The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.

This week’s MT Lowdown is sponsored by:

Fasten your hatches, batten the seatbelts, mix your metaphors appropriately: Today marks exactly one month until the commencement of the 2023 Montana Legislature.

With it will come about 90 days of semi-organized chaos: the crush of legislative bodies in the hallways, myriad new bills, the large-scale consumption of catered lunches, pastry and room-temperature coffee. The area around the Capitol becomes its own bipolar microclimate, as heavy coats worn up the icy steps to the front doors give way to sweaty sport coats in the superheated legislative chambers. It’s like going to a concert, but every act is someone reading from notecards.

This session should be a particular doozy. November granted Republicans the first bicameral two-thirds legislative supermajority in the modern configuration of the Montana Legislature, a margin that offers them the chance — if they can keep their ranks together — to override vetoes and refer constitutional amendments to the ballot without support from minority-party Democrats. After playing coy about the supermajority prospect for most of election season, Republican leaders have now let on that they’re ready to leverage that power. “We’re going to have an opportunity next session, because we’re going to have a supermajority, to potentially pass constitutional initiatives and give those votes to the people,” newly elected Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, told his caucus at pre-session meetings last month.

Lawmakers from both parties have been busy. Until 5 p.m. on Dec. 5, according to legislative rules, they can request an unlimited number of bills and resolutions for legislative staffers to draft ahead of the session. Already, the bill draft requests tally more than 2,000.

That isn’t to say they’ll all become law, or even hit the floor. Bill drafts aren’t introduced as actual bills until the sponsor — who may or may not be the original requester — signs the final copy and submits it to the chief clerk of the House or secretary of the Senate.

And the single-page bill draft forms don’t require a ton of detail. Lawmakers, often in handwriting, can fully explicate their ideas or be a bit more circumspect, which is how we end up with bill draft titles like “Generally Revise Election Laws.”

As such, it’s best not to put too much stock in predictions based solely on submitted bill draft requests. In the 2021 session, only 1,300 measures were actually introduced, and only about 700 were passed and signed. Still, bill drafts provide a rough outline of some possible hot topics during the upcoming session. In addition to numerous possible election law revisions, the current list of bill drafts include judiciary adjustments, tax and energy changes, zoning and short-term rental law revisions, a constitutional amendment to define gender, revisions to labor laws, a proposal to prohibit the government from collecting data on race, increases to the minimum wage and much more.

Whatever makes it to the floor for debate, it’ll be a grueling process, though not one you have to endure alone. We’ll be there from opening day to sine die, your eyes and ears under the Capitol dome.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Total price tag of the updated contract between Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services and Alvarez & Marsal LLC, a private consulting firm hired earlier this year to oversee reforms at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs and other state-run health care facilities. The amended contract, obtained by Montana Free Press through a public records request this week, went into effect Oct. 1 and is slated to continue until September 2023. The amount is more than triple the initial $2.2 million contract the state and Alvarez & Marsal agreed to in April.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Musical Chairs 

Last month, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen announced a bit of agency shuffling at a privately owned office building on the corner of 11th and Montana avenues in Helena, just a few blocks north of the Capitol complex. As part of Arntzen’s ongoing effort to shrink her agency’s physical footprint, the Office of Public Instruction vacated the space roughly a year ago. But negotiating an early exit from its lease, which was renewed for 10 years in 2016, proved to be a challenge.

As of Nov. 15, that challenge has been resolved, and 1201 11th Ave. officially has a new tenant: the Montana State Library. Until now, the library had been leasing 27,300 square feet of state-owned space in Helena’s Joseph P. Mazurek Justice Building — under the same roof that houses the state attorney general’s office. According to State Librarian Jennie Stapp, that space was increasingly underutilized as the library moved its collections online and shifted to a “digital first” service model, and the 7,200 square feet vacated by OPI was more in line with the library’s physical demands.

That will leave a good chunk of the Mazurek building empty. A spokesperson for the Department of Administration told Montana Free Press via email that DOA is currently evaluating the physical needs of agencies across the Capitol complex and “considering potential options” for the library’s former digs.

For her part, Arntzen declared the shuffle a win for Montana taxpayers. OPI still had 38 months left on its 11th Ave. lease at a monthly cost of $13,776, for a total of $523,488 had OPI remained the lessee. As part of the renegotiation, the agency also agreed to pay $200,000 to the state’s General Services Division, which manages state-owned facilities and leasing. That’s how Arntzen arrived at her final savings estimate of $323,488.

Of course the state will still end up covering the cost of rent at 1201 11th Ave. since the library’s lease is set at the same monthly rate OPI was paying. But according to Stapp, the library was paying $293,093 annually at the Mazurek building, meaning her agency will end up saving $127,853 a year. How much will the musical chairs end up saving taxpayers overall? We won’t know that until the music stops and someone plops down in the library’s old seat.

Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

The Viz 📈

It took a fair bit of doing (including some mid-complexity programming) but I was able to extract precinct-level 2022 election results from the Montana secretary of state’s website and pipe them into an interactive, zoomable map we published this week.

You’ll want to click that link to see the full detail, but here’s what those results looked like in, for example, the state Supreme Court race between incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and challenger James Brown. Gustafson won re-election in that race by nine percentage points statewide.

Election precincts, more or less analogous to neighborhoods in urban Montana (and entire counties in parts of rural Montana) are generally the finest-grained level of detail available with election results. As such, they give us the ability to see voting patterns that are obscured in more easily produced county-by-county maps, such as the stark political divide between Bozeman’s liberal core and outlying communities in western Gallatin county, or voting patterns in and around tribal communities where Indian reservation boundaries don’t align neatly with county lines.

Our 2022 precinct map also plotted outcomes for the eastern and western district U.S. House races, this year’s two ballot measures and the other Montana Supreme Court race, which saw incumbent Jim Rice re-elected by 55 points.

If you’re interested in a similar map for the 2020 election, we did one of those too(though it has a slightly different color scheme).

Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Bullseye 🎯

Early in its decennial process, the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission adopted a metric to determine the partisan lean of state legislative districts based on a selection of past election results. While the idea was to use that metric to evaluate the competitiveness of proposed legislative maps, the five members of the commission got an early test case of their work with the November elections. The results were impressive: per Democratic Commissioner Kendra Miller, the commission’s competitiveness metric correctly predicted 126 of 127 legislative elections last month. The only exception, she said, was in Havre’s House District 28, where Democrat Paul Tuss defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Ed Hill in a district Republicans have carried in eight of 10 major statewide races since 2016. (One other possible exception is in Billings’ House District 48, where Republican Jodee Etchart flipped a Democratic district that the parties have each carried five times in statewide races since 2016).

Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🐺

The 2022-2023 wolf hunting and trapping regulations adopted by the Montana Fish and WIldlife Commission in August are back in play following a Helena judge’s Tuesday decision denying environmental groups’ request to halt hunting and trapping while their lawsuit challenging those regulations plays out in state court.

The order effectively restores the use of neck snares, a 20-wolf bag limit, and a six-wolf quota in the area outside of Yellowstone National Park. (Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Christopher Abbott had briefly suspended those regulations when he granted a temporary restraining order Nov. 15, but the restraining order expired Tuesday.)

Given the pace of the legal system, that means the 2022-2023 regulations will probably be in place through the end of the trapping and hunting season (March 15), though some areas where grizzly sign is present are still closed.

In a 26-page opinion, Abbott recognized the “unhappy task” the state is charged with: managing wolves in a way that takes into account the concerns of wildlife conservationists, ranchers, hunters fearing the decline of game animals, and trappers seeking wolf pelts.

At a Monday hearing, an attorney for the plaintiffs argued that they need not prove “population decimation” to compel the court to halt the 2022-2023 hunt. A state attorney countered that the plaintiffs’ claims were “all smoke and mirrors.”

In his Tuesday opinion, Abbott wrote that the environmental groups failed to persuade him that there is an imminent threat to the sustainability of the state’s wolf population should the hunting and trapping season proceed while the lawsuit WildEarth Guardians and Project Coyote filed on Oct. 27 makes its way through the judicial process.

Both groups made both philosophical and procedural claims in their initial filing. They’ve argued that the state and the commission have violated the state’s public trust doctrine of natural resource management enshrined in the Montana Constitution, thwarted their members’ right to participate in government, and run afoul of the 2002 wolf plan’s direction to review wolf management every five years.

That lawsuit is one of the latest in a string of legal challenges to bills lawmakers passed during the 2021 legislative session.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — I’ve been diving into a PFAS — or “forever chemical” — rabbit hole and found two films on the subject informative and engaging. I started with “Dark Waters,” a movie based on a nearly 20-year legal saga stemming from DuPont’s contamination of West Virginia waters with a carcinogenic chemical it used to make Teflon. I followed that with the documentary that preceded it, “The Devil We Know.” Both feel all the more relevant coming on the heels of a recent report outlining PFAS presence at military bases in Montana.

Alex — After catching the news this week that a jury convicted Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes of seditious conspiracy, I started wondering about the case status of other Montanans involved in the Jan. 6 riots. Turns out NPR has a searchable database of individuals facing criminal charges in the Capitol siege (thanks for the link, Amanda!), including details on the roles they played and where their cases now stand.

Arren — Sen. Jon Tester has joined the ranks of federal lawmakers openly expressing skepticism about cryptocurrency in the fallout of the FTX collapse, per Semafor. “It’s all bullshit,” he said.

Mara — Colorado Public Radio and NPR aired a beautiful feature this week about the Colorado Springs community coming together in support and mourningafter the mass shooting at a LGBTQ nightclub last month. I’m still thinking about it days later.

Eric — MTFP contributor Max Savage Levenson has launched a Substack newsletter where he’s been publishing Q&A-style interviews about Montana politics. An installment this week quotes ACLU of Montana lobbyist Keegan Medrano saying that Montana progressives’ best chance at fighting hard-right social issue bills at the Legislature next year is by deliberately creating a “toxic environment” that drives a wedge between socially conservative and libertarian-minded Republicans. “Our organization and our partners will need to be, I believe, bulls in the china shop just causing mayhem,” Medrano said.

*Some articles may be behind a paywall.