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January 17, 2023

The House gave preliminary approval on Tuesday to a bill that would increase per diem rates for the lodging and meals of legislators during the session, a biennial hot potato that often sees lawmakers voting against their interest in order to avoid the thorny optics of supporting a greater payout for their time in Helena. 

House Bill 28, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, passed the House on second reading 67-32. It needs to pass one more House vote before heading to the Senate.

The bill would increase legislative per diem payments to the federal per diem rate set for Helena: $107 a day for lodging and $64 a day for meals and incidental expenses. That totals $171 a day, “legitimate numbers” that “accurately reflect the cost of living in Helena,” Knudsen said before the vote, citing skyrocketing rental, lodging and grocery costs in the state capital. 

She said she knows many lawmakers don’t feel they need more money. If that’s the case, she said, they can donate their reimbursement or serve without compensation. 

“That’s your decision,” she said. “But please do not make that decision for anyone else. Before you decide to vote for this bill, I would urge you to look around the chamber. Do you know who needs a cost-of-living increase to stay in Helena?”

Under current law, legislators earn $104 a day during the 2023 legislative session, plus about $132 in per diem payments. The per diem rate for a given session is based on the average of the rates in the four states surrounding Montana or a 5% increase from the previous session, whichever is less. Knudsen’s bill would not increase lawmakers’ daily salaries, just their per diem payments. 

Those sums, supporters of the bill said, are simply not enough to keep up with the rising cost of living in Helena — let alone to pay for lawmakers’ housing both in Helena and in their districts, for gas and for family expenses like childrens’ orthodontia or schooling, especially when many have to leave their jobs to serve in the Legislature. 

That dynamic narrows the pool of those who can afford to serve in the Legislature, said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. 

“Over the years I’ve heard some variation of the conversation — over the last two decades any number of times — and to be honest I’ve mostly avoided it, because you know I didn’t like the optics,” Jones said on the floor. “I didn’t like us being accused of in some way voting for an increase. So I avoided it. But I look in the mirror, and I have the economic resources, as do a number of us, that it just really didn’t matter that much to me. But when I look around the room, there are others that aren’t in that situation. 

“This Legislature, this group of people here, should be reflective of a body, the state as a whole.” 

One opponent of the bill, Billings Rep. Terry Moore, a Republican, said he agreed with the spirit of the proposal but worried that it may go against a provision in the Montana Constitution that says “no Legislature may fix its own compensation.” 

Lawmakers, he suggested, might consider amending the language to enact the per diem increase at the beginning of the 2025 session to avoid that possible conflict. 

“We definitely need to address this, but it needs to be effective at the next legislative session to honor our Constitution,” he said. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

by the numbers

Minimum number of “red-tape relief” bills — regulatory rollbacks that address topics ranging from huckleberry harvesters to door-to-door hucksters to occupational licensing — proposed by the executive branch so far this session, per House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell. Red-tape relief is one of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s top legislative priorities this session.

–Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

No Preconceived Notions

After more than a year of unsuccessful attempts, a small band of Republican lawmakers skeptical of the security of Montana’s elections finally have their wish: a special committee dedicated solely to the issue of election integrity. But the appointed chairman, Republican Sen. Carl Glimm of Kila, made it abundantly clear during the committee’s first meeting last week that they’re “not going in with any preconceived notions.”

“We’re kind of on a fact-finding mission,” Glimm told committee members. “What can we do for the people of the state of Montana to make sure that our elections are as secure as they can be?”

The committee won’t have authority to pass legislation to the House or Senate floors, meaning any bills that arise from its work will have to appear before one of the Legislature’s standing committees. On top of that, Glimm said he wants any informational materials presented during its deliberations to be “reputable” and pertinent to Montana’s election processes specifically.

Given the committee’s makeup, the edict could lead to some friction in the weeks to come. 

Three of the committee’s Republican members have been deeply involved in promoting national theories about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, including unproven allegations that electronic vote tabulators can be remotely manipulated to change election results. In fact, during a different committee hearing last week, Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, challenged a county election official’s ability to prove to him that the machines do not contain modems.

Phalen later informed his colleagues on the joint select committee on election security that he would oppose any motion to invite a representative from Montana’s tabulator supplier, ES&S, to bring one of the machines before the committee. 

The committee’s next meeting, slated for Jan. 19, will feature a presentation Glimm called “election procedures 101.”

Alex Sakariassen, Reporter


Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

Opponents of the legislative map adopted by the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission came to the Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 17, to testify against approval of the new districts with this poster in tow. The Legislature has a constitutional role in providing feedback to the Districting and Apportionment Commission, but ultimately has no final say in the new map’s boundaries. Opponents of the map in the Legislature — almost all Republicans — and among the public have criticized the proposed districts for being inadequately compact. Both proposed districts covered up by the cartoon rat — HD 32 and HD 31 — are majority Native American. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter


“I also wanted to make sure we understand the narrowness of this bill, and I’m going to hold everybody to what this bill is and stay away from what this bill is not. That will be obviously at my discretion based on the way I read it.” 

—Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Barry Usher, R-Billings, during a Jan. 17 hearing on Senate Bill 154, a proposed statutory change that would assert that the Montana Constitution’s right to privacy “may not be construed” as recognizing a right to abortion access, despite a 1999 Montana Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. Committee Democrats expressed frustration Tuesday that Usher was limiting testimony on the bill, particularly from opponents. 

On Background

First abortion bill of 2023 introduced in Montana Legislature: Read this story for background on Senate Bill 154, the session’s first major piece of Republican-backed abortion legislation. The bill, said sponsor Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is designed to challenge the Montana Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling in Armstrong v. State, which determined that the Montana Constitution’s privacy clause protects access to abortion. (MTFP)

Legislature to begin assembling feedback on new House and Senate maps: See here for background on the Legislature’s (constitutionally limited) role in providing feedback on House and Senate maps adopted by the Districting and Apportionment Commission. (MTFP)

Federal per diem rates for Helena zip code 59601 (U.S. General Services Administration)

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