HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte outlined his priorities, including attracting more business to the state, implementing new limits on abortion access, and removing coronavirus-related mandates, during his first State of the State address Thursday evening.
The state’s first Republican governor in 16 years delivered his address in the House chamber of the state’s Capitol. Virtual viewing options were available for legislators to reduce the crowd size in order to limit the risk of spreading COVID-19. But many Republican lawmakers attended the address unmasked and without observing social distancing measures.
Gianforte said his economic agenda, which includes lowering the top income tax rate from 6.9% to 6.75% and removing regulations, would help attract more businesses to the state, and would not lead to cuts in essential state services. Gianforte said lowering the state's income tax rate was necessary for Montana to compete with its neighbors. However, Montana is the only state among its neighbors that does not have a sales tax.
The governor lauded the Legislature for quickly advancing a bill that would protect businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits. He announced that he directed his staff to dismiss lawsuits filed by his Democratic predecessor Steve Bullock’s administration against five businesses in the state that failed to follow health mandates, including a statewide mask requirement that is still in place.
Gianforte previously said that he would consider removing the state’s mask requirement once the lawsuit protection for small businesses was in place. The bill marks a step “moving toward incentives and personal responsibility and away from impractical government mandates,” he said, drawing an enthusiastic standing ovation from Republican lawmakers.
Much of the governor’s address was an echo of promises he made during his campaign, including investing resources in addressing the state’s meth epidemic and the crisis of missing and killed Indigenous people, and increasing starting teacher pay, which is lower than in surrounding states.
Gianforte said he would sign bills advanced by the Republican-dominated House that would place new limits on abortion access in the state, including banning abortion in most cases after 20 weeks of pregnancy — a measure that was vetoed by his Democratic predecessor last legislative session.
“These are necessary, compassionate measures where there should be common ground among us, and I will sign them into law,” he said.
Gianforte also said he would sign into law a measure supported by Republican lawmakers to ban “sanctuary cities” that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities — a repeat of a bill vetoed by Bullock in 2019. Montana does not have any designated sanctuary cities.
The state’s Democratic minority responded saying that Gianforte’s plans didn’t do enough to protect middle and low-income families. Rep. Laurie Bishop, a Democrat from Livingston, said Gianforte’s vision “is limited to massive giveaways for Montana’s wealthiest, and gives quiet approval for an unprecedented barrage of attacks on the freedoms of Montana’s women and children.”
The comment came in a week when the Montana House, where Republicans hold a supermajority, voted to advance bills that would limit abortion access and ban transgender athletes from participating in school and college sports according to the gender with which they identify.
Democrats’ priorities include expanding health care access, improving rural internet access, investing in public education and defending workers’ rights, Bishop said.
“Democrats are working to invest in our middle class, and advance policies that make it bigger,” she said. “We welcome the chance to work with anybody who shares these values.”
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.