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.

Today, March 3, is transmittal day for the 2023 session of the Montana Legislature, the deadline where most non-budget bills are swept into the dustbin if they haven’t managed to reach final passage in at least one legislative chamber.

Inevitably, that deadline drove a flurry of activity at the Capitol. By my count, lawmakers heard a total of 478 bills in committees over the week that ended Tuesday, then debated a total of 319 bills on the House and Senate floors Wednesday and Thursday.

We’re all a bit bleary-eyed after trying to track all that here in the Montana Free Press newsroom. So in lieu of writing something long and serious in the space at the top of this week’s Lowdown, I thought I’d just share a few other transmittal break stats:


Number of bills introduced to date in the 2023 session. In comparison, lawmakers considered 1,313 proposals in 2021.


Number of votes taken on those bills by lawmakers, as counted by MTFP’s 2023 Capitol Tracker system.


Number of those 1,413 bills — or 61% — that had cleared either the House or Senate as of Friday. Because budget bills, constitutional amendments and ballot measures are subject to later transmittal deadlines, more are likely to pass in the coming weeks.


Number of those bills that would put amendments to the Montana Constitution up for a vote on next year’s ballot. None of those amendment proposals, which face an early April transmittal deadline, have advanced out of their initial committees.


Web articles the MTFP newsroom has published about the legislative session to date.

One other note: As is tradition, lawmakers take a few days off following the transmittal break, which means the news coming from our newsroom during the first half of next week will (we hope) be a bit less of a flood and more of a trickle.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of comments received in opposition to Senate Bill 497, a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, seeking to change legal claims to prescriptive easements, which are commonly used by recreationists to access waterways and public land bordered by private land.

SB 497 came zipping through the legislative process. It was heard and voted through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, and was up for a second reading vote before the Senate by Wednesday evening. The bill garnered content and process scrutiny from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. 

“There aren’t many things more dear to Montanans than being able to access their streams and rivers the way we’ve been able to do all of our lives, and the last thing we want to do is have a hearing yesterday or last night that most sportsmen and women had no idea was going on and then vote the next day to in any way jeopardize those rights,” Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, said.

Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, counseled Fitzpatrick against opening such a “sensitive piece of code” without bringing stakeholders along. 

“If your phone has been blowing up today like mine has, I think that bell has been rung,” Welborn said.The Senate ultimately voted the bill down 14-36. As of a Wednesday morning bill messaging report prepared by Legislative Services, the bill had generated just 16 comments in favor compared to 220 in opposition.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Happenings 🗓️

Montana’s Office of Public Instruction is hitting the road once again this month as state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen launches a second series of community visits to K-12 school districts. For those who missed it, Arntzen traveled to four communities last December — Kalispell, Stevensville, Billings and Great Falls — to hear from school officials, teachers, students and concerned parents about the challenges they’re facing. The responses ran the gamut, from educator salaries not keeping up with the rising cost of living to misunderstandings about who has primary oversight of curricular and budgetary issues in public schools. Arntzen eventually parlayed those info-gathering sessions into a “celebration” of parental rights in the Capitol Rotunda on the first day of the 2023 Legislature.

“These listening sessions are an opportunity to discuss legislation that will affect our Montana schools and students,” Arntzen said in announcing part two of OPI’s community roadshow. “I look forward to joining Montana parents, school leaders, and legislators in putting our Montana students first.”

Here’s a rundown of where Arntzen will be engaging with educators and community members this month:

March 6: 1-2 p.m. at Miles Community College, community room 106, in Miles City.

March 6: 4:30-5:30 p.m. in the Sidney Middle School gymnasium in Sidney.

March 7: Noon-1 p.m. in Montana State University Northern’s Student Union Ballroom in Havre.

March 7: 4:30-5:30 p.m. in the Lewistown Junior High School gymnasium in Lewistown.

March 8: Noon-1 p.m. in the Copper Lounge of Montana Tech’s student union building in Butte.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

The Bonner mill, just upstream of Missoula on the Blackfoot River, began producing lumber and beams to support Montana’s mining tunnels in 1886, and grew into the largest lumber mill between the West Coast and Wisconsin during its heyday. When it closed for good in 2012, Missoula photographer Chris Chapman got invited to tour the grounds during its demolition. Two weeks of shooting produced a portfolio of large-format photographs documenting an industrial landscape in dramatic transition. (Much of the former mill site is now occupied by the KettleHouse Amphitheater, where the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Les Claypool will perform this summer.) A selection of six Chapman photographs under the title “Bonner Mill: The Last Photographs” opens March 3 at the ZACC in Missoula, and remains on display through the end of April.

—Brad Tyer, Editor

Off Limits 🚫

Nonprofit criminal justice news outlet The Marshall Project has published a list of books banned in state prisons, and the Montana bibliography makes for a good read, and an occasional giggle. Among the 374 books on Montana’s banned list is a small library of self-evidently objectionable material for prisoners (“How to Disappear and Never Be Found,” by Barry Davies, for example) and a raft of titles that run afoul of policy prohibitions on nudity (“The Monster Book of Manga Girls”), security threats (“The Wikipedia Encyclopedia of Serial Killers”) and “racial” material (“The Protocols of Zion”). Also lurking in the off-limits stacks are more than a few books that wouldn’t be out of place in an airport bookshop or neighborhood little free library. Stieg Larsson’s runaway bestseller “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” for instance (tagged for being “sexually explicit”), or Phil Hellmuth Jr.’s “Play Poker Like the Pros” (“promotes gambling”). My personal favorite prison-banned book? “The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band,” by the members of Motley Crue and New York Times journalist Neil Strauss, which contains verboten references to — surprise, surprise — “sex and drugs.”

—Brad Tyer, Editor

On Our Radar 

Amanda — I loved the first line in this short illustrated piece on whitebark pine that mixes natural history with news. “Whitebark pines are unmistakable, with stout, twisted trunks that are shaped but not dominated by the wind and topped with bundles of needles on upswept branches,” Kylie Mohr writes for High Country News. 

Alex — The national debate over election skepticism took a fascinating turn recently when the New York Times published a series of internal communications among Fox News hosts privately deriding some of the most prominent deniers of Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss. The paper’s coverage sheds new light on the network’s motivations for promoting allegations of fraud and what its top personalities really thought about the legitimacy of those claims.

Mara — After a disconcerting editorial by a former employee of a Missouri gender clinic published in journalist Bari Weiss’ The Free Press [no relation] last month prompted state investigations and blowback about transgender health services for minors, the St. Louis Post Dispatch hit the phones to fact-check those claims and hear directly from parents and patients. The findings are numerous, nuanced and well worth a read.

Arren — This gorgeous story from High Country News discusses the curious history of Butte’s Our Lady of the Rockies, and what that history says about the existence — often overlooked — of women in the West. 

JoVonne — Buffalo have historically been an integral food source for Indigenous people of the plains. Now the Blackfeet Reservation has opened its buffalo range to the public. Check out the Missoulian’s story on the tribe’s first open bison hunt, which displays two different worldviews on the animal.

Eric — Forget “Yellowstone” — this old Super Bowl commercial does a waaaay better job capturing the authentic spirit of Montana politics. 

*Some stories may require a subscription. Subscribe!