A bill to establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day is defeated. A debate stirs over property taxes. And Republicans say new legislative districts put them at a disadvantage.
Nadya Faulx It’s day 38 of the 2023 legislative session. We’re more than a third of the way through. A bill to establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Montana is defeated but some lawmakers are moving to Plan B. Plus, a debate stirs over property taxes. And Republicans say new legislative districts put them at a disadvantage.
This is The Session, a look at the policy and politics inside the Montana statehouse. I’m your host this week Nadya Faulx with Yellowstone Public Radio.
Shaylee Ragar I’m Shaylee Ragar with Montana Public Radio.
JoVonne Wagner I am JoVonne Wagner with Montana Free Press and ICT, formerly known as Indian Country Today.
Eric Dietrich And I’m Eric Dietrich with Montana Free Press.
Nadya Faulx One of the most watched bills last week would have replaced Columbus Day with a new state holiday, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But the proposal failed when the Senate voted not to discuss it. It’s not the first time the idea has been floated in the Legislature, but this time a member of the American Indian Caucus plans to introduce a slightly different bill to keep the conversation going this session. JoVonne, you’ve been watching the debate for Montana Free Press and ICT, what can you tell us about what happened last week and what this, kind of. Backup plan would do?
JoVonne Wagner Yeah. Like you said, this bill has been brought before. In fact, the caucus has tried for the last five sessions to bring a bill to create what they refer to as a day of healing and celebrating indigeneity, but the bill has not made it through so far.
Democratic Senator Shane Morgieau sponsored the bill this session and said he wanted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day to promote inclusion and healing.
“I think the messaging is very clear that we want to have a day that celebrates everybody in this room and your indigeneity and I think we need to bring the bill out and have a conversation about that.”
JoVonne Wagner Morigeau said Columbus Day is celebrated from one point of view in history that usually ignores the documented treatment of Indigenous involvement and violence that happened in the hands of the explorer. The bill’s hearing had over 30 supporters from across Montana and no opponents. But despite that, it was tabled in committee earlier this week. Senator Susan Webber tried to get the bill heard on the Senate floor with a blast motion, but it didn’t get enough votes on the Senate floor.
Committee chair Dan Salomon said he felt uncomfortable about Morigeau’s opening statements in the hearing.
“He starts off with, and I think I can quote, with accusing Columbus of rape, beheading, amputations, slicing torsos in two, sex trafficking. You can imagine where this hearing went in a hurry. I have never, in my experience, been so mad.”
JoVonne Wagner Morigeau said he was trying to include all of the history of Columbus.
“I don’t know how you have a discussion about someone who was identified historically during his time to have done things that were not part of the norm, without actually talking about those things.”
Nadya Faulx So, a few Montana cities, including Bozeman and Missoula, recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and it became a federal holiday in 2021. So what’s next for the bill? Is this the end of the road?
JoVonne Wagner Probably not. I talked with caucus members and given the bill’s history, they were expecting this. Senator Webber has brought the bill in other years and I had a chance to visit with her about what she has planned for the future. She told me that there is one more way to get a holiday supporting and celebrating the state’s Indigenous history and culture through this legislative session. And that could mean a sort of compromise bill that would move American Indian Heritage Day — a holiday Montana already has — from the last Friday in September to October 12th. While she says this version of the bill might stand a better chance at making it out of committee, she wishes Montana’s Indigenous people didn’t have to make these kinds of compromises to have their history celebrated.
“We always have to compromise. Well, we don’t want to do it. It’s all or nothing. But since it went down, then at least we have a backup and that we can move that forward,” Webber said.
Nadya Faulx And what other bills out of the American Indian Caucus are you following?
JoVonne Wagner Yeah. So I’m following Representative Jonathan Windy Boy’s numerous education bills that are going through this session. The one I’m specifically following closely is House Bill 317, a bill that would revise the laws and curriculum surrounding Indian Education For All and the Office of Public Instruction’s Involvement. The bill is aimed to withhold funds to public schools who don’t meet the Indian Education for All guidelines.
Nadya Faulx All right. Thanks, JoVonne.
JoVonne Wagner Thank you.
Nadya Faulx Turning now to another big debate in the Legislature, this one over property taxes. Eric, what’s been going on with that discussion?
Eric Dietrich Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are saying they’re hearing a lot of concerns from the constituents about rising property taxes. That seems to be causing a lot of financial pain across the state, and addressing it is a goal for both parties. There’s already been some one-time property tax relief measures moving through the Legislature. That’s tax rebates up to $1,000 for the last couple of years that could come back to you if that passes. But really, that’s a stopgap measure. So one of the big policy questions this session is what lawmakers are going to be doing to address property taxes on a longer-term basis.
Nadya Faulx Yeah, let’s back up a bit and can you explain why property taxes are such a concern right now?
Eric Dietrich Basically, we have taxes because we need to pay for all the things that government does. And if we’re going to have teachers or police officers or janitors at the Capitol building, we need to pay those salaries somehow. The money has to come from somewhere. And really, the big three taxes that you talk about when you talk about, you know, how governments are funded nationally, is sales taxes, income taxes and property taxes. Montana, of course, doesn’t have a statewide sales tax, so we tend to lean on those other two.
Nadya Faulx And most income taxes go to the state government, right?
Eric Dietrich Yeah. And under our system, property taxes mostly fund local government programs. There are a bunch of other smaller taxes and exceptions and things get moved around. But as a general rule in Montana, income taxes fund state programs like prisons and universities, and property taxes fund local programs like schools and libraries and police departments.
Nadya Faulx And as a reminder, how are property tax is calculated?
Eric Dietrich So this oversimplifies a bit, but basically, you’re supposed to pay taxes proportionately to your property value. So if my next door neighbor owns a nice house that’s worth twice as much as mine is, in theory, she should be paying twice as much in property taxes as I am. So that’s why people worry about having to pay more in property taxes when they see their home values increase.
Nadya Faulx And of course, we’re seeing property values rise all over the state right now. What is the conversation at the Legislature been about that?
Eric Dietrich So, there was an effort outside of the Legislature last year to push a ballot initiative that would have added a property tax cap to the state Constitution that didn’t end up making the ballot. But it did freak a lot of people in state government out, and so lawmakers want to do something to kind of head that sort of thing off in the future.
We’re still pretty early in the session, but so far, the conversations that have played out, there’s been a pretty big divide between the parties. Democrats, by and large, want to use state dollars to lighten the property tax load that residents are paying. So they’re talking a lot about what tax credits that would help lower-income homeowners in particular.
Here’s Democratic Representative Jonathan Karlen talking about a bill he had on the House floor last week that would have created an income tax credit to offset property taxes.
“… But addresses the problem that I think we’ve all seen and we’ve all heard from our constituents, that our property tax system puts families in a position where they cannot afford to pay their property taxes and they’re being priced out of their homes, they’re being priced out of their communities.”
Nadya Faulx And what about Republicans?
Eric Dietrich By and large, they tend to be a lot more skeptical about putting tax dollars to long-term property tax relief. A lot of them are saying they think the real problem is that local governments are just spending too much money. For example, here’s Representative Jennifer Carlson from Manhattan talking about that Democratic bill during debate on the House floor last week.
“The state did not create the property tax problem, and it’s not our job to fix the property tax problem.”
Nadya Faulx So what sorts of property tax bills are Republicans proposing then?
Eric Dietrich I’m not sure that we’ve necessarily seen, like, their big proposals yet, but there are a few ideas floating around. To take one example, Republican Greg Hertz has some bills that would require local governments to seek reapproval for some of their existing property taxes. For example, he would have the folks that run Missoula’s transportation system, the bus system there, have to go back and seek reapproval for the taxes that fund that system. His argument is that there are a lot of small taxes that are piled up over the years and that voters should get a chance to kind of reconsider which ones they actually want to be spending their money on. Local governments, of course, don’t like that idea.
Nadya Faulx Yeah, I can imagine. Well, thanks, Eric.
Eric Dietrich Thank you.
Nadya Faulx Finally, we’re going to step away from the Legislature and over to the state’s Redistricting and Apportionment Commission. It’s a separate body, but the work done there has a big impact on what happens at the statehouse. Earlier this month, the commission adopted final maps that outline the 150 districts that’ll dictate the political makeup of the state Legislature for the next decade and beyond.
Shaylee, you’ve been following the whole process. I understand lawmakers gave input, but some are not happy with the final product. Why is that?
Shaylee Ragar This dissatisfaction stems back to a decision made two years ago when the commission adopted criteria to consider political fairness when drawing the new districts. Democrats addressed that criteria by using the projected election outcomes of each district — whether a Democrat or Republican is likely to win — to draw the new districts. And they came up with maps that would maintain the Republicans’ majority in the statehouse, but not their supermajority that they have now. So the final maps that were adopted were drawn by the Democrats on the redistricting commission, and the Republican commissioners were able to make some changes. But ultimately, the nonpartisan chair of the commission used her tiebreaking vote to side with Democrats to advance the maps.
Nadya Faulx So the maps are adopted. What happens next?
Shaylee Ragar If Republicans want to see changes to these districts that they are not happy with, they’ll have to take it up in court and ask a judge to redraw them. And the chairman of the state GOP, Don Kaltschmidt, has said there’s an appetite among members of his party to file suit. So we’ll just have to wait and see if that happens.
There are also draft proposals from Republican lawmakers to ask voters to pass constitutional amendments to amend the whole redistricting process and maybe give themselves some more say in the process. But we have not seen those constitutional amendments introduced into the state Legislature yet, and there’s no guarantee that they will be. It’s just something that we’ll be keeping an eye on. In the more immediate future. I am keeping an eye on a pair of bills that would update the process as well.
Nadya Faulx Yeah, tell us about those.
Shaylee Ragar So, Democratic Senator Shane Morigeau, who you heard about earlier, is carrying Senate Bill 77, and that was requested by the Districting and Apportionment Commission in a bipartisan way. And it would require the state department of corrections to keep records of inmates’ last known addresses so that those addresses can be used to redistrict the prison population at the place that they last lived rather than at the district of the correctional facility they’re in now.
The other bill is Senate Bill 109, and that’s carried by Republican Senator Keith Regier. And it would set up the process for updating the state’s Public Service Commission districts. That’s the state’s utility oversight board. Those districts were found to be unequal in population last year, and there was no statute dictating when they needed to be updated. So Regier’s bill would have the state Legislature redraw those districts every 10 years when new census data is available. So we’ll be tracking those bills as well.
Nadya Faulx All right. Thanks, Shaylee. And thanks again to JoVonne and Eric for joining us.
Shaylee Ragar Thank you, Nadia.
JoVonne Wagner Thank you.
Eric Dietrich Glad to be here.
Nadya Faulx Before we go, we want to plug our upcoming live event answering your questions about this year’s legislative session so far and what we’ll be watching during the second half. Join us for a virtual discussion at 7 p.m. March 8th. We’ll have more details soon on mtpr.org, ypradio.org and montanafreepress.org.
This has been The Session, a preview of the policy and politics inside the Montana statehouse. We’ll be back with a new episode next week.
This has been The Session, a preview of the policy and politics inside the Montana statehouse. The Session is produced by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. Join us next week for a new episode or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.