawmakers said during the hearing that they would propose competing broadband access legislation that would not “pay companies and large corporation to do what they already do.”
Jeremy Johnson, a political science professor at Carroll College in Helena, said the efforts by state lawmakers point to broad policy shifts that are likely for Montana in coming months.
“This is a sea change in Montana – having a Republican governor for the first after 16 years of Democratic governors who could wield the veto pen, which they did frequently,” Johnson said. “We’re going to move in a conservative direction.”
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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