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HELENA — On March 2, the Montana House of Representatives wedged a debate about internet censorship into a floor session already crowded with other controversies. The bill up for debate, House Bill 573, would have added oversight of tech company activity in Montana to the Public Service Commission’s plate. Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said he proposed HB 573 as a response to big tech companies “weaponizing” social media platforms against conservatives by censoring them.

Moments later, fellow Republican Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell rose to make a brief statement. And while Garner agreed with the majority of Tschida’s concerns, he told his colleagues he’d be voting against the measure.

“For me, this is kind of the Orwellian Ministry of Truth bill,” Garner said on the floor. “There’s a lot out there that isn’t going right. But the only thing I disagree with more than what they’re doing is putting the government in charge of it.”

When the votes were counted, 16 other Republicans came down on Garner’s side of the fence. Coupled with “no” votes from all 33 House Democrats, HB 573 narrowly failed, 49-50. According to a Montana Free Press review of the vote, 12 of those 17 Republicans were members of the 2019 session’s Solutions Caucus. 

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

“We weren’t organized on it,” said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, a longtime member of the group. “But there was not a lot of comfort amongst a whole lot of the crew in having the Public Service Commission, which is struggling to keep the lights on in eastern Montana and certainly had email security problems in its own house, being put in charge of the internet.”

The Solutions Caucus — or Conservative Solutions Caucus, as some of its members prefer — has been one of the defining themes of the Montana Legislature throughout the past three sessions. Commonly characterized by the media as more moderate than the conservative hardliners in the Republican caucus, those lawmakers played a pivotal role in 2019 when they sided  with Democrats to renew Montana’s Medicaid expansion program. Some of its more established members also factored heavily in the 2015 passage of the Disclose Act and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact, as well as the state’s original Medicaid expansion bill — all of which were carried by Republicans, but opposed by the party’s right wing.

Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, explains the group’s past willingness to compromise on major legislative efforts with an old adage about nobody getting everything they want, but everybody getting something they can live with.

“You’ve got to figure out what that sweet spot is to get 51 votes,” Welborn said.

“There’s still a power divide, because basically I don’t feel like we’ve done anything for jobs, for getting businesses open, for workers. All we’ve done is fan the flames on transgender [rights], on abortion.”

Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth

For some, that approach to policy making has come at a steep cost. Solutions Caucus Republicans Eric Moore, Tom Richmond and Joel Krautter were ousted by right-flanking challengers during the 2020 primary elections, and the Bitterroot Valley’s Nancy Ballance lost a tense primary showdown for a state Senate seat to rival Theresa Manzella. Enough members of the Solutions Caucus survived the 2020 cycle to make the bloc a continued presence in the Capitol. But Republicans as a whole now command stronger majorities in both chambers, and the threat of a veto from a Democratic governor is gone, leaving Montanans to wonder what, if any, role the Solutions Caucus would play in 2021.

As the vote on HB 573 indicates, the group’s members do still hold sway in the Legislature. On several issues, their moderate influence has shifted to keep more controversial bills at bay. House Bill 415, which prohibited discrimination based on a person’s vaccination status, died on the House Floor Feb. 25 on a split 50-50 vote, with 11 Solutions Caucus members voting against it. And the contentious right-to-work bill, House Bill 251, went down March 2 with strong bipartisan opposition. Of the 29 Republicans who voted no, 12 hailed from the Solutions Caucus.

One member of the Solutions Caucus, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, has succeeded in moving a major piece of bipartisan education legislation in part with the help of his more moderate cohorts. House Bill 46 proposes to roll inflationary increases for special education into the state’s routine education budget, preventing it from being held hostage during future legislative negotiations. The bill made it out of the House Education Committee by virtue of strong Democratic support, and Republicans split noticeably when HB 46 went to the House floor. The divide narrowed somewhat on the House’s final vote, but Solutions Caucus members were a “yes” vote from the beginning. HB 46 has now passed to the Senate.

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, discusses his House Bill 122 on a Zoom call with the House State Administration Committee Jan. 12.

To be clear, the Solutions Caucus hasn’t always voted as a unified bloc. Even on the 2019 Medicaid expansion renewal — arguably their most high-profile point of influence — a few members went against the moderate grain. On recent GOP-agenda issues like right-to-work, Jones said, the vote count was more a reflection of lawmakers recognizing the challenges facing industry laborers than a show of Solutions Caucus independence. If those members did vote out of line with others in their party, he said, it’s because they “prioritize their conscience and constituents consistently over their caucus.” 

“At a time when some of these folks are truly struggling, along comes a bill like this that potentially is pretty hard on these hard-hat-wearing folks,” Jones said. “These folks work their jobs. They work their roadways and their power lines. There certainly wasn’t an overwhelming majority that saw a problem with the private labor union efforts in Montana.”

For the most part, Jones said he sees the Republican caucus as more unified this session than in years past. House Speaker Wylie Galt agrees. Galt told MTFP the Legislature has seen a lot of 67-33 votes on major Republican priorities in his chamber. He cited the passage of House Bill 102 during the first week of the session as a powerful indicator of party unity on key GOP issues. HB 102, which has since been signed into law, allows Montanans to carry concealed firearms without a permit across much of the state. Overall, Galt said he believes Republicans have spent the first half of the session proving they are moving forward “as one party.”

“We’ve got a chance to work with the Democrats, but we’ve also got to give them a place to stand on some of these policy issues instead of just keep hammering stuff down their throat just because we can.”

Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon

“You definitely aren’t seeing a bloc of people voting one way or the other,” Galt said. “It’s always a mixture, and it’s everyone’s personal beliefs at that time.”

During the Legislature’s crunch leading up to the transmittal break, Rep. Bedey shared his thoughts on the current status of the Solutions Caucus in 2021. That intra-party dynamic remains in place, he said, along with the acrimony and personal disagreements that come with it. Some of it goes back several sessions, he added, predating his first stint in the Capitol in 2019.

“People have long memories,” Bedey said. “In a perfect world, this would all be about logic and doing what’s best. But in the real world, it’s about actual people with all the foibles that actual people have, and we bring them right here and they get magnified.”

As far as personal beliefs go, Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, a returning member of the Solutions Caucus this session, has been anything but shy about speaking her mind in 2021. Custer’s departures from the party line have manifested in pointed testimony in committee and on the House floor. She was one of three Republicans to oppose a measure end same-day voter registration, and openly speculated about the negative consequences of prohibiting transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports. Custer told MTFP the dividing lines within the Republican caucus still very much exist. And her frustration is palpable.

“There’s still a power divide, because basically I don’t feel like we’ve done anything for jobs, for getting businesses open, for workers,” Custer said. “All we’ve done is fan the flames on transgender [rights], on abortion.”

HD 12 Rep. Linda Reksten, left, and HD 39 Rep. Geraldine Custer converse on the House floor at the state Capitol Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Custer described the first half of the session as a “let down.” She’s happy with the action lawmakers have taken to revise emergency powers and protect businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits. But she said she hasn’t seen the needle move enough on key priorities like a balanced budget, sound funding for education and a slight tax break. Instead the focus has largely been on social policy, or what she calls “fluff.” Heading into the session’s second half, she sees the Solutions Caucus’ role as one of bringing the kind of balance to the Legislature that’s reflective of the state.

“That’s what we should be doing, all of us,” Custer said. “Montana’s not super far-right or super far-left. It’s kind of in the middle of the road, in my opinion.”

As with other members, Custer’s votes don’t always line up with the rest of the Solutions Caucus, perhaps more so this session than in the past. For Sen. Welborn, that independence is especially striking in the Senate. Welborn was among nine Republicans — including seven known Solutions Caucus members — who split from the caucus March 1 to oppose a ban on public employers deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks. The Republican-sponsored measure, Senate Bill 89, was another in a list of bills that would have advanced the right-to-work agenda. It died 22-28.

“You definitely aren’t seeing a bloc of people voting one way or the other. It’s always a mixture, and it’s everyone’s personal beliefs at that time.”

House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale

Despite the strong Solutions Caucus opposition, Welborn posits the result was more indicative of individual leanings based on constituent interests and the need to “look the guy that’s making those votes in the mirror every night.” 

“It gets more down to what is everybody’s vision for a better Montana,” Welborn said. “It shouldn’t be a right or a left issue, it’s more of a right or a wrong issue. And I think that’s kind of where you see a lot of these issues coming down, and probably always have.”

Welborn concurs with Custer’s assessment that some Republican lawmakers are reaching a “tipping point” when it comes to social issues, and would prefer to focus more intently on the sorts of job creation and economic growth initiatives put forth in Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Montana Comeback Plan. He said he’s even hearing from some staunchly conservative lawmakers that the Legislature is getting “dangerously close to losing our common sense on a lot of this stuff.” Welborn predicts that as the session swings toward more focus on fiscal policy, there will be an even greater need for the type of compromise that’s been previously attributed to moderate influence. For some small-government members of the Republican caucus, he said, no amount of budget trimming will be enough to win their “yes” vote. That makes bipartisan negotiations with Democrats an important factor in passing a balanced budget — the Legislature’s biggest constitutional mandate.

“We’ve got a chance to work with the Democrats, but we’ve also got to give them a place to stand on some of these policy issues instead of just keep hammering stuff down their throat just because we can,” Welborn said. “We’ve spent enough time now taking our victory lap [as] a supermajority, and it’s absolutely time to do the people’s work.”

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.