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February 17, 2023

The Montana Freedom Caucus, the nationally affiliated assemblage of hard-right state lawmakers that launched this session, announced a fifteenth public member in a press conference this week: Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls

The caucus is, as chair Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, describes it, a “firewall for freedom” in Montana, a buttress against Democrats and RINOs alike. Its goals include medical freedom (though that should be taken to mean vaccine skepticism and not, say, gender-affirming health care for transgender minors), parental rights in education, election integrity and more. The caucus initially launched with 14 named members, with Manzella saying several unnamed members felt they could be more effective anonymously. 

Fielder told reporters he’s always felt a kinship with the caucus and its goals, and that he’s a “natural fit” in the group. 

He used the press conference to discuss two pieces of his priority legislation. The first, House Bill 372, is a ballot referral that would replace the Montana Constitution’s harvest heritage language with an explicit right to hunt, fish and trap. 

“This is to protect us from having our freedoms being nickeled and dimed away,” he said. “In other states, there’s a lot of ballot initiatives that come that say, you can still hunt, you just can’t use dogs, or you can still fish, you just can’t use treble hooks, or you can still trap, you just can’t use foothold traps.” 

The second bill he previewed, House Bill 464, would allow — though not require — judicial candidates to declare partisan affiliations while running for office, one of several GOP-backed bills this session that would reshape the state court system and its associated procedures

“As the chairman of the Sanders County Republican Central Committee, so many people come to us and say, ‘We can’t find any information on a judicial candidate.’ This allows freedom of the judicial candidates to declare who they are, what they’re affiliated with, and give the voters a little more information,” Fielder said. 

Although it was before Fielder took the helm, the Sanders County Republican Central Committee won a lawsuit in 2013 that allows political parties to endorse judicial candidates. But the candidates themselves cannot solicit or use those endorsements on the campaign trail under the Montana Judicial Code of Conduct. It’s not quite clear how Fielder’s legislation would square with that restriction.  

Fielder said his bill has nothing to do with the recent state Supreme Court contest between Justice Ingrid Gustafson and Public Service Commission President Jim Brown. But partisan affiliation and endorsements were nonetheless a live issue in that race, as the major parties each lined up behind the candidates. 

Fielder’s bill isn’t the only one with that circumstance in mind. Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who is a cosponsor of Fielder’s measure, carried a bill earlier this session that would allow candidates for all nonpartisan offices to declare a partisan affiliation. The bill was tabled in committee. Fielder said he hopes the narrower scope of his proposal can help get it passed. 

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, has a bill that would prevent parties or partisan officials from endorsing judicial candidates. A legal noteattached to the bill flags possible First Amendment issues, citing, in part, the Sanders County lawsuit. 

Responding to the legal note, Bishop argued that other case law complicates the picture. 

In a press release announcing her bill, Bishop criticized Republicans for injecting partisanship into the judiciary. 

“The very foundation of our democracy rests on the independence of the judiciary,” Bishop said. “Republicans aren’t simply just trying to change the rules of the game — they’re trying to make our elections more partisan and more political. The last thing Montanans want is more partisanship in their elections.”

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Washington Comes to Helena

Mark your calendars: Montana’s federal delegation will be in Helena on Monday, Feb. 20, to deliver a series of addresses to a joint session of the Legislature. The delegation includes Republicans Sen. Steve Daines, U.S. House Reps. Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale, and Montana’s lone statewide Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester. 

Bill Report

House Bill 428 and House Bill 429, a pair of Republican-sponsored measures to enhance protections for mobile home park tenants, were voted down by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. HB 428, which among other provisions would have required a two-year term for lot rental renewals, failed on a 6-13 party-line vote. HB 429, which would have required park owners to give tenants 60 days’ notice before a sale to make it easier to organize counter-offers to take their parks into co-op ownership, failed narrowly on a 9-10 vote. Both bills were strenuously opposed by landlords.

House Bill 408, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, passed an initial vote in the House Thursday and advanced to the House Appropriations Committee. The bill would increase the aggregate cap on tax credits for donations to programs benefiting public schools and private school scholarships, and would restrict the total amount of donations an individual school can receive. Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, attempted to amend the bill on the House floor to apply report card and standardized testing requirements to qualifying private schools, but was unsuccessful.

eye in the capitol

Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

Union workers rally outside the Montana Capitol on Feb. 17 in opposition to House Bill 448, a bill that would establish right-to-work in the state.

Heard in the Halls

“In my hometown, which is Glendive, if you wanna know what Hitler looks like, just look at me, because they have equated me with Hitler, just so you know.” 

Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, on the response from school officials in his district to Phalen’s House Bill 234, which would criminalize dissemination by public school employees of material deemed “obscene” by the state. He made the remarks during a press conference by the Montana Freedom Caucus on Feb. 16.

Background Reading

Montana Freedom Caucus launches with Rosendale as its north starCheck out this story on the launch of the Montana Freedom Caucus and its ties with the federal U.S. House Freedom Caucus. (MTFP)

Bill would shrink Montana Supreme Court from seven justices to fiveFielder’s bill is one of dozens this session that seek major changes to the judiciary. This story provides a roundup, with specific attention to a bill that would reduce the number of Montana Supreme Court associate justices. (MTFP)

The Montana Judicial Code of Conduct