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HELENA — With an incoming Republican governor and sizable GOP majorities in both chambers of the Montana Legislature heading into the 2021 legislative session, it’s all but guaranteed that most of the key players involved in passing new laws and crafting the next state budget this winter will have an R next to their names. 

But as lawmakers from different factions within the state’s Republican Party jockey for control in the Legislature, it remains to be seen whether the session will be dominated by the chamber-of-commerce conservatives of the GOP’s Solutions Caucus, or the ideological true believers of the party’s hardline wing, particularly in the House.

Furthermore, it isn’t clear that the Legislature’s existing procedural rules guarantee that Democrats attempting to participate in the session remotely due to concerns about COVID-19 will have their votes counted as the House formalizes its procedural rules and leadership titles when the session opens Jan. 4. Some lawmakers say that could give hardline Republicans an opportunity to wrest control from Solutions Caucus lawmakers who have been tentatively named to lead some key House committees.

At the center of House GOP caucus politics is Speaker-elect Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, whom House Republicans chose as the chamber’s presiding officer in a Nov. 18 vote.

Galt, a fourth-term representative who comes from a prominent Montana political family, has generally voted with the Legislature’s right wing. However, he was seen by some Republicans as being well-positioned to bridge the gulf between the party’s often-bickering factions.

As he campaigned for the speaker job, Galt promised to provide the Legislature with “serious leadership” and to avoid playing political “games.”

In contrast, Galt’s primary rival for speaker, Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell, is a staunch hardliner who played a key role in attacking relatively moderate Republicans in this year’s primary election. Along with Flathead County Board of Health member Dr. Annie Bukacek, he managed a political committee, Doctors for a Healthy Montana, that helped defeat several Solutions Caucus-aligned lawmakers in primary races against hardline Republicans.

CONTROLLING ‘KILL COMMITTEES’

Galt’s honeymoon period as speaker-elect didn’t last long. His first major task as speaker — appointing House committee leaders — angered hardline Republicans when he named Solutions Caucus moderates to some committee leadership roles.

House and Senate committees, organized by topic area, serve as the first line of review for bills as they pass through the legislative process. House committees are assigned bills by the speaker and then decide which legislation to forward to the full chamber for debate. Committee chairs set committee calendars and run meetings, giving them the power to decide when bill hearings and bill votes are held.

As a result, controlling a majority of seats on a committee gives a legislative faction the power to kill bills assigned to it for review, even measures that might win majority support in the broader House or Senate. Supporters of a particular measure can in some cases “blast” bills to the House or Senate floor with a special procedural vote, but the dynamics of so-called kill committees play a significant role in determining which bills make it through the Legislature to the governor’s desk.

Pre-session politicking over both who gets to control particular committees and the rules controlling procedures like blast motions is a time-honored legislative tradition, in which competing factions try to position themselves to advance their respective agendas. With Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte giving the GOP its first session with unified control of the Montana state house since 2003, this year’s maneuvering has particularly significant consequences.

Galt, who didn’t return calls requesting an interview for this story, appears to have tried to placate the factions within his caucus by splitting committee leadership roles between moderates and hardliners, generally awarding positions based on seniority.

Newly elected Speaker of the House Wylie Galt (center), surrounded by fellow Republican lawmakers during GOP caucuses Nov. 18, 2020. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Solutions Caucus Republicans have applauded Galt for his picks, including naming the group’s de facto leader, Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad, as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which takes a lead role in crafting the state budget. Galt also reappointed Rep. Wendy McKamey, a Solutions Caucus Republican from Great Falls, as chair of the House State Administration Committee, which typically reviews bills concerning election administration.

At least some hardliners felt betrayed by those placements, arguing that Solutions Caucus members are “Republicans in Name Only” who aren’t sufficiently loyal to party ideology and will stymie Gianforte’s efforts to advance conservative priorities.

“You have a governor who wants to clean up the swamp, and you put the swamp creatures in charge of appropriations and state administration,” said Ed Butcher, a former lawmaker from Winnifred who is active in hard-right circles.

In the past, Solutions Caucus members have argued that they’re more effective than their less pragmatic colleagues on the party’s right flank at translating conservative values into effective conservative governance. 

Butcher, who runs a GOP-loyalty-ranking website, Legistats, has set up an online petition urging a recall vote against Galt over the issue of Jones’ appointment in particular. The petition text faults the speaker-elect for “placing a Solutions Caucus fake Republican in a position of powerful leadership.” As of Dec. 11, the petition had 583 signatories, some anonymous.

His intent, Butcher said, “is letting Wylie Galt know the grassroots conservatives aren’t happy with his game plan.”

COVID COMPLICATIONS

While the tally in the speaker vote wasn’t made public, Republicans from both wings of the party say Galt won the seat over Regier by a single vote, meaning a handful of defections by lawmakers stung by his committee choices could reduce his support to a minority of the caucus.

It isn’t clear whether a critical mass of House Republicans are interested in challenging Galt’s nomination as speaker. However, Galt’s position isn’t official until it’s voted on by the entire Montana House, Republicans and Democrats alike, in early January.

In most sessions, that vote is a formality, with the majority party supporting the speaker nominee previously chosen by the caucus, and the minority party deferring to the majority’s preference. There is, however, precedent for a last-minute legislative coup against a presumptive speaker: In 2005, when Democrats narrowly controlled the House, Speaker-elect Dave Wanzenried was usurped by another Democrat, Rep. Gary Matthews, with support from Republicans and a few rebellious Democrats. According to Lee Newspapers’ reporting at the time, Matthews then rewarded some of his supporters by adjusting committee assignments to give them their preferred placements.

Complicating matters further this year is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has some Democratic representatives wary of sharing interior space in the Capitol with their Republican peers, most of whom have shrugged off masking and social distancing recommendations in pre-session meetings. Lawmakers have discussed adopting procedural rules that would let lawmakers concerned about COVID-19 participate in the session remotely, but those rules would themselves have to be voted into effect on the first day of the Legislature.

Code Commissioner Todd Everts, the attorney who helps the Legislature sort through its procedural arcana, said in an email that determining whether remote lawmakers will be able to participate in the Legislature’s initial rules vote “would be up to the leadership and the bodies of the House and Senate.”

“You have a governor who wants to clean up the swamp, and you put the swamp creatures in charge of appropriations and state administration.”

Ed Butcher, former lawmaker from Winnifred

Everts also pointed to Article III, section 2 of the Montana Constitution, which specifies that “The seat of government shall be in Helena, except during periods of emergency resulting from disasters or enemy attack.” That section also grants the Legislature authority to “enact laws to insure the continuity of government during a period of emergency without regard for other provisions of the constitution.”

A potential Jan. 4 scenario, described to Montana Free Press by multiple lawmakers this week, is this: If COVID considerations keep House Democrats from showing up at the Capitol in person, hardline Republicans could maneuver to exclude them from the House’s initial votes, creating an opportunity to approve procedural rules and force a re-do on the speaker vote with only the Republican caucus involved. If Regier or another hardline speaker candidate comes out on top in that vote, they could strip Solutions Caucus Republicans of their committee titles and award those positions to fellow hardliners.  

In response to a question about how her caucus would deal with the possibility of being prevented from voting remotely Jan. 4, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said in an email this week that House Democrats will ensure their constituents are represented when the Legislature convenes.

“The tens of thousands of Montanans that House Democrats represent deserve a voice in the Capitol on creating jobs, protecting health care, and defending public education,” she said. “We will make sure that they have that voice on January 4th and throughout the 67th legislative session, whether it’s safely participating in person or working remotely.”

POWER PLAY

The remote-voting speaker coup scenario would explain the otherwise unclear motivation behind a series of rules changes put forward by Regier and supported by other hardliners this week in the House Rules Committee, which is considering potential procedural rules for use in the 2021 session.

Regier, who had recently lost his bid for speaker of the House, proposed several measures Dec. 8 that would amplify the speaker’s power, such as striking rules used during the 2019 session that required a full House vote to approve the speaker’s committee assignments. 

“We elect the speaker — let’s let the speaker do his job,” Regier told the rules committee. 

Another Republican, Rep. Casey Knudsen of Malta, said during the meeting that Regier’s changes were opposed by GOP leadership — a group that includes the speaker-elect.

“The 2019 rules were hammered out across the entire Republican caucus, across the entire Legislature,” Knudsen said.

Regier didn’t respond to calls and an email this week seeking clarification on the intent of his rules proposal, which was endorsed by a rules committee vote later in the Dec. 8 meeting.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, discusses a committee assignment request form during the Nov. 18, 2020 House GOP caucus meeting. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Crucially, Regier’s proposal would also enhance the power of speaker-appointed committee chairs in the House, overriding decades of legislative practice by letting them refuse to schedule bills for hearings or committee votes — essentially giving individual committee chairs the same bill-killing power already enjoyed by the collective committee.

While committees could still vote to force action on bills pocket-vetoed by their committee chair, Democrats have criticized the measure, arguing that it would give Republican committee chairs the ability to crush bills without public discussion. They also point out that it would give individual House committee chairs the unilateral power to kill Senate bills that are working their way through the House system after passing through the upper chamber. 

“Republicans’ efforts to steamroll this unprecedented change through will make this body less transparent and less responsive to the hardworking Montanans who sent us here to fight on their behalf,” Abbott said in a statement Dec. 8. 

Regier, in contrast, made an expediency argument in the rules committee, saying essentially that it’s a waste of time for committees to hold hearings on Democrat-sponsored bills the GOP-controlled Legislature is going to kill anyway.

 “All this does is make things more streamlined and efficient,” he said.

As with the House speaker title, those rules won’t be finalized until the 2021 Legislature convenes in the new year.

PRESSURE FROM THE RIGHT

In the meantime, Butcher isn’t the only former Republican lawmaker pushing publicly for a coup against Galt’s speakership. Former Rep. Matthew Monforton of Bozeman posted to Facebook Dec. 8 urging Republicans to challenge Galt on the House floor Jan. 4 in an effort to keep Jones and other Solutions Caucus lawmakers from shaping the session.

Monforton pointed to the support for Butcher’s petition as evidence that Galt would be vulnerable to a “courageous conservative.” But his compatriots, he wrote, have let themselves be distracted by national political causes like Donald Trump’s ongoing attempt to overturn the presidential election even as Solutions Caucus Republicans have kept their focus on the politicking necessary to maintain their hold on the Legislature’s key levers of power.

“The RINOs weren’t sharing Facebook fantasies about Krackens, watching videos explaining how the new coronavirus vaccine is the culmination of Bill Gates’ Plandemic Plan to cull 95% of the world’s population, or decoding the latest Q-drops from QAnon,” Monforton wrote. “Llew [Jones] and his crew don’t waste time with such crap because they’re serious about seizing power and serious about actually using it — and we’re not.”

Right-wing Republicans, Monforton continued, weren’t particularly successful in winning fights against taxes, state government growth or abortion under the state’s last two Republican governors, Marc Racicot and Judy Martz. Their cause, he warned, is “on the brink of another Lost Session in which we will have overwhelming GOP numbers in the Legislature and a GOP governor and nothing to show for it in the end. Greg Gianforte’s willingness to sign conservative bills means nothing if they don’t reach his desk.”

Mara Silvers contributed reporting.

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Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.