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.
We have a few quick updates this week for those of you who are using our Capitol Tracker digital guide to keep tabs on the 2023 legislative session. Most notably we’ve added dedicated pages for each of the Legislature’s 30-plus committees.
For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the Legislature, committees are subgroups of the 100-member House and 50-member Senate that serve as first lines of review for bills in a particular subject area, determining which ideas advance to full-fledged floor debate. Committee bill hearings also provide the primary avenue for public participation in the Legislature, giving non-legislators a chance to testify for or against specific measures.
The Capitol Tracker’s committee pages list the bills assigned to each legislative subgroup, detailing which are scheduled for hearings or awaiting the votes that will determine their fate. So if you’re following, say, the fraught moral debates that play out in House Judiciary, wildlife management bills before Senate Fish & Game, or budget bills moving through House Appropriations, there’s a specific link to help you follow along. You can find a full list of committees on the tracker’s House or Senate directory pages.
We’ve also made several other additions to the guide, some in response to suggestions from thoughtful readers. We’re building out our list of reporter-identified key bills, for example. We’ve also added links to proposed bill amendments and revised the guide’s calendar page to make it clearer which committees meet in the morning and which ones meet in the afternoon.
None of those additions is necessarily earth-shattering on its own. But if I’ve learned anything building out this guide (and using it myself as I cover the session) it’s that incremental improvements add up, each one bringing us a bit closer to having the best-possible tool for making sense of the Capitol’s helter skelter.
Stay tuned for more here. And as always, give me a shout if you have questions, suggestions or bug reports at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
3 Questions For
Northern Plains Resource Council, which happens to share a birth year with the Montana Constitution that delegates from across the state drafted in 1972, co-organized a rally in the Capitol rotunda Feb. 1 to demonstrate public support for a foundational piece of Montana’s democratic history. MTFP spoke with Tom Tschida, a cattle rancher from Bridger who serves on NPRC’s Democracy Subcommittee, about the state Constitution, why he and others are concerned about proposals to amend it, and Wednesday’s rally featuring former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot; longtime former legislator Dorothy Bradley; and Bozeman-based youth activist and nationally competitive biathlete Lucy Hochschartner.
Why did Northern Plains and its partners organize this rally during this particular legislative session?
One of our driving motivations to organize this event is that there’s just so much interest in messing with the Montana Constitution right now. Throughout the entirety of its 50-year history, it has only been amended 34 times, and in [this] single legislative session, there are 55 proposals to amend it. A free and functioning democracy is so important to the work Northern Plains does, and the Constitution is a big part of that.
Is there anything you find particularly noteworthy about how the Montana Constitution came together in 1972?
One of the things that we celebrate and talk a lot about is that delegates from across the political spectrum — none of whom were politicians at the time — worked in a nonpartisan way to write the document. Racicot made some great comments at the rally about how these folks came together from different walks of life and seated themselves alphabetically rather than by party.
Drafters of the Montana Constitution were pretty clear that they wanted the people of Montana to have the ability to change it. How do you square that with efforts to protect the document as it reads today?
The volume of proposed amendments and the partisan nature of them are two concerns we have. We also think that freedoms and rights work together in concert, and want to celebrate the Constitution as a whole.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
“From a young age, I was taught to never go anywhere alone. I couldn’t do anything by myself, because I was a girl, and I was a Native girl.”
—“Murder in Bighorn” director Razelle Benally. The three-part series, which includes scenes filmed in Billings, Hardin, Lame Deer and Crow Agency, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is available on Showtime starting Feb. 3.
Ballooning Interest 🎈
Reports of an alleged Chinese spy balloon drifting across the Montana Thursday drew vocal reaction from the state’s politicians:
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, penned a Thursday letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin requesting a security briefing on the situation, saying it had disrupted civilian air traffic in Billings and raised national security concerns. “I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana,” he wrote.
U.S. Sen Jon Tester, a Democrat, issued a statement Friday calling the situation an unacceptable “provocation.” He added: “We are still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the Administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable until I get them.”
U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, the Republican who represents the state’s eastern congressional district, tweeted a link to an old campaign advertisementdepicting him taking a hunting rifle to a surveillance drone. “In case anyone was wondering — I feel the same about Chinese spy balloons,” he wrote.
Not to be outdone, western district U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke also called for shooting down the balloon. “I’d pull the trigger if they let me,” he tweeted.
Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, said he was monitoring the situation Thursday and addressed his own letter to the Biden administration Friday. In a tweet, he said the balloon “should have been taken down well before now.”
In a statement, Chinese officials claimed the craft was an off-course “civilian airship” mainly intended for meteorological research. According to the Washington Post, a Biden spokesperson said Friday that the president had been aware of the balloon’s presence in U.S. airspace since Tuesday but agreed with military officials who advised against shooting it down out of concern for potential civilian injuries caused by falling debris.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
The Viz 📈
One of the housing affordability ideas currently being batted around by the Legislature is a proposal, House Bill 337, that would force Montana cities to allow home lots as small as 2,500 square feet anywhere they provide municipal water and sewer access.
That’s much smaller than the minimum lot sizes currently enshrined in many local zoning codes — 4,000 square feet in Bozeman, for example, or 20,000 square feet in one of Kalispell’s residential zoning districts. Supporters of the reduction bill say those size requirements stifle development, encourage sprawl and force builders to build larger, more expensive houses.
Opponents, including the Montana League of Cities and Towns, have argued that the Legislature should leave cities alone. In a Facebook post, the league dismissed the bill’s ideas as “California solutions” and warned it would “transform our communities into highly dense, urban settings with insufficient parking and inadequate services.”
But what exactly does a 2,500-square-foot lot look like? We pulled parcel data from the Montana State Library’s Cadastral system to illustrate, using a portion of central Helena not far from the Capitol building. That neighborhood (where, not entirely coincidentally, MTFP Executive Director John S. Adams owns his home) includes a wide variety of lot sizes — some even smaller than the 2,500-square foot threshold.
Many of the lots on these blocks are at or above a comfortable 5,000 square feet, but in a few places homes sit on corner lots or narrow strips sized in the 3,000 to 4,000-square-foot range. Along 10th Avenue, a few modest houses sit in rows on sub-2,500-square-foot lots.
This part of Helena was originally platted in the 1880s, according to Lewis and Clark County records — decades before the adoption of modern zoning codes. As such, many of these homes don’t comply with current zoning rules and wouldn’t be legal to build today without special permission from the city. The city of Helena struck its minimum lot size requirements in 2019, but still requires that buildings be set back certain distances from property lines and leave set percentages of lots unoccupied by structures.
Market-minded housing affordability advocates, like the types who lined up to testify in support of HB 337 this week, say relaxing those sorts of rules would promote the construction of modest starter homes and duplexes in both existing neighborhoods and new subdivisions. Whether lawmakers buy that logic — and agree it’s worth preempting local planning control to implement it — remains to be seen.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
From right: Micki Young, Misty Mitchell, and Bridget Coulter, members of the Passages culinary arts program for women offenders, plate a tray of fried Brussels sprouts with aioli and other hors d’oeuvres before serving them to legislators and Capitol staff in the Capitol rotunda on Thursday, Jan. 26. The Passages program offers food service training and employment support for incarcerated individuals within 24 months of their release eligibility as part of a pre-apprenticeship with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. The photo, by Bozeman Daily Chronicle/Report for America photographer Samuel Wilson, is part of the photo-essay “48 Hours in Helena,” a collaboration between MTFP and BDC.
Glad You Asked 🙋🏻
Throughout the first month of the 2023 legislative session, election skeptics in Montana have raised question after question about a very specific aspect of the state’s election infrastructure: its electronic vote tabulators, or “voting machines.” Can the machines be hacked? Do they contain modems? Should voters trust the company — ES&S — that supplies them?
On Thursday, the Legislature’s election security select committee got a chance to direct those inquiries straight to ES&S itself. Two of the company’s executives appeared remotely to explain the inner workings of the machines, the sourcing of the components inside them and the complex testing they go through before they process a single ballot.
“Short of taking your word for it, and with all due respect, how do we as legislators know that there are no networking capabilities inside the machines?” asked Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, one of Montana’s more outspoken election skeptics.
Chris Wlaschin, senior vice president and chief information security officer at ES&S, dove right in.
“I’ll start off by first saying that we have attested in writing to the secretary of state’s office that the devices in use in Montana do not have any networking technology,” he said. “We also have an open-and-inspect procedure that we provide to counties where they can open up the top cover of the DS200. We show them a picture of what a DS200 with a modem looks like and one without. They can open up that cover and look down in the machine and see that there’s obviously no modem or SIM card or anything in there.”
Wlaschin also noted that the machines undergo “significant emissions testing” to ensure they aren’t emitting any radiation or signals associated with a wireless device — tests that are certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
That’s just a sampling of the company’s attempts to reassure the committee that Montana’s voting machines are in fact secure. The hearing stretched on for nearly two hours. But the latter portion featured a twist: an appearance by Ben Cotton, founder of the digital forensics firm CyFIR, who was involved in a controversial audit of Arizona’s 2020 election and was named last fall by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in a request for a special prosecutorto investigate unlawful access to voting machines.
Cotton tried to make a case for change to address purported vulnerabilities in Montana. Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, pushed back on the relevance of his presentation.
“Mr. Cotton, do you have any evidence of any widespread voter fraud in Montana?” Stafman asked.
“No, I don’t,” Cotton replied.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — Some whimsy for your Friday: a video of siblings candidly arguingover the virtues of their mother (not so stinky, doesn’t pee standing up) and their father (“daddy wrestles us, he makes us lunches, he even takes us to parks.”)
Alex — Air traffic in Billings ground to a halt Wednesday after a high-altitude balloon drifted overhead. The Pentagon says it was a Chinese surveillance aircraft; Chinese officials maintain it was an off-course weather balloon. Either way, the incident in Big Sky Country was enough to prompt U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to delay a planned trip to China this weekend.
Mara — It’s been years since I lived in Seattle, where I went to college, and I still find myself sucked into the city’s debate about how to house its significant population of people living on the streets. A February ballot proposal for a “social housing” model might signal a new approach, depending on the appetite of voters.
Arren — Apparently unrelated to a petition to delist grizzly bears, the governor’s office got a new taxidermied bear, per the Helena Independent Record’s Tom Kuglin.
Eric — Shaylee Ragar over at Montana Public Radio has a new story out about what the tax debate playing out in the Capitol would mean for a working mom in Missoula. It’s very much worth the listen.
*Some stories may require a subscription.