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On Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court reinstated Election Day voter registration and put a freeze on new voter identification requirements ahead of the November election. That bombshell news came just days after a district court judge in Bozeman struck down a trio of laws impacting university campuses, including the state’s controversial ban on transgender women participating on collegiate women’s sports teams.
It wasn’t an easy week in the courts for laws passed by Republicans in the 2021 Legislature.
If you’ve been following Montana Free Press for long, it’s a safe bet you’ve seen similar headlines from us before. A judge in Helena last fall ruled against a new law allowing the carrying of firearms on campuses, and the Supreme Court upheld that decision this summer. The Legislature’s bid for a voter referendum on changing how Supreme Court justices are elected was swiped off the ballot by a Butte judge in May. Again, the high court agreed. Various other laws have been temporarily blocked while the lawsuits challenging them wind through the judicial system.
Meanwhile, the price tag for defending those laws keeps climbing. A recent report from the Legislative Fiscal Division noted that as of June, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen — the sole defendant in several cases — had spent $1.3 million on consulting services, including outside legal counsel. Her office has yet to confirm receipt of a recent MTFP request for a thorough and up-to-date accounting of those expenses.
All this courtroom conflict was foreshadowed throughout the session that birthed these laws. Republican Rep. Geraldine Custer cautioned her colleagues from the House floor that new voter ID requirements, if passed, would result in litigation. A legal review note produced for Montana’s new gun law raised questions about the constitutionality of its campus-specific provisions, noting that state-run campuses fall under the authority of the Board of Regents. In the end, the district court and state Supreme Court affirmed as much, and the same determination was at the heart of the Bozeman judge’s ruling last Friday.
The volume and scope of the predicted challenges is a big part of why MTFP launched our Laws on Trial tracker last year, providing Montanans a one-stop shop for information and court filings on each of the challenges. A few select cases have reached closure, but with another election just around the corner and another legislative session close on its heels, the dust from some of 2021’s highest-profile issues remains far from settled.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
The Viz 📈
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the proportion of Montanans working from home spiked dramatically in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bureau reports that in 2021 about 14% of Montana workers, approximately 33,000 people in total, worked home-based jobs — up from about 7% in 2019. The trend was particularly pronounced in the Bozeman, Missoula, Kalispell and Helena areas, though also notable around the state’s two other major urban centers, Billings and Great Falls.
In Bozeman’s Gallatin County, for example, the figures indicate that between 14% and 22% of workers were home-based as of 2021, a roughly three-fold increase over 2019.
These numbers come from the bureau’s American Community Survey program, which, in contrast to decennial censuses that aim to count every American, surveys a portion of the population on a more frequent basis.
While these numbers are widely used as a proxy for remote work, with its connotation of MacBook-toting professionals dialing into jobs in San Francisco or Seattle, they actually come from a survey question designed to gather information about Americans’ commutes (respondents who work outside the home are also asked, for example, whether they walk to work or carpool). As such, the numbers also represent workers who work from home for Montana employers at least part of the time, as well as those who hold more traditional home-based jobs such as selling Avon makeup or Tupperware.
(Lastly, a hat tip to Bryce Ward for flagging this data on Twitter)
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Say Again? 🤔
State auditors are wagging a finger at Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks over a situation where FWP employees held an unauthorized wedding inside the Lewis & Clark Caverns near Three Forks.
A routine report summarizing complaints submitted to the state waste, fraud and abuse hotline says the fiscal year 2022 wedding between two then-FWP employees was held in the off-season when the caverns, which are a state park, were closed to the public.
The couple, who had previously worked at the park, were “allowed unsupervised access to the caverns and operated the lighting system without supervision,” the auditors write. “Potential damage to the lighting system included relay switches that had to be reset and use of expensive back-up batteries that were left on for an extended period after the wedding.”
“We determined this to be abuse of the state park,” the auditors continue.
Because FWP didn’t have an existing cave wedding policy in place, auditors say FWP staff didn’t require the couple and their guests to pay a fee for using the park. Auditors determined that was a waste of state resources.
FWP has decided it won’t allow weddings inside the caverns going forward, the auditors write. The report also indicates that the agency employee who was responsible for park supervision at the time “has since resigned to pursue other opportunities.”
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Ryan Zinke and Monica Tranel — the subjects of a piece we published this week highlighting the leading U.S. House candidates’ energy-related experience and priorities — are set to debate in two events hosted by Montana media outlets next week.
Lee newspapers and Montana Public Radio are hosting Zinke, Tranel and Libertarian candidate John Lamb in Butte on Thursday, Sept. 29. It’ll be the first time Zinke, a Republican, and Tranel, a Democrat, have shared a stage to make their cases before voters since they sparred over abortion, energy and climate at an Aug. 8 forum hosted by City Club Missoula.
And on Saturday, Oct. 1, MTN News will host a broadcasted debate in Bozeman featuring Zinke and Tranel.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
The number of lawsuits challenging Biden administration policies, rules and actions that Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen has participated in, either as a named plaintiff, an amicus curiae, or an intervenor in federal and appellate courts across the country, according to a Montana Free Press review of Knudsen’s public statements and federal court records. These include challenging the administration’s cancellation of Keystone XL permits, vaccine mandates for health care workers, a bump-stock ban and many more.
Most recently, Knudsen and 10 other GOP state attorneys general filed an amicus brief in federal court attacking the Biden Justice Department for its court-authorized Aug. 8 raid of former President Donald Trump’s Florida home, Mar-a-Lago. The feds searched the property as part of an investigation into whether Trump improperly retained classified documents after departing the White House.
The AGs accused the Biden administration of “ransacking” the home of a once-and-maybe-future political rival, and said they oppose a federal appeal of a lower court decision blocking federal investigators from using the documents they found until a court appointee can review the documents for attorney-client privilege concerns.
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
Legislative campaign season in Montana is well underway, with the two parties and their candidates looking to see how national issues like the president’s approval rating, the erosion of abortion rights and inflation will play in the local races that will determine the breadth of the Republican majority in the 2023 session.
The GOP has to pick up just two seats across the entire Legislature to gain the two-thirds supermajority needed to send constitutional amendments to voters without Democratic support. The minority party is intent on making sure that doesn’t happen.
The possibility of such a majority hinges on a handful of contested races in districts that have swung both left and right over the last decade. Among the highest-profile is Senate District 49, where Reps. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, and Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, are vying for the open seat vacated by term-limited Democratic Sen. Diane Sands. The district spans from Missoula well out into the county, incorporating both likely Republican and Democratic voters in close proportion.
“It is the big one,” Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Director Scott McNeil told MTFP in a story about the race this week.
SD 49 is one of five districts that MDLCC highlighted as top priorities this week. Another key race is in the GOP-leaning Great Falls-area Senate District 13, where former House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner is going up against Republican state Rep. Jeremy Trebas. Next door, former Havre-area Democrat Jacob Bachmeier is taking on Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm, for the open Senate District 12 seat vacated by Democrat Carlie Boland. In the House, a number of Democrats, including former lawmakers Barbara Bessette and Jasmine Krotkov, are looking to claw back territory lost to Republicans in 2020 in Great Falls.
Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who chairs the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, said this week that his party is targeting 31 legislative seats, including the five named by Democrats: SD 49, SD 13, Senate District 32, House District 77 and House District 42.
“In the last several election cycles, Republicans have continued to provide Montana voters with the policies and budgetary control they expect from their Legislature,” Hertz told MTFP. “We expect to maintain our existing legislative seats along with picking up a few seats currently held by Democrats.”
In Senate District 32, which spans from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, Democratic Sen. Pat Flowers seeks to fend off Republican challenger Randy Chamberlin. In House District 77, Republican John Fitzpatrick looks to replace Democratic incumbent Sara Novak in the Anaconda-Drummond-Philipsburg seat. In House District 42, Republicans are looking to oust Sharon Stewart-Peregoy from her Crow Agency-area seat. Stewart-Peregoy has not had a general election opponent since she took the seat in 2014, but Republican Virginia McDonald got more votes in her primary this June than Stewart-Peregoy did in hers. Both were unopposed in their primaries.
Based on past election results and conversations with Montana politicos, other interesting races include House District 96, the Missoula seat that has bounced between Republicans and Democrats every election cycle since 2014. Now, Democrat Jonathan Karlen looks to topple Republican incumbent Kathy Whitman. Another possible Democratic pickup — though more of a long-shot — is Havre’s House District 28.
Though Democrats have lost their grip on Havre in recent years, it was once a rare blue enclave on the Hi-Line. Bachmeier, before decamping to Great Falls, represented the district in 2018. It’s since been held by Republican Ed Hill, though he’ll face a tough opponent in Democrat Paul Tuss, a former Montana regent and Havre businessman who previously lost a state Senate race in the area by only 132 votes.
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter and Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
“People choose abortion oftentimes because they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the energy, they don’t have the capacity to raise their children in the way that they would want to … It’s so positive, it’s so rewarding. It’s like you’re helping people be the people they want to be.”
—Helen Weems, advanced practice registered nurse and founder of All Families Healthcare in Whitefish, one of Montana’s few abortion clinics. Weems, profiled by Montana Free Press this week, is warily watching the gathering of political forces in the state that would celebrate the closure of her clinic.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — This story by Missoula-based journalist Kylie Mohr about the connection between high-elevation forest fires and a smaller snowpack that melts earlier is particularly interesting in light of the dire streamflow situation on the Colorado River.
Alex — The debate over election integrity in the United States continues to spawn a complex array of conspiracy theories, allegations and divisive talking points. Honestly, it’s getting tough to keep tabs on every little thread, but the New York Times this week came out with a handy guide to some of the most prominent misleading narratives that have emerged in 2022.
Eric — Montana’s poet laureate and his wife were evicted from their home in Missoula after living there for nearly a quarter-century. David Erickson at the Missoulian has the story.
Arren — If you think Montana’s redistricting process is hectic, imagine living in the country’s largest city. The New York Times describes the conflicts the city’s redistricting commission is navigating as it works to redraw 51 council districts.
Mara — One ripple effect of rising interest rates? Homeowners who bought early in the pandemic, when rates were at rock-bottom, are now reluctant to sell for fear of signing a new mortgage with steeper rates. Cities and towns with tight housing markets could soon see their housing supply shrink even more.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.