Democratic House Whip Kim Abbott on trust, responsibility and unexpected surprises in the Montana Legislature
Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, is in her second term serving House District 83, but she’s been involved with the Legislature a lot longer than that.
Prior to serving in the House, Abbott lobbied in the capitol on behalf of the Montana Human Rights network, a state-based grassroots human rights organization that works to promote democratic values such as pluralism, equality, and justice.
From increasing access to health care to passing protections from discrimination to protecting public education, Abbott has been a leader in the Democratic policy arena for a long time.
In this episode, Rep. Abbott discusses the difference between lobbying and legislating, the challenges of keeping personal emotions in check during debate on hot-button issues, and some of the surprises she encountered since joining the House.
Abbott also weighs-in on Medicaid expansion proposals, a new sexual harassment policy for legislators, and the controversy over the disappearance of “legal review notes.”
Editor’s Note: This podcast transcript was edited for clarity and readability.
John Adams: [00:02:20] Rep. Abbott, thanks for coming in. So, Kim, for listeners who don’t know you. Let’s talk a little bit about where you’re from, how you came to be in the Montana Legislature what drew you to public service. You’ve been around the Legislature for a long time. For those who don’t know, when I first started covering the Montana Legislature, you were up there testifying quite a bit as a lobbyist for the Montana Human Rights Network. Now you’re serving in the Montana Legislature so tell us a little bit about your path to where you are today in the House minority leadership.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:02:48] Yes sure… So I am in my second term in the House, and I represent House District 83 which is in Helena. I’ve worked at the Montana Human Rights Network for about 15 years. I was up at the building a lot… And did a lot of…issue education, some testifying…built some relationships both with other advocates and lobbyists and with some legislators, and Rep. Chuck Hunter termed out. I saw an opportunity to run and be part of it from a different angle. It’s a cool district that has part of central Helena the capitol area, all of the Sixth Ward, and then part of the valley. So I think it’s a really cool district with a lot of cool neighborhoods. So ran in 2016, won a primary and then won an unopposed general election, served, and learned a lot in that 2017 session and then the special session also. It was a really tough budget session, as people might recall, and then afterward, really thought that I could be valuable to the caucus in a leadership position. So I had a whole set of conversations with folks that I knew, waited for election results, and then talked to folks that I didn’t know that were going to be new, and ran for whip.
John Adams: [00:03:59] As a lobbyist you’re around the Capitol a lot, right. You’re testifying in committee, you’re talking to legislators, you’re very close to the process, but you’re you’re close to the process from a different side. How well does being a lobbyist and advocating on behalf of the people that the Montana Human Rights Network represents, how well does that prepare you to sit in the chair on the other side and be in a position of actually considering the policies and working with legislators from both sides of the aisle? How does that translate?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:04:25] I think being around the building as an advocate a lobbyist definitely gave me a softer landing as a new person coming in….you learn a lot of the personalities, you learn the process, and that just helps. It’s still a big learning curve. And the biggest difference I guess from what I anticipated what I really…knew from being a lobbyist for the Human Rights Network is…I could leave the building as a lobbyist for Human Rights Network when my issue was done. And when you’re serving you’re seeing this whole breadth of issues all day every day, things that you have some subject matter expertise in, and things that you have literally never heard of before. So you learn a lot and it is a steep learning curve. And I think that the other thing that you learn is that as a lobbyist being around the building is…who to trust. You figure that out…really quickly because you have to. And in so coming in as a legislator, I knew a lot of the people that already trusted to help me understand things. If I was confused and didn’t know…which direction to go, or what the impact was, I already kind of knew who to go to that I thought could help me. So that was a that was a big advantage I think for me, especially at the very beginning of my first session when other people were really trying to build relationships, I already had them.
John Adams: [00:05:39] Trust is one of those interesting things up there at the Legislature. I mean I’ve heard this for many, many years: that the trust is really kind of everything. If somebody lies to you or if you don’t trust somebody then they’re basically of no value to you as a legislator. I think a lot of people have…preconceptions when they go up to the Legislature, about who they’re going to like and who they’re not going to like. But then when they get up there they realize that they maybe have more in common with some of these folks than they thought. Can you give me an example of somebody who you maybe had one idea about the kind of person that they were and then in your time up there getting to know them? How that perception was changed?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:06:14] In general I think I really like a big majority of the people I served with. Which kind of surprises me because I have really different politics and ideology than a big majority of the people that I served with, honestly. …in terms of one person [Rep.] Kerry White [R-Bozeman] who… We don’t agree on much. I served my first session with him on the tax committee and then he was the chair of natural resources, and I got to know him pretty well and like really got along with him really well, and I…we’re friends…
John Adams: [00:06:46] …. and Kerry White is a conservative Republican…
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:06:49] …right…
John Adams: [00:06:49] …from Bozeman…
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:06:52] …from Gallatin Gateway, yeah….
John Adams: [00:06:52] Who probably… for listeners who don’t know… I would put him on the very conservative end of the Republican caucus….
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:06:59] Definitely definitely. Like, we really don’t share ideology. But I learned a lot from him on natural resources. Honestly, I didn’t know much about any of those issue areas, especially like the water stuff. …it was a really steep learning curve for me. He was really helpful and I do trust him. If he tells me he’s going to vote a certain way if he tells me he’s going to move an amendment, I trust that he’s going to do what he says he’s going to do when he’s talking with me, and we just really, we just really disagree on most things politically.
John Adams: [00:07:34] So what you’re saying is you can have these political disagreements without having…making it personal towards the individual. It’s more like battling out the issues in the legislative and policy arena, but not holding personal grudges just because you don’t agree with somebody.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:07:53] The truth is that there are people that run games…that try to play you off other people. And he’s not one of those people at least not with me…
John Adams: [00:07:59] …can you give me an example of one of those people?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:08:00] No. I can’t think of one. Not a single one.
John Adams: [00:08:06] [Laughter].
John Adams: [00:08:06] Do you find that most legislators have those kinds of relationships, or do you think that there are still a lot of people who keep themselves…factionalized that they don’t get outside their own…political and ideological bubble.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:08:16] I mean obviously we’re all sitting next to each other. We’re in the same building all day. It would be very hard not to have meaningful interactions every once in a while with someone that…isn’t in your caucus and that you mostly disagree with on politics. But I think there are other folks that that make more of an effort to get into social settings where you can get to know people a little bit better, and take time to try to build personal relationships, and it helps to get to know these folks that you’re serving with, when you want to explain why something that you’re moving in terms of policy is really important. I think it’s easier to get their time and attention when you have a baseline relationship.
John Adams: [00:08:56] You’ve often led on topics and issues that can be, in Montana, controversial. You’ve often led the charge on equality issues, LGBT issues, human rights issues, and these can often come to an emotional head in the Legislature, in certain committees in particular, where there’s there’s very emotionally wrought testimony about people’s personal experiences and with discrimination with abuse. How do you keep the emotion out of the policy-making process when some of these debates kind of head into territory that can be extremely difficult extremely emotional and extremely personal in some regards?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:09:39] Well I do take it personally. I mean it’s the first thing. It’s hard not to…when it’s about you and your family. …I have people that I like a lot and respect a lot who I think respect me, and respect my family, have voted against me. And that is a difficult thing. But also, I’m a professional and I have a job to do, and so I think it is important to try to move past those things and be able to work on other things. But it’s hard…like I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to hear the things that are said, and then have to operate with decorum…like minutes later. So…I rely on my caucus. I feel like I know that those guys have my back, which is great, and that hasn’t been true. I mean we’ve come a really long way in the Democratic caucus. It used to be…that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that everyone in the Democratic caucus was great on LGBT issues or welcoming to the LGBT community, and …for years and years now that the Montana Democratic caucus has been really good on LGBT. So I know those guys have my back, that helps a lot, to feel that support. And then I know there are folks across the aisle that support me even if, for whatever reason, their districts or something else, they’re voting the other way even though it’s deeply frustrating to me. I do know that that they support, so…
John Adams: [00:11:03] Have you seen progress on these issues in the time that you’ve been up here around the Legislature, and then serving in the Legislature, and if so, can you give me some examples?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:11:13] Definitely… When I started lobbying for the Human Rights Network, we didn’t hold all Democrats. And I can’t remember the last time we lost the Democrat on an LGBT vote. Which is great. And that’s progress. And then, we’ve gotten a couple Republicans in the last session on proactive measures, which hadn’t been true. That feels like a big deal to me. And the truth is that there are enough Republicans that are willing to come over and vote with the Democratic caucus to stop bad things from moving. And that’s been consistent for a couple sessions now where there’s enough Republicans and something bad. There was a religious freedom restoration act which is basically a license Discriminate Against LGBT People. And it was a legislative referral, so that would have appeared on the ballot if it passed both chambers which is just really dangerous for the community. It’s very hard to have…basic rights up for a popular vote. That bill…the governor, who’s a Democrat and an LGBT rights supporter, couldn’t have done anything about it. It would have just advanced straight to the ballot. And that bill was killed on a 50-50 tie vote. Ten Republicans came over and joined Democrats at that point to kill it. Or nine. Nine I guess. And then there was a pretty bad bill. It basically discriminates against trans folks and non-binary folks in public accommodations especially bathrooms and locker rooms. That was also a legislative referendum. The governor couldn’t have done anything about it. That one was locked up in a House committee. Those are big victories. They’re defensive victories, which is a different kind of victory, but that’s where we’ve been able to get some support from Republican lawmakers, who aren’t ready, yet, or for whatever reason aren’t supporting proactive LGBT rights policy, but they are helping us stop bad things.
John Adams: [00:13:04] That kind of goes back to that trust conversation, right? There must have been conversations where the Republicans were going to deliver enough votes on that vote. When you talk about a 50-50 vote that’s as close as it gets on something like that, right?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:13:17] Yeah pretty dramatic.
John Adams: [00:13:18] I’d love for you to explain to our listeners a little bit about what the job of a whip is which is what you are in leadership in the Democratic caucus in the house.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:13:26] The job of a whip……in our leadership, on the Democratic side we’re the minority party where the minority caucus. We have a minority leader who’s been on this program, loved it. He had a great time.
John Adams: [00:13:36] And that’s Rep. Casey Schreiner…
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:13:40] And there are three whips, and one caucus chairperson. And the job of the whips is really communication, primarily. All sorts of communication. It’s making sure that your members know what to expect on any given day. Know…what what might be a stressful vote. Know what may be the governor… I mean obviously, the governor is a Democrat… If the governor is making requests of us, what those requests are and why…
John Adams: [00:14:07] …and this is partly because the minority leader doesn’t have time to meet with every single member and communicate every single aspect of what the caucus strategy is the region and individual member. And so it’s…a delegation, right? So the whips are delegates of the leadership team who…communicate. You have like what… Do you have a specific group of legislators then that are…your that you’re corralling at any given moment?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:14:28] I have a group of 13 people that we’re all in a line of communication together. And…it’s my responsibility to make sure that those guys have the information they need to be successful on any given day, and for our caucus to be successful, on any given day. If one of those members has a piece of legislation that they want elevated, if they have a problem, there’s a laundry list of things that can get in the way, and be…artificial barriers to your legislation succeeding….it’s it’s important for me to be able to flag that for [House Majority Leader] Casey [Schreiner, D-Great Falls], to be able to flag that for staff, and make sure that our members are…in the best position they can be as a minority representative to pass legislation, to have a good experience and represent their constituents as best as they can.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:15:12] … I’m an organizer…by trade. That’s what I did at the Montana Human Rights Network, and still do when I’m not serving. It feels like a similar…job description and a similar set of responsibilities. It’s really about making sure people have the best information possible at the time that they need it.
John Adams: [00:15:31] So this is your second session. How would you kind of characterize the way things are going so far?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:15:35] It feels a little bit slower. The pace of it. Less legislation is moving at this point. I think that that could have something to do with the fact that we’re not in a big budget…surplus. There’s money to spend on programs and new things that…we can try, and we’re not in a big cut session at least doesn’t look like we are. I think we’re 58 million below where we want to be in terms of the revenue projection.
John Adams: [00:16:01] Which is in terms of the scope of the budget $58 million isn’t that much.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:16:06] I mean we have like a $9 billion in change budget…
John Adams: [00:16:10] So I’m hearing people talk about this as…a status quo operation.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:16:13] Yeah. So basically I think we have a couple pretty big issues to deal with obviously the continuation of Medicaid expansion and trying to get something done on infrastructure, and then a budget that meets our constituents needs… all those things are really important, but we don’t have a bunch of money to put into new programs and we don’t have a situation where we need to be making really, really tough cuts.
John Adams: [00:16:36] I mean the Medicaid expansion in particular really feels like the elephant in the room. I mean not only here in Montana, but around the country, we’re having conversations about this. Our Medicaid expansion that passed in 2015 sunsets this year unless the Legislature renews it during this legislative session. That’s obviously a priority for the Democrats. But there’s also some support from Republicans on that. But the difference is there are very different views about what that expansion should look like. Talk a little bit about, first of all, what the Democrats’ plan is and then talk about what it is you don’t like in the Republican plan.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:17:11] What we heard. So we put in…a bill drafter class and had a listening session and have been… eliciting all sorts of feedback from folks, providers, people that are around the program… And what we basically heard is this is working really well. And we heard it over and over again from pretty much every community that has been affected by the HELP Act, which is our version of Medicaid expansion.
John Adams: [00:17:40] …and those communities that you’re referring to, are these are communities that have local access hospitals…how many communities are we talking about in the state of Montana? I mean, do you have an idea?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:17:50] Oh I mean most Yeah. I mean I can’t say that we heard directly from most communities but we got a lot of feedback. And the one thing that we did hear to change was to invest more in Help Link, and that is a workforce development program. It’s voluntary. That was part of the bill that we passed in 2015. That’s working well. We didn’t put a lot of money into that. There’s a lot of cool things that we could do with Help Link, we found out as we were talking to people that had benefited from it. We’re really comfortable with continuing a program that’s been incredibly successful, from our perspective, and by most indicators, I think, this has been an incredibly successful program.
John Adams: [00:18:29] And of course the critique from the Republican side is that, yes it’s mostly federal money that is funding the expansion of Medicaid, but the cost to the state is going to go up. The share of money that the State of Montana…the Montana taxpayers are going to have to pay, is going to go up over the course of the next few years. What’s the Democratic response to that argument that this is just going to be too costly? After All the voters did vote down the ballot initiative that would have raised taxes in order to maintain Medicaid expansion, I-185. So with that failing, they would argue that the taxpayers said: “we don’t want expanded Medicaid.” I know that’s not the interpretation that the Democrats have. So talk a little bit about that.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:19:09] The first thing that Democrats would say see the cost argument is that Medicaid expansion pays for itself. We’ve seen that reflected over and over again in study after study. Between the savings to the state general fund by being able to move people into a higher federal match, savings from corrections…and then increased tax dollars from federal dollars flowing through our communities and the jobs that are created mainly in the health care industry. We’ve seen that Medicaid expansion pays for itself and that’s been confirmed a couple different times through a couple different studies. But beyond, that we know that we need to pay the state match with real dollars…and we don’t do dynamic fiscal notes. So, we do think that we should have to pay for. And I think that…
John Adams: [00:20:04] What do you mean by dynamic fiscal notes?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:20:07] We won’t see increased tax dollars through income tax and job creation shown in a fiscal note, because we don’t do what’s called a dynamic fiscal note. Which…looks at all these various impacts and what might happen in terms of savings what might happen in terms of raised revenue. We’re just looking at direct costs or direct increase in revenues. But it wouldn’t show any indirect impacts in a fiscal note.
John Adams: [00:20:34] In terms of how people spend that extra money and how that flows back into the economy and makes its way back into the state’s coffers through income tax or some other form of tax collection. I want to give you an opportunity to respond to some of the things that we’re hearing coming out of the Republican side, which is talk of limiting the number of people on Medicaid expansion through things such as asset testing….how much should people make? What property do they own? And that sort of thing… And also work requirements or community… how are they phrasing… Community benefit?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:21:08] It’s a work requirement. He calls it a… or they… the Republican plan calls it a community benefit, but…
John Adams: [00:21:13] And what we’re talking about there is basically, if you’re going to receive Medicaid dollars, or if you’re going to receive care under Medicaid expansion, then you have to “give back” in the form of either you’re looking for a job, you’re working, or you’re doing some kind of volunteer service or that sort of thing. Why is that a bad thing in your view?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:21:35] So we see that as a barrier to people accessing health care. What we know is 67 percent of enrollees in the HELP program are working themselves, and over 80 percent of enrollees in the HELP program are in a family where someone’s working. So we know that that folks are working, and the people that aren’t working have pretty good reasons that they’re not working. They’re either trying to get back into the workforce or they may have a disability or a mental illness..real Barriers…those are substance abuse disorder… Those are exactly the kind of situations where we don’t want to pull people’s health care away….one of our best tools…to combat substance abuse disorder in the state of Montana is Medicaid expansion. It’s getting people onto a program where they can access the care they need and get treatment. So we as the Democratic caucus, you’re going to hear a say over and over again — you’re going to be sick of it — that we don’t want to see…bureaucratic barriers to people accessing the care they need. What we want to see is an investment in helping people get on a career path where they’re making more money…and get on a career path where they’re accessing health care benefits. That’s what we want to see. And so I think that’s what we’re trying to do with a larger investment in the help link program, is really expand out some of the cool services that people can get when they enter into that program.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:23:10] The other thing that we know is that work requirements are really expensive to implement and to enforce. We’ve seen a huge fiscal note. I can’t remember off the top of my head what it was in Kentucky when they were looking at implementing the work requirement that they created. They actually abandoned implementation. They’ve pushed it back because it was so expensive…
John Adams: [00:23:33] And what makes it so expensive? What makes requiring people to have some kind of employment, or be seeking some kind of employment, or what have you… What makes that expensive for the state?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:23:46] It’s the tracking of it. It’s the enforcement. So you need people to be tracking and enforcing…
John Adams: [00:23:52] So Are we talking about increasing FTE. Are we talking about adding IT systems? What are what are we talking about that…What would be required to track?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:24:02] So probably both. I haven’t seen a fiscal no on the work requirement that’s being proposed in Montana. But when you look at how often people need to report, and when you look at how you’re going to keep track of some of the exemptions, it’s probably going to take extra people. And it’s probably going to take new IT. I can’t say that for certain because I haven’t seen the state’s analysis of it. But if you look at other states, it’s pretty clear that we won’t be unique in Montana. I think we’re going to face the same…barriers to implementation as other states have. Arkansas had a terrible time implementing their program, and they’re getting sued in federal court right now. And I think we’re going to see resolution on that maybe in late March, so that’ll be interesting to see. We’ll still be in session I think when we see resolution on that.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:24:51] The bottom line is…my caucus. Me personally, Representative [Mary] Caferro [D-Helena] we want to see the money that we would invest in creating barriers and in being punitive to people who just want to access health care and want to keep their health care benefit…we want to see that put into actual workforce development, and workforce training programs. I mean that’s where we would want to spend that kind of money is on trying to set people up for success in a career. But we do want to see that money spent on bureaucrats, you know, trying to bounce people off health care. It just doesn’t make sense to us.
John Adams: [00:25:22] So with the two very different visions about how Medicaid expansion moves forward, are you at all confident that the Democrats and the Republicans are going to find some kind of compromise — that there’s going to be something in the middle — or do you expect that the Republican majority is going to…ram through their version of it — because they have the votes — and then leave it up to the governor to have to make a tough decision about whether or not he vetoes it or not?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:25:46] It’s a good question and I think what you’re seeing with the two proposals right now is kind of an opening statement from two caucuses about what their vision is for a really important program that I think a lot of people with a lot of differences of opinion on policy want to get done this time. I think that there’s a majority of members of the Montana Legislature that do not want to see almost a hundred thousand people lose their health insurance on July 1st. I do think it will have to be a compromise one way or another…I don’t know exactly how that compromise will look. I don’t think that either bill is going to get to the governor’s desk as it is, but I do think that we can get to a policy that works, that’s legal, That…takes care of the people that need health care and the state takes care of rural hospitals…continues to eat away at uncompensated care and…is effective for the folks that I’ll send us here.
John Adams: [00:26:43] This week the House passed the joint rules. Democrats didn’t vote for them, two Republicans didn’t vote for them. Two big issues in those House rules that it seemed that the Democrats had problems with were some changes to the sexual harassment policy and then also a rule change to not attach legal review notes to bills that may come into conflict with either the Montana or the United States Constitutions. About 15 or 20 bills every session gets a legal review note attached to it saying hey there might be a problem with this bill. It might be in direct conflict with the U.S. or Montana constitutions. And that note is attached to the bill’s page on the state database, the LAWS website, which anybody can access online and make public. So why don’t we start there? Why is it such a big deal that these legal review notes will not be attached to the LAWS page on that bill page?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:27:36] For the Democratic caucus, we think it’s a big deal because the public has a right to know, and it’s a document that is issued with a piece of legislation. So it doesn’t make any sense to us to bury that information. We think that as a matter of principle it’s important to understand if there might be a constitutional issue with a bill. And we want to know it as legislators that are sponsoring legislation, but we also think that it’s really good for the rest of the body to know if there’s a potential constitutional question with something that we’re proposing.
John Adams: [00:28:10] And just to be clear, putting in a legal note on a bill doesn’t mean that it doesn’t pass. It doesn’t mean anything other than it gives legislators that piece of information so that when they’re debating the policy and kind of hammering it out… I mean oftentimes these issues will be resolved in the legislative process.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:28:26] Most of the time, I think.
John Adams: [00:28:27] Occasionally those legal notes get…held up and waved around on the floor of the House, right.? I mean if a bill makes it all the way to the floor, it’s not uncommon for those legal notes to be used…as a talking point for why people should vote against the bill. And Isn’t that really the reason why the Republicans didn’t want that legal note attached, because that…using it as political ammunition, I guess if you will, against their legislation.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:28:51] So you would have to ask Republicans. I don’t feel like he made a very compelling argument for why they want to bury legal notes. I don’t think that they can, actually, bury legal notes. I mean we have a constitutional right. But the other thing that I think listeners should know is if you’re the sponsor of the piece of legislation, your bill goes to legal review and you get feedback. So if there’s a constitutional problem you can take care of it. There are some situations where maybe you can’t do what you wanted to do. And I think that’s where you’ll have some lawmakers roll the dice a little bit and think I really want to do this. And like, “yes I might have constitutional trouble…” But you get a chance to correct things that are correctable, or not introduce legislation that looks like it’s going to be blatantly unconstitutional. So this whole thing…is baffling to me and I think we will work with the press, and in our caucus will work to make sure that legal notes, whether they’re on our bills or not, get out and that people have the information they need. It’s just it doesn’t make any sense.
John Adams: [00:29:53] These are still a matter of public record, and the public has a right to inspect them, they’re just not gonna be attached right database. So I should let listeners know that at the Montana Free Press we actually created a page on our website, so we’re gonna be indexing these legal notes. So we as journalists will go in on a weekly basis will access these notes and then publish them. So they will still be publicly available, not on the government website.
John Adams: [00:30:13] Another big part of this rules debate this week was this new sexual harassment policy, which Sen. Fred Thomas, from Stephenville, revealed this week that it actually had something to do with a complaint that was made at some point in the last year or so between legislators. So talk a little bit about why this sexual harassment policy came along, why it has been somewhat controversial within the body, and why the Democrats weren’t pleased with the outcome this week.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:30:41] My understanding of why Legislative Council — and I think a subcommittee of Legislative Council that included legislative staff and lawmakers — worked on a harassment and discrimination policy was that we were behind. I didn’t know it was related to an incident. It doesn’t surprise me that we’ve had an incident of harassment or discrimination in that body. There’s a lot of people and a lot of personalities and a lot of weird power dynamics in that building, and there’s a reason we have these policies, is because this stuff happens. But my understanding was that we had in our rules a rule that prohibited harassment and discrimination. But we didn’t have a clear process. People didn’t know what to do if they had an incident that they felt like was discrimination, or was harassment and rose to a level that it needed to be reported and followed up on. So we’ve had that rule for a long time, but we didn’t have a clear process. And so this was about creating the best rule that we could have. And then also creating a process that was clear and accessible to people in the building and not just legislators but press and lobbyists and members of the public. So that was our position….as the Democratic caucus, we really liked what came out of Legislative Council we really liked what was reintroduced after a joint rules committee meeting in December. And we were really disappointed with two substantive changes that were made to sexual harassment policy.
John Adams: [00:32:09] And can you…can you tell us what those were.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:32:11] Yes. So the Senate Republicans — and it was affirmed by House Republicans — struck all of the protected classes. So the way that we protect people is we protect classes that have been historically discriminated against, and need protection because they face discrimination. It’s race, sex, religion. They struck all of those protected classes and instead just referenced the Montana Human Rights Act and said that the policy extended to all protected classes…Sen. Thomas and the carrier in the House Rep. [Derek] Skees [R-Kalispell] swear that they’ve done this to give the broadest possible protections. As a matter of policy that’s not what they did. But we were really disappointed. And the reason is you want… These policies need to be clear about who is protected. They need to be clear about what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable. They need to be clear about what the redress is. And we’ve made it less clear by doing this, and we think that’s a problem. I voted against it in committee and then ended up voting for it on the floor because I do think having a policy is very important.
John Adams: [00:33:26] So even though even a weaker policy than you would have liked, this is one of those examples of where you cut your losses and move on, right?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:33:33] Yeah I mean I think that a compromise was in order, and I didn’t want to vote against a pretty decent sexual harassment policy that I think we really need…because it wasn’t perfect. And…I could go on and on. The second thing that the Senate Republicans did was take out lobbyists, media… And we just think it’s really important that we’re naming who is protected and we’re naming who we’re holding to the standard of behavior.
John Adams: [00:34:00] Does that mean that they can’t file a complaint, or does that mean that they can’t be sanctioned if they are the aggressor in a sexual harassment situation? I mean, does it mean it doesn’t apply to them at all? It only applies to legislators and legislative staff? What exactly does it mean, then?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:34:18] So I think we’re a little unclear on what it means, which is a problem….you want these policies to be clear because you’re setting up expectations and you’re setting out a process if people don’t meet those expectations. But there is language in the policy that says something like all participants. So we’re not being as clear as we could be. But it is broad enough that I hope that it still applies to these various other…
John Adams: [00:34:44] …and I guess we’ll know when something happens right. I mean whether or not the policy works is probably going to be a “proof in the pudding” kind of situation.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:34:50] Right.
John Adams: [00:34:51] Well we’ve talked about a lot of things in this in this episode, and I guess I just wanted to end on a… Give me an example of something that’s been a pleasant surprise to you this session if anything. I mean if you had an encounter, have you had a had something go through legislatively, or just… What are you happy about? What are you excited about?
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:35:08] Actually something great happened today in the House Tax Committee I serve on the House Tax Committee, it’s one of my favorite things is the House Tax Committee…
John Adams: [00:35:17] I should say that today is Friday, Feb. 8, for those who are listening down the road…
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:35:21] Oh yeah down the road. Yeah. We actually got through executive action. There was a bill that the chair of the committee had that…eliminated an array of tax credits and we had a really good discussion on that bill a couple of amendments on that bill. We got to the end of the meeting and…through a pretty robust discussion decided that we think what would be cool is to actually have a committee bill that studies tax credits: the effectiveness, the usage, the progressivity or regressivity of these various tax credits, and have them staggered, so we’re studying a handful each biennium. And they’re actually set to sunset so that we can lift the sunset if we want to, because they’re working well and people really think that they are serving their purpose, or we can let them expire if they’re not. And as somebody that doesn’t really like tax credits that much except for the Earned Income Tax Credit which is a unique tax credit, I’m super excited to…have something that is structured and meaningful, to look at what I think makes our tax systems by and large less fair, less efficient and cost a bunch of money…So that’s cool. And I think a committee bill takes three-fourths of the committee to agree to it. So that’d be pretty cool. I mean it’s a committee that is…dominated by Republicans, but it’s a committee that I think contains a bunch of thoughtful people that really do care about our tax system. We have different ideology around our tax system but… so, that’s a thing that happens so far that I think we will follow through on and is really cool.
John Adams: [00:37:06] Well Representative Kim Abbott thank you so much for coming in today and talking to us on the Montana Lowdown.
Rep. Kim Abbott: [00:37:11] Thanks for having me. This was super fun.
John Adams: [00:37:19] And thanks to all of you the listeners of the Montana Lowdown podcast. Montana Lowdown is a production of Montana Free Press an independent non-profit news organization supported by readers and listeners like you. You can learn more about the people, issues, and the topics featured on the Montana Lowdown by visiting our Web site montanafreepress.org. Audio editing mixing and technical assistance provided by Alex McKenzie. Our theme song was composed and performed by Montana Artist Dan Dubuque, and was recorded by 408 Productions. Check them out online at 408productions.com. I Montana Free Press founder and editor John Adams. Thanks for listening and I hope you’ll join us for our next conversation.