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February 14, 2023

The House State Administration Committee Tuesday heard House Bill 412, a bill sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, that expands the prohibition on the use of public time or resources — including state letterhead — to solicit support for a political campaign to legislators and judges. Currently, state law on such campaigning only singles out a “public officer or public employee.” 

“As a matter of general principle, I have a hard time reading statute and seeing certain government officials carved out,” Bedey testified. “All of us in public office, no matter how we got there, should be held to a high standard.” 

Violations by legislators under the bill would be referred to the House or Senate ethics committees, while infractions by judges would fall under the purview of the Judicial Standards Commission. Other violations would fall to the Commissioner of Political Practices, which has the power to refer cases to local county attorneys. 

Bedey, asked by Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billings, to cite his justification for the bill, pointed to instances in which lawmakers have used letterhead to advocate for a specific candidate or a bond issue. He did not refer to any legislators by name. 

“I was informed that sorry, legislators can do this,” Bedey said. “But if it had been a county commissioner doing this, they would have been in trouble.” 

Last year, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, wrote donors of a candidate she opposed in a Ravalli County legislative primary, now-Rep. Wayne Rusk, R-Corvallis, on her Senate letterhead explaining her support for Rusk’s opponent, Alan Lackey. Her letter generated an exchange in newspaper letter-to-the-editor pages in which former Republican lawmaker Ed Greef accused her of ethical impropriety. 

Manzella, in her own letter, wrote,“if I want to use my stationery and postage to write a personal letter expressing my support, that too, is my choice.” 

Greef, in a response to Manzella’s letter, wrote, “it’s a lucky thing” that ethics statute “does not cover legislators — a loophole that cries out to be plugged.”  

Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, asked Bedey Tuesday if his bill pondered the usage of polling on specific pieces of legislation by the Montana Judges Association, a flashpoint in a broader conflict last session between Republican lawmakers and the judiciary. Bedey said he didn’t feel his bill addresses that issue, and that to the extent that behavior was questionable, it should be examined by the Judicial Standards Commission. 

“This is not targeted at the judiciary,” Bedey said. “This is not targeted at the Legislature. It’s targeted at we’re all public officials, we all should be held to the same standard.”

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Gallus Confirmed

Senate Resolution 49, sponsored by Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, passed the Senate on a 47-3 vote Tuesday. The passage of the resolution confirms the appointment of Chris Gallus, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s pick to lead the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices’ office, which enforces state campaign finance law and investigates related complaints.

Gallus, a longtime attorney and lobbyist for the Montana Chamber of Commerce and several conservative-aligned causes — some of which have appeared before the commissioner’s office — replaces Jeff Mangan. 

Cuffe applauded Gallus for weathering questions in the Senate State Administration Committee last week related to how he would handle COPP complaints related to his past clients — Gallus has said he’ll recuse himself where appropriate.

“By golly, Chris Gallus stood up there and answered those questions as straight as I could have imagined,” Cuffe said. 

Three lawmakers, all Democrats, voted against Gallus’ confirmation: Sens. Willis Curdy of Missoula, Jen Gross of Billings and Susan Webber of Browning. Gallus after the hearing expressed gratitude for the chamber’s vote of confidence, though he jokingly bemoaned the fact that he had received three times the opposition as his predecessor — Mangan only received one no vote, then-Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. 

“Even those folks — I had talked to one of them — they came up and told me before the floor vote that they just couldn’t get there on the recusal issue, is what she said,” Gallus said after the vote. “And that’s fine, those things are gonna happen.”

He said he looks forward to doing “what needs to be done” in the commissioner’s office: “apply the facts to the law that the Legislature creates and reach decisions that way, cause that’s what we’re tasked to do.” 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Bill Report

Senate Bill 117, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, passed its first vote on the Senate floor Tuesday along party lines, 34-16. The bill prohibits state and county election officials from using private funding or services to conduct elections. The Senate also approved an amendment stipulating that the ban does not extend to money or physical space provided by tribal nations for election purposes.

House Bill 16 and House Bill 37, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, both passed third reading on the House Floor Tuesday after surviving scrutiny from the House Appropriations Committee last week. The bills are two pieces of a broader Republican-led push to reform Montana’s child welfare system. HB 16 schedules initial hearings within five business days of a child’s removal and would require statewide pre-hearing conferences starting this summer. HB 37 would require judicial warrants for a removal except in certain emergency situations and provide counsel for children in abuse and neglect cases. The bills will now be transmitted to the Senate. 

eye in the capitol

Credit: Courtesy Montana Public Access Network
Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / MTFP

Sens. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, and John Fuller, R-Kalispell, co-lead the Senate in prayer on Feb. 14. Last week, the two came to verbal blows on the Senate floor during debate on Fuller’s Senate Bill 99, which would ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors in the state. Boldman, in criticizing Fuller’s bill last week, also accused him of voting against a previous resolution recognizing the Indian boarding school experience. Fuller, though, had voted for the resolution, and rose in anger, aiming his finger at Boldman across the chamber. The invocation Tuesday began: “God, people are often unreasonable and self-centered. Help us forgive them anyway. If we are kind, people may accuse us of ulterior motives. God, help us to be kind anyway.” 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Possible Redistricting Lawsuit

Montana Republican Party chair Don Kaltschmidt wrote in a statement to Capitolized Tuesday that the state GOP ​​”will be seriously exploring legal action” related to the Districting and Apportionment Commission’s finalization of new state House and Senate districts this weekend.

Republicans in the state, including the GOP’s two representatives on the redistricting commission, have consistently criticized the new maps, accusing Democratic commissioners of unreasonably prioritizing political objectives over base criteria in the state Constitution like compactness and contiguity. Democrats have advocated for creating a map that brings the composition of the Legislature in rough alignment with the two parties’ share of the overall vote in the state. 

The House map approved this weekend would, in an average electoral environment, yield 60 Republican-leaning seats and 40 Democratic-leaning seats. The Senate map would split the chamber in a similar proportion. Republicans currently hold two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers. 

“Democrat Commission members and Chairwoman [Maylinn] Smith have done a disservice to the people of Montana by adopting a legislative district map that does not represent our communities,” Kaltschmidt wrote. “By putting partisan gains for their party above constitutionally required criteria, they have drowned out the voices of thousands of Montanans simply based off their views and beliefs.”

Democratic commissioners Kendra Miller and Denise Juneau have said their map is constitutionally compliant and representative of Montanans’ political beliefs. Republicans, they argue, simply want to protect their margins in the Legislature. 

“We redistrict to achieve equal representation,” Miller said on Twitter this weekend. “Districts aren’t just shapes on a map. Districts represent people. All Montanans have a right to be represented in our state government, and that’s why fair maps matter. Because representation matters.” 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Heard in the Halls

“Finally, I would like to thank my opponents for showing up today. I’ve had three bills before this one and I never had a single opponent. I was beginning to wonder, ‘What’s wrong with John,’ because when I was a lobbyist for the power company, I always had 40 opponents.”

Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, giving closing remarks on House Bill 435, a measure that would allow the owner of an exempt well water right to demonstrate beneficial use of that water right prior to full build-out of a subdivision. Fitzpatrick formerly worked for NorthWestern Energy, Montana’s largest electric utility.

Background Reading

Explaining the why and the where of Montana’s new legislative districts: Explore Montana’s new House and Senate maps and the process that birthed them here. (MTFP)

Confirmation process for new Commissioner of Political Practices underway: For more on Chris Gallus’ background and confirmation process, check out this previous Capitolized item. (MTFP)