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January 13, 2023
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted Friday to table a gun-control bill after hearing emotional testimony from activists and members of the public who have been impacted by gun violence, inflaming tensions with minority-party Democrats on the committee and upsetting those who came to support the legislation.
House Bill 202, sponsored by Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, is a “red flag” bill — a policy that allows for a court to order that an individual surrender their firearms if a family member, partner or law enforcement agency can make the case that the person presents a danger to themselves or others.
The bill would establish “extreme risk orders of protection” allowing a district court to prohibit a person from purchasing or possessing a firearm during the duration of the order. The language, Stafman said, is modeled after the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a gun safety and mental health services law Congress passed in 2022. The BSCA, among other provisions, includes grants to help states implement extreme risk protection order programs as long as strict due process rights are followed.
Stafman and supporters of the bill pointed to Montana’s sky-high suicide rate and the lethal potential of firearms as compared to other weapons. No opponents registered to testify against the bill.
“We know we have a suicide problem, we know we have guns, we know that if people have access to those lethal means, they are more likely to be successful in completing a suicide,” Shani Henry, co-leader of the Montana chapter of Moms Demand Action, told Capitolized after the hearing. “Nobody can argue that this isn’t a public health crisis in our state.”
One member of the public, Erin Harris, tearfully shared the story of her father as he slipped into dementia.
He would aim his guns at imaginary ghosts “who were oftentimes innocent people,” she testified before the committee. But Harris said her family was told they could not receive guardianship over her father until he committed a crime, which eventually occurred during a drunk driving incident.
“An extreme risk protection order would have given my family and I the opportunity to safely intercede and get professional medical help for our father,” she told the committee.
Republicans on the committee raised concerns about due process, the severity of the penalty for violating an extreme risk order of protection, the relatively minor penalty for knowingly making a false petition for an order, and pointed to other possible weapons of domestic violence or self-harm, like knives.
“I understand the argument here, I really do,” said Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade. “I think the point that I’m trying to establish here is there are other acts that a person can commit that can take a person’s life.”
Shortly after testimony ended, as lawmakers were packing up their things to leave, Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Sidney, moved to table the bill — a non-debatable motion that kills a bill in committee. The committee’s 12 other Republicans voted with him.
In a Legislature dominated by a supermajority Republican caucus, such bills are unlikely to pass. But what rankled Democrats was the way in which the bill was killed, they said.
It’s customary that committees generally don’t take votes on legislation the same day they hear testimony. And at the beginning of the session, House Judiciary Chair Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, told lawmakers on the committee that it would take its votes during its Tuesday and Thursday meetings. It would generally only change that timeline, or take a same-day vote on a bill, if there are instances in which deadlines demand immediate action — “but hopefully on non-controversial bills,” she said at the time.
The passage of the tabling motion provoked immediate frustration from Democrats.
“We have an understanding in this committee that unless circumstances require, that we will not be taking executive action on bills with less than 24 hours notice,” said Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston.
“There’s nothing set in stone that says we can’t, and a motion was made,” Regier responded.
“I’m glad it’s on full display,” Bishop said.
Ler’s explanation for making the motion was simple: “Because it was a red flag law, hidden in a public safety bill.” And a red flag bill is something the Republican caucus isn’t willing to entertain, he said.
Asked why not just let the bill die in committee in the normal course of business, Ler responded that the decision to make the motion was just his “feeling.”
“And it was a non-debatable motion,” he said.
Henry said she and other activists approached lawmakers in the halls to get an explanation and were told there was simply no way they would support a red flag law.
“For the committee to act in the way they did today, even though it’s according to law, I think it’s extremely cowardly, to be frank, and not in the spirit of democracy,” she said.
Rep. Donavon Hawk, D-Butte, who sits on House Judiciary, said he is concerned about the precedent Friday’s motion could set for the rest of the session.
“There’s gonna be a lot more stuff coming down the pipeline that is of equal or more extreme subject matter,” Hawk said, “and it makes me nervous that this is how it’s gonna go.”
Stafman excoriated Republicans on the committee in an interview with Capitolized.
“It shows that the members of that committee — the Republican members — are not even willing to consider in a serious way the safety of Montanans and the No. 1 cause of death of children in the United States,” Stafman said. “They’re so tied to some ideological tenets that they can’t even see that those very tenets are making Montanans unsafe.”
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
by the numbers
Revenue generated for Montana’s public schools in fiscal year 2022 from a set of state and local property taxes collectively known as the “95 mills.” That revenue is specifically designed to equalize state payments to schools regardless of the taxable property values in their communities. Citing a desire for more transparency in education funding, Gov. Greg Gianforte has asked lawmakers this session to redirect those dollars from the state’s General Fund into the Guarantee Account, a pot of money culled from commercial activity on state trust lands and earmarked in state law for distribution directly to public schools.
Ten days into the 68th Montana legislative session and we’ve already seen our first “blast” motion — a procedural tool that allows lawmakers to bring a bill, previously killed in committee, to the floor for debate.
Following a motion from Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, the Senate voted 31-18 to blast Senate Bill 120 to the floor where it will receive a vote on Jan. 16. The bill would establish a section of U.S. Highway 89 as Chief Earl Old Person Memorial Highway, named for the longtime Blackfeet Nation leader who passed away in October 2021.
On Thursday, the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee voted 7-5 to table — in other words, kill — the bill. Sen. Barry Usher, R-Billings, who made the motion to table, explained that historically the Legislature has generally named highways only for members of the military or law enforcement who died in the line of duty. Sen. Jeremy Trebas of Great Falls was the only Republican who joined Democrats in opposing the tabling motion.
On the Senate floor Friday, Webber explained that no such rule about naming highways exists in writing.
“There is no rule, it is just I guess how the committee feels at the time,” Webber said, adding that she took offense to the fact that nobody flagged the supposed de facto policy to her ahead of time.
“I think we should have a little bit of respect, a little bit of acknowledgement, for one of the first Americans, a true Montanan, and one of the 17,000 people who want this,” she said, referencing the members of the Blackfeet Nation who asked for the bill.
Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, said Old Person spent 62 years in public service, a “phenomenal feat.”
“To name a piece of asphalt and some rocks after him, that’s not a big ask at all,” he said.
Blasting a bill does not guarantee its passage, just that it will be debated on the floor.
EYE IN THE CAPITOL
People, many of them children, packed the second floor of the Capitol Friday for the 2023 March for Life Montana, an anti-abortion rally organized by Pro-Life Helena and 40 Days for Life Helena. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit/MTFP
Rep. Douglas Flament, a freshman Republican lawmaker from Lewistown, has resigned, House leadership announced this week. Flament, who represented House District 29, has been absent from the Capitol since the session started at the beginning of January.
Flament wrote in his Jan. 10 resignation letter to the Montana secretary of state that he has been diagnosed with a serious health issue that requires immediate treatment out of state.
“I wish for all of my colleagues who work hard for the people of Montana to instill the conservative values we share, to have a successful and productive session,” Flament wrote.
Flament was sworn in in December 2021 to replace now-Sen. Dan Bartel, also a Lewistown Republican. Bartel left his House seat to fill the vacant Senate seat left by Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, who now serves as budget director for Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Now, the Republican central committees in the district’s two counties — Fergus and Petroleum — need to delegate members to a subcommittee that will eventually select Flament’s replacement. Murmurs around the Capitol suggest that one possible candidate could be former lawmaker Ed Butcher, now better known for running the right-wing vote tracking website Legistats.
The Fergus County Central Committee’s chair, Bruce Williams, said Friday that he’s fairly sure someone will nominate Butcher for the seat. Butcher also sits on the central committee.
Until the seat is filled, Republicans will have one less vote in the House, temporarily reducing the party’s overall number of seats in the Legislature to 101.
HEARD IN THE HALLS
“You said climate change, and I need you to explain, because as I see it we have four seasons, so there are changes four different times a year at least, so are you thinking of something else?”
—Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, questioning the Montana Environmental Information Center’s Derf Johnson during debate on House Bill 170 on Jan. 11. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, would repeal two sections of statute: one that lays out the goals of the state energy policy, and another that discusses the energy and telecommunications interim committee’s role in reviewing state energy policy.
Tuesday’s edition of Capitolized incorrectly said that Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is carrying a bill concerning injunctions and temporary restraining orders on behalf of Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. In fact, the bill title is Regier’s, and Fitzpatrick will carry the legislation. We regret the error.
The text of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act
Current Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States: See for a discussion about Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on childhood mortality (New England Journal of Medicine)
What did Chief Earl Old Person mean to Blackfeet tribal members? Here’s what they said: Read about Chief Earl Old Person’s legacy (Great Falls Tribune)
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