Montana’s child protection system has a problem, Rep. Eric Moore told fellow lawmakers on the House floor March 25.
The ranks of child protection staff, the state social workers tasked with the unenviable job of deciding when to remove children from the care of potentially abusive parents, are turning over at a rate of 35 percent a year, he said — a clear measure of crisis in a department that’s routinely criticized, on the one hand, for trampling parental rights, and on the other for failing to protect kids who end up injured or dead.
Moore, a Republican from Miles City who chairs the Health and Human Services appropriations subcommittee, went on to make a case for his House Bill 339 as an effort to boost child protection staff retention. Modeled after a similar program for teachers, it would allocate as much as $1 million per year toward helping child protection specialists who stay in their roles repay student loans.
“I know the bill spends some money. I don’t like that part of it either,” said Moore, who describes himself as a staunch conservative and manages a cattle feedlot when the Legislature isn’t in session.
“If you’ve ever tried to run a business or run a crew and you have one-third annual turnover, you’re spending all your time hiring, firing, and training, and you’re not making progress,” Moore told fellow lawmakers. “So if we want the department to make progress and move forward, we first have to address the turnover and stabilize the workforce.”
Moore’s pitch convinced most Democrats and a majority of the chamber, which voted to advance the bill. It did not, however, win over a majority of Moore’s Republican peers, two-thirds of whom voted in opposition.
The vote, one of hundreds taken so far in the 2019 legislative session, exemplifies one of the most significant divides in modern Montana politics: between relatively moderate Republicans who will compromise with minority-party Democrats on certain issues — the Legislature’s self-described Solutions Caucus — and hardliners who adhere to a less-flexible conservative ideology.
And, behind the scenes, a website operated by a conservative activist in Winifred is watching, keeping tabs on how often GOP lawmakers vote with the Democratic caucus on contested bills such as HB 339 and publishing a “loyalty index” designed to call out Republican compromisers.
The site, titled “Legistats,” describes its rankings as an “objective” measure of party loyalty. However, Republican legislators, especially those it targets, have criticized both its methodology and premise.
“Legistats essentially says the best Republican is one that always votes against a Democrat,” said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, a leader of the Solutions Caucus. “It rewards for you for not working together.”
Hosted at legislatorloyalty.com, the Legistats website displays Montana Republican legislators’ official portraits next to a “loyalty index” score and a letter grade. Lawmakers the site judges insufficiently loyal are labeled “Rinos” — short for “Republican in name only” — and paired with an icon of a cartoon donkey holding an elephant mask. Republicans on the “honor roll” get an elephant holding an American flag and a Schoolhouse Rock!-style Constitution.
According to language on the site, it works by considering “partisan” votes in which a majority of legislators in one party vote against a majority of legislators in the other party. Republican lawmakers are then scored — and ranked — based on the percentage of partisan votes in which they side with a majority of the GOP caucus. Scores are available for legislative sessions as far back as 2005.
The child protection staff retention bill, for example, was supported by 39 of 42 Democrats in the House, while 39 of 58 Republicans voted against it. As such, Legistats will classify the measure as a partisan Democrat bill and penalize the GOP representatives who supported it, including sponsor Moore.
(A legislative web app developed by the Montana Free Press for the 2019 session displays similar information, but in its current form includes statistics for votes on all bills regardless of partisan split.)
Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, had the top 2019 Legistats rating in the Montana House as of March 26, having joined the GOP majority on 184 “partisan” votes, and voting with Democrats against the Republican caucus only four times. Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, is at the bottom of the ratings, having voted with the GOP caucus 95 times, and with Democrats 92 times, in Legistats-rated partisan votes.
Thirty-three of the 58 House Republicans have a Legistats grade of “C” or above, a rating that correlates to voting with the Republican caucus at least 87 percent of the time. Seventeen House Republicans have an “F” grade, indicating they’ve failed to vote with their party at least 74 percent of the time.
The Legistats site was developed by the late conservative activist Trevis Butcher of Winifred, and was mentioned in his obituary after his 2017 death. The site is now run by Ed Butcher, Trevis’s father, and a former state legislator.
The site, said the elder Butcher, came out of frustration with Republican lawmakers who sometimes break from their majority party ranks to join with Democrats on “big tax bills” — a group he calls the “Democrat wing of the Republican Party.”
For nearly a decade, Montana’s statehouse power has been balanced between a Republican-majority Legislature and a Democratic governor. As such, much of the state’s most significant legislation has won the “51-26-1” majority necessary to clear the 100-member House, the 50-member Senate and governor’s pen by attracting coalitions of Democratic lawmakers and moderate Republicans.
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The 2015 HELP Act that gave the state expanded Medicaid, for example, passed its tightest vote in the House with 41 Democratic votes and 13 Republican ones. The state’s flagship campaign finance regulation, the 2015 Disclose Act, cleared the House with similar figures: all 41 Democrats supported it alongside 10 Republicans. And the same pattern held when a major infrastructure bonding bill passed the House March 29: It earned 68 votes on its second reading, comprising support from all 42 Democrats and 26 of 58 Republicans.
As Butcher sees it, such crossover votes in the Capitol are a travesty — and something voters in conservative districts should know about.
“Most voters really aren’t tuned in to what’s going on up there,” he said. “Our purpose is to identify the Republicans that are passing all the Democrat bills.”
He ought to advertise it better, Butcher said, but the Legistats site is already influential enough that he sometimes fields calls from lawmakers who are worried about scoring a “B” grade.
“It’s part of the conversation with the legislators, so you know it’s having some impact,” Butcher said. “They’re nervous about it enough they talk about it.”
House Majority Leader Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, has an “A” Legistats grade so far this session, but he dismissed the site’s significance in an interview, calling it “one person’s opinion, essentially.”
“I don’t pay a great deal of attention to it,” he said. “It’s about as consequential as a large bug being hit by a semi at 70 miles per hour.”
Comparatively moderate Solutions Caucus Republicans, though — generally the representatives Legistats labels as disloyal — see the site as a force their colleagues feel compelled to reckon with.
“I think votes are being influenced by it,” said Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Great Falls who identifies with the Solutions Caucus camp.
Fitzpatrick said he has seen Legistats scores circulated among lawmakers this year. In 2015, when he was in the House, he saw legislators checking the site on their computers on the floor, he said.
Certain GOP lawmakers appear to “board-flip,” he said, watching the display boards that show real-time results during House and Senate floor votes and changing their vote to bolster their loyalty rating.
“If they see a block of people going one way, they’re flipping their vote,” he said, calling the practice “the epitome of brain-dead legislating.”
“I wouldn’t say most people care about it. There’s a select group that do,” he said. “It’s something that floats around in the far-right ecosystem.”
Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, for example, touted her “A” Legistats grade along with high marks from the Montana Family Foundation and Americans for Prosperity as she sought re-election in 2016. Her campaign website states, imprecisely, that Legistats “tracks every vote and reconciles it with constitutional conservative principles.”
The Cascade County Republican Central Committee — which is engaged in a running political feud with Fitzpatrick and other moderate Republicans — includes a link to Legistats on its website. The committee also adopted an executive board nomination form in February that describes having a Legistats score below a “B” as a potential disqualifier.
“If you claim to be a Republican, we expect you to be voting the Republican platform,” said Cascade County Central Committee member Ron Staley. “If you buy a Cadillac, you kind of expect a Cadillac.”
Moderates, for their part, say Legistats’ emphasis on partisan loyalty deters lawmakers from digging into issues and doing their own thinking — and discourages the compromise it takes to get pragmatic legislation passed into law with a Democrat in the governor’s office.
“In my mind, if you’re focused on your Legistats score, you’re not focused on being a good legislator,” Fitzpatrick said. “You’re basically turning your vote over to a bloc of people who may not align with your views on a piece of legislation.”
“Probably the most depressing thing I’ve seen as a freshman legislator is watching people playing this game,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, graded “D” by Legistats.
Rep. Jones said he understands the value of traditional, issue-based scorecards, by which an interest group such as the Montana Chamber of Commerce or Montana Conservation Voters rates lawmakers based on how they voted on specific measures. In that case, he said, people know who’s behind the rating and can evaluate the scores accordingly.
In contrast, Legistats hones in on votes where there’s conflict, allowing it to claim that it’s more comprehensive, even though it systematically omits votes where Republican and Democratic caucuses find common ground.
That may be fine for the “party cabal,” said Jones, who has taken to wearing an “F” lapel pin indicating his Legistats score. But he doesn’t think it’s good for the public.
“It rewards hyperpartisanship,” he said.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, earned high Legistats marks in past sessions: an “A” in 2017, and a “B” in 2015, when she voted against Medicaid expansion. This year, she’s aligned herself with the Solutions Caucus and is ranked “F.”
Ballance, the co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said she’s grown disenchanted with Legistats and other voting scorecards as she’s gained experience in the Legislature. She cited her time on the “Section B” budget subcommittee that focuses on health care, saying it’s changed her view on Medicaid as she’s come to understand the big picture.
“When you start digging deeply into an area, it does change your thinking,” she said. “As soon as you stop paying attention to those scorecards and say ‘No, this is what I believe is the right thing for my constituents, for the state of Montana,’ you do vote differently, even though your views have not changed.”
Legistats bills itself as an “objective statistical evaluation of legislators [sic] party loyalty,” but, as with all political statistics, it’s imperfect in that the site’s methodology bakes in its architects’ assumptions and biases. That methodology doesn’t necessarily account for the messy reality of legislative politics.
The site’s “partisan-vote” definition sometimes sweeps up bills that are nominally “anti-conservative” or in conflict with the GOP party platform when those bills happen to be backed by a majority of the Republican caucus.
Legistats dinged Republicans who voted against a bill that would have raised taxes on electric vehicles in 2017, for example. The site also penalized GOP supporters of a Democrat-sponsored measure in 2017 designed to keep government entities from infringing on the right of Native Americans to wear traditional regalia at public events. But those negative scores were tallied only against lawmakers in the House, since a narrow majority of Republicans voted for the bill in the Senate.
“If you want to use it as a liberal-conservative score, it’s only as good as what a majority of the party wants to do,” said Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, who said he voted against the electric vehicle bill because it was a tax increase. (He ended the 2017 session with a “B” Legistats score, and has the same grade so far in 2019.)
Additionally, limiting the Legistats vote sample to “partisan” votes has the effect of penalizing representatives’ loyalty scores for “left-of-party” votes, but not for “right-of-party” votes in which highly conservative lawmakers cast votes against measures supported by majorities of both parties.
Legistats, for example, doesn’t penalize staunch Christian conservative Rep. Greg DeVries, R-Jefferson City, for voting against a Republican-sponsored routine biennial school funding bill that passed the House 97-3, or for voting against a bill banning student-teacher sex that passed its second reading 99-1.
DeVries, a freshman, has an “A” Legistats rating and is ranked 16th in the caucus for party loyalty, one spot below Speaker of the House Greg Hertz.
“We’re not looking necessarily for people to vote 100 percent of the time for Republican bills,” said Butcher, the Legistats operator, adding that the site’s primary intent is to highlight the disloyalty of “D” and “F” rated lawmakers. He also said that the site lets readers click through on individual measures to read the bill text so they can decide what to think for themselves.
It’s all in the name of transparency, Butcher said, and helping citizens in conservative districts understand what they’re actually getting in Helena when they vote for a Republican ticket.
“Their voters have no idea they’re over there passing these Democrat big spending bills,” he said.
Moore, who sponsored the child protective service retention bill, chairs the Section B budget subcommittee on health, and has carried a major rewrite of the state’s infrastructure policy, sees it differently. As he tries to solve problems and translate conservative ideals into practice, he said, Legistats doesn’t help.
“It punishes those who are here, regardless of ideology, to govern,” he said.