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By the time this year’s session of the Montana Legislature wraps up, lawmakers will almost certainly have considered more than 1,000 bills. Despite the best efforts of our intrepid reporters and editors at Montana Free Press, we will not be able to write stories about all of them.
Which is where our newly launched 2023 Capitol Tracker comes in. This year’s edition of our biennial digital guide is an effort to help Montanans make sense of the Legislature’s often-overwhelming procedural firehose: the array of bills, votes and caucus rosters that compose the quantifiable aspects of the business that happens in the state Capitol building.
There’s more packed into the guide than I have space to describe here, but here are some highlights:
- Detail pages for all 150 lawmakers, including information on the bills they’ve sponsored and how they’re voting on the measures our newsroom identifies as the session’s key bills.
- Detail pages for each and every bill introduced before this year’s Legislature (that’s 431 and counting as of Friday morning).
- Search tools to help you find specific bills and lawmakers.
- A calendar page listing upcoming committee hearings.
- A recap page detailing the procedural actions lawmakers have taken day by day.
If you’d like to see more, check out the overview story we published Jan. 11 — or just poke around on the guide itself at montanafreepress.org/capitol-tracker-2023. I’d love to hear what you think (especially if you happen to spot a bug I haven’t squashed yet).
Of course, much of what happens at the Capitol in committee hearings, floor debates, and hallway huddles isn’t necessarily something you can quantify in the databases that power this guide. Which is why our team is suiting up in formalwear every day this winter to stalk the halls and catch as many of those discussions as we can.
Speaking of which, if you see something in the data we should be chasing down in the halls, by all means give us a shout.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
By the Numbers 🔢
Years since the Montana Legislature raised the cap on payments a landowner can receive through Block Management, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks-administered program that reimburses landowners for opening private property to public hunting.
In 2021, lawmakers voted to increase the annual cap from $15,000 to $25,000. According to bill sponsor Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, 25 landowners hit the increased cap in 2021, so FWP is again asking lawmakers to raise the limit, this time to $50,000. At a Tuesday hearing, FWP Director Henry “Hank” Worsech said more than 1,200 landowners participate in “Montana’s premier hunter access program,” providing access to more than 7 million acres of land. Worsech said that if recent trends hold, four landowners are expected to hit the $50,000 cap, which is funded with hunter license fee collections.
Senate Bill 58 proponents also say raising the cap will incentivize landowners to stay in the block management program as other opportunities — e.g., a program that’s been described as an “Airbnb for ranchlands” — gain traction in Montana. In an email to MTFP, an FWP spokesperson noted that Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget also includes an increase in the hunter day rate, which is currently set at $13 per day. No opponents testified on Tuesday.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
“I wanted more specifics on the feedback that teachers are getting after they give these assessments. Are they finding it helpful, timely, and the biggest question as a teacher, what if the kid’s not on track? What resources are available for me to help reinforce that trajectory?”
—Montana Board of Public Education member Anne Keith, asking how the Office of Public Instruction is supporting the 75 teachers statewide who are participating in a new standardized testing pilot program. The board’s Thursday meeting featured an update on the program, which is exploring the possibility of replacing end-of-year assessments with multiple smaller tests administered to students throughout the school year. According to OPI’s report, 4,156 fifth- and seventh-graders at 62 Montana schools are involved in the pilot, and have completed 5,529 tests in math and reading so far this school year.
OPI’s senior manager of teaching and learning, Chris Noel, responded to Keith’s question by informing her that the agency launched an online hub to respond to inquiries and feedback from educators. OPI also surveyed teachers, counselors and school officials late last year about their experiences with the pilot to date — 46% of respondents characterized preparing for the “testlets” as easy, and 69% reported that administering them was also easy. Superintendent Elsie Arntzen told the board that the next round of pilot testing will begin Jan. 17.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
From Jan. 20 until March 30, the Holter Museum of Art in Helena will feature twin exhibitions spotlighting the work of transgender, nonbinary, and two spirit artists from in and around Montana. Rae Senarighi, pictured above, grew up in Missoula and has garnered attention for his “You Are Loved” billboards across the state. His Holter exhibit, “Transcend,” features large-scale portraiture.
“I want there to be space for someone like me to walk into an art museum, and there is someone that looks like me,” Senarighi says. “I exist. I am here.”
—Brad Tyer, Editor
Public Comment 🗣️
The legislative committee appointed to provide feedback on newly adopted House and Senate district maps to the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission will hold a public hearing next Tuesday, Jan. 17. Members of the public are encouraged to submit written testimony, but can also attend in person. The committee will then meet on Jan. 20 to hear testimony from DAC Chair Maylinn Smith and adopt a resolution with recommendations to the commission.
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
Glad You Asked 🙋🏻
Now that the 2023 Legislature is getting its legs underneath it — holding bill hearings, voting on measures — MTFP is fielding questions about the public participation processes.
There are lots of ways to do it, from contacting lawmakers directly to appearing in person to testify at a bill hearing (which is frequently described by Capitol insiders as one of the most effective ways to get your point across). But the most convenient way to participate, for many, is to submit comments to an entire committee debating a measure you’re interested in.
The best way to do that? Go to the Legislature’s public participation portal at leg.mt.gov/public-testimony/ and upload your comments there. If you want to go a step further and provide Zoom testimony, you can register to do that through the portal, too.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — This beautifully crafted story from CBC drawing parallels between two northwest Montana environmental issues — Libby’s asbestos contamination and Lake Koocanusa’s selenium pollution — came to mind this week after I learned that Montana has reached an $18.5 million settlement agreement with W.R. Grace to remediate natural resource damage stemming from decades of vermiculite mining in Libby.
Alex — During my desperate search for compelling art to accompany an article on how public lands benefit K-12 schools, I came across this interactive map from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation detailing the tracts of state trust land across Montana. Turns out the acres that support public education funding are closer to home than you might think!
Arren — My friends at the Arizona Agenda are running a bill this session to create a statue of Don Bolles, a reporter murdered while reporting on organized crime in the 1970s, on the Capitol campus in Phoenix. It’s a fun idea, and an interesting perspective on the lobbying process.
Mara — The gas stove debate has been (smoldering?) on my radar for a few months now, in part because I loathe my electric burners. Interested in figuring out what the whiff of controversy is all about? Politico has you covered.
Eric — I’ve been unwinding from pressure-cooker days at the Capitol the last few weeks by binge-watching machine shop videos on YouTube. This series where an Australian metalworker reconstructs an analog computer from an ancient Greek shipwreck has had me particularly entranced.
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