EXTERNAL Under the Rotunda: Day 43 of the 68th Montana Legislative Session


Under the Rotunda: Day 43 of the 68th Montana Legislative Session]

Your Daily Rundown of What’s Happening at the Montana Legislature
Welcome back to Under the Rotunda, your daily rundown of the comings and goings of the Montana State Legislature.

Democratic Wins:

It was a long day at the Capitol as the Legislature met for over ten hours, with approximately 150 bills being voting on 2nd reading today. Among those votes, Democrats were able to score some big legislative wins, by not only stopping bad Republican bills, but also passing good bills themselves.

  • At the end of today’s marathon session, Rep. Ed Butcher (R-Winifred) moved to blast HB 448, Revise laws related to right to work, the bill that would make Montana a right to work state. HB 448 was previously tabled by the House Business and Labor Committee earlier this month. The blast motion failed 28-71 with all Democrats voting against the motion.
  • A united Democratic caucus helped kill attempts to politicize our judicial system and bring party politics to local municipal elections. On a 16-34 vote, the Senate killed SB 302, Require partisan general elections for judges. Sponsored by Sen. Daniel Emerich (R-Great Falls), SB 302 would have allowed for non-partisan primaries for judicial offices, with the top two candidates allowed to run under a party label in the fall general election. The Senate also killed SB 317, Require partisan elections of certain city officials, sponsored by Sen. Chris Friedel (R-Billings). The bill would have required candidates for mayor and city council to declare their party preference. The bill was killed by a 20-30 vote.
  • SB 483, Generally revising alternative project delivery laws, sponsored by Sen. Chris Pope (D-Bozeman) passed 2nd reading on a 30-20 vote. The bill sets up the ability for the state to enter public-private partnerships on large public development projects such as hospitals and prisons.
  • HB 484, Establish broadband advisory commission, sponsored by Rep. Katie Sullivan (D-Missoula) renews the state’s broadband advisory commission, which provides recommendations on how to distribute federal broadband funding. The bill also directs the state to prioritize Montana-owned providers and rural projects when issuing grants. The bill passed 2nd reading on a 74-26 vote.

Senate Democrats Protect Stream Access:

On Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick (R- Great Falls) passed his bill SB 497, Revise property laws relating to easements out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. SB 497 would have weakened Montana’s public stream access and empower private landowners to block citizens from our waters.

The bill was a direct attack on Montanan’s right to access streams and rivers for fishing, hunting, floating, and outdoor recreation. SB 497 would essentially create a five-year sunset on any stream access easements that have been marked by a sign. After that five years, private landowners would be allowed to remove the public access sign and put up a No Trespassing Sign.

The burden to challenge this in court would then fall to the public. The bill explicitly removes the right for the public’s legal counsel to recoup attorney fees if the suit is successful.

The public would be forced to defend each of our public trails and roads in court, at immense cost.

The bill was scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor on Wednesday. During the debate, Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers (D-Belgrade) said:
“There aren’t many things more dear to the Montanans than being able to access their streams and rivers the way we’ve been able to do all of our lives. The last thing we want to do is have a hearing that no sportsman or sportswoman knew was going on, and then strike down their rights. If we’re going to do this, we need to do this with a bright light and everyone in the room.”
Fortunately, Senate Democrats led the charge in defeating the bill 14-36, with 20 Republicans joining the Democratic caucus in opposing the bill.

Shocker: Montana Legislature Out of Step with Montanans:

With the House and Senate in the midst of cramming through hundreds of bills before Friday’s transmittal deadline, a new statewide public opinion poll released by the independent advocacy organization Middle Fork Strategies shows a majority of Montanans strongly disagree with plans like the one touted by Governor Greg Gianforte and the Legislature’s majority for addressing the state’s $2.5 billion budget surplus.
Fifty-seven percent of Montana voters instead prefer a plan that directly invests in affordable housing, tax cuts for working families, public education, and critical public services like mental healthcare. Conversely, only 36 percent support a plan like the one Gov. Gianforte has proposed, which focuses tax cuts disproportionately on top-earning Montanans and includes no direct investment in affordable housing.
Other key takeaways from the poll include:

  • More than six-in-10 Montanans believe the state’s schools are inadequately funded.
  • 71 percent oppose tax dollars being reallocated from public schools to private and religious education.
  • 84 percent of respondents believe that some of Montana’s budget surplus should be invested in nursing homes and long-term senior care after 11 such facilities have closed in the last year.
  • 88 percent support maintaining and protecting Montana’s successful Medicaid expansion program.

In addition to the state budget and surplus, the poll also examined Montanans’ opinions on several other top issues being debated by the 2023 Legislature, including proposed amendments to the state constitution, abortion rights, and elections in Montana.
Sixty-three percent of respondents oppose amending Montana’s constitution, and when asked about specific amendments that have been proposed, even greater numbers express disagreement:

  • 75 percent oppose changes to the constitutional right to privacy that would restrict abortion access.
  • 66 percent oppose revising the right to a clean and healthful environment to make it easier for private corporations to develop and profit from the state’s natural resources.
  • 92 percent oppose an amendment that would allow the Governor to appoint justices to the Supreme Court, rather than directly elected by the people.

Resounding majorities of those surveyed oppose the creation of a statewide sales tax and proposals to move toward partisan elections for judges and local offices like school boards.
The survey also asked Montanans about the popular streaming series “Yellowstone,” which has been the subject of heated debate in the state, both credited and blamed with boosting Montana’s tourism industry and fueling the housing crisis. Ninety-two percent of Montanans have heard of “Yellowstone,” but only 31 percent of respondents say they watch the show. Of those Montanans who have watched or know of the show, 56 percent say it does not represent Montana accurately.
The results of Middle Fork’s poll on current issues facing Montana can be found here, and a memo summarizing key takeaways can be found here.

Now They’re on the Record:

Long time readers of Under the Rotunda are well versed on HB 432, which was sponsored by Rep. Laurie Bishop (D-Livingston). HB 432 and the corresponding bill in the Senate SB 437, sponsored by Sen. Jen Gross (D-Billings) would codify the Montana Supreme Court’s 1999 Armstrong decision into state law. Unsurprisingly both bills were tabled in committee.

At the end of both the House and Senate session on Wednesday, a motion was made to blast both bills onto the floor of their respective chambers, officially putting members of the GOP caucus officially on the record as to where they stand on Montana women having the privacy to control their bodies.

In the House, the blast motion failed with the entire Republican caucus voting against the motion, while in the Senate only two Republicans Sens. Terry Vermeire (R-Anaconda) and Dan Salomon (R-Ronan) voted with a united Democratic caucus in favor of the blast motion.

What’s Coming Up:

At the end of Wednesday’s Senate session, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick promised that Thursday would be another long day filled with "controversial bills." Here are some of the most outrageous bills we will be watching tomorrow:

SB 465, Require implementation of Medicaid community engagement requirements, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Trebas (R-Great Falls) was a late filed bill that would essentially end Medicaid expansion in Montana at the end of 2023, kicking off 100,000 Montanans off their health insurance. The bill passed the Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Safety Committee and was scheduled to be voted on Wednesday but was pushed back to Thursday. A legal note is attached to the bill, since SB 465 states that the Department of Health and Human Services would be required to carry out this legislation without obtaining a waiver from the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services, a likely violation of federal law.

SB 458, Define sex in Montana law, sponsored by Sen. Carl Glimm (R-Kila) is another Freedom Caucus supported anti-trans law. SB 458 would codify that there are only two sexes, male and female and establishes a legal definition for male and female, which would eliminate trans, intersex, and non-binary Montanans from the law. The bill passed Senate Judiciary Committee and is expected to be one of the last bills voted on Thursday.

HB 595, Generally revise judicial election laws, sponsored by Rep. Scott Kerns (R-Great Falls) is one of the last bills that attack the judiciary to be voted on. The bill would require candidates for currently non-partisan positions on the Montana Supreme Court to run as partisan politicians. The bill was initially tabled by the House Judiciary Committee but was brought back and passed by the committee and moved to the House floor.

Until next time,

Scott McNeil
Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (MDLCC)

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24-week abortion ban, charter schools and right-to-work fails again: House hustles to deadline: The house passed a 24-week abortion ban, money for charter schools, among dozens of other bills during the first leg of their day-long floor session on Wednesday.

Senate kills stream access code changes, moves forward on nursing home and hospital charges bills: The Montana Senate heard more than 60 bills on second reading Wednesday to kick off a series of nearly full-day floor sessions as both chambers work to get all general bills passed to the other chamber before Friday’s transmittal deadline.

Broadband spending sideboards get initial House approval: Lawmakers in the Montana House gave a preliminary thumbs-up Wednesday to a bill that would expand legislative oversight of the state’s federally funded broadband internet program, which will likely direct hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidizing rural Montana connectivity in the coming years.

Rep. Derek Harvey Brings Working-Class Perspective to Montana’s Citizen Legislature: A typical work day for Derek Harvey as a firefighter in Butte is filled with protecting Montanans in emergencies.

Legislators react to GOP’s break with Racicot:State legislators from Western Montana are  — like the former governor himself — unsurprised by the Montana Republican Party’s public break up with Marc Racicot.

The Party Faithful: From where former Governor Marc Racicot sits on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at his home outside of Missoula, the world of Montana politics looks more unrecognizable than he ever could have imagined.

Kangaroos, cartels, not popular on Montana House floor: Representatives in the House weren’t in favor of kangaroos — at least in apartments — or cartels or ranked choice voting.

Committee votes on four wolf bills as legislative deadline nears: The House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee voted on four wolf-related measures Feb. 28 ahead of a key legislative deadline.

House Human Services advances bill to fully fund Medicaid rates in Guidehouse study: The House Human Services Committee on Tuesday passed a bill to fully fund Medicaid reimbursement rates recommended in an in-depth study by a national consultant — plus the cost of inflation.

Billion-dollar tax rebate, spending package heads to governor’s desk: A suite of bills allocating a billion-dollar chunk of Montana’s $2.5 billion-plus surplus toward tax rebates and other spending measures cleared the final Senate votes standing between them and the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte this week.

House gives initial approval to 2 competing charter school bills: Two competing Republican-sponsored charter school bills both cleared an initial vote in the state House on Wednesday.

House approves $96M pension bill: Montana would spend $96 million of its surplus to stabilize pension funds for law enforcement under a bill that got preliminary approval in the House on Wednesday, following on the heels of a bill to pump $300 million into the state employees’ retirement system.

Multiple bills presented to address inflation on public school funding: A number of bills aimed at addressing inflation’s impact on public education have reached various levels in the state legislature this week.

Bill to prevent mRNA vaccine recipients from donating blood is killed: The House Human Services committee has killed a bill that would have made it illegal to donate blood or tissue if the donor had received any mRNA vaccines or treatments.

How 2017 state budget cuts are still affecting Gallatin County’s mental health care: Andy Kemp became a case manager supervisor at the Gallatin Mental Health Center in 2017, and by the end of that year that position would be near obsolete.

Bill allowing duplex housing in city zoning clears 2nd reading in Senate: A bill that legislators say could help alleviate Montana’s housing crisis clears its second reading in the state Senate.

Montana House, Senate hold first day of marathon floor debates ahead of transmittal deadline: The Montana House and Senate worked for hours Wednesday, debating dozens of bills ahead of a key deadline at the end of the week.

Vaccination status in child support bill gets initial House approval: A measure that would keep vaccination status out of child support and custody cases is one step closer to Gov. Gianforte’s desk after clearing second reading, 72-28, in the House.

Lawmakers advance bill making trespassing with a UAV a criminal offense: It may soon be a criminal offense to trespass using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) such as a drone.

Campaign finance reform bill passes Senate vote: A bill that revises campaign finance laws passed its second reading in the Montana Senate by a 33-16 vote.

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