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The 2023 session has a long way yet to go, but as of Thursday evening, the special committee tasked with probing election integrity in Montana has all but completed its work.
After returning from this month’s transmittal break, the Joint Select Committee on Election Security had just one lingering item left on its docket: finalizing a proposal addressing enforcement of state election laws. Agreement proved a bit more difficult than members anticipated. Democrats thought the duty of enforcing those laws should fall to the commissioner of political practices. Republicans argued it belonged with the state attorney general. But on Thursday, they reached a unanimous compromise: Allegations of election-related crimes should be directed to the secretary of state’s office to investigate and, depending on those findings, further action should be referred to the relevant county attorney or to the Montana Department of Justice.
The final bill to enact that compromise — complete with a proposed $120,000 appropriation to the DOJ for a new dedicated prosecutor — has to be introduced next week to meet a legislative deadline, and will bring the committee’s grand total of policy proposals to four. Prior to transmittal, members released three bills focused on the internal workings of county election offices. Two of them add new requirements for county retention of documents from vote tabulating machines and the types of tests performed on those machines. The third directs counties to routinely check the accuracy of voter addresses on their absentee ballot lists. All three cleared the Senate, and Senate President Jason Ellsworth commended the committee’s efforts to find common policy ground between the needs of election officials and the concerns of election skeptics.
“I’m really proud of the work they did,” Ellsworth said during a Monday press call, noting that presentations to the committee by the secretary of state’s office and county officials helped dispel misinformation and confusion about electoral processes. “I think for citizens, it was very educational to understand how our system does work, how it is different from other states.”
The committee’s proposals may have enjoyed early bipartisan support in the Senate, but their passage to the House is already generating additional scrutiny. On Thursday, Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg told lawmakers on the House State Administration Committee that the trio of bills introduced earlier this month could result in increased costs and administrative burdens for county offices. A fiscal note prepared for one of the bills estimates that mandating the retention of “cast vote records” from tabulators would cost 17 counties a collective $255,000 for new computer equipment and annual maintenance.
Plettenberg’s opposition prompted a round of inquiry from lawmakers about how to aid local governments in covering those expenses. They were told that some funding assistance could come from federal Help America Vote Act grants. The bill’s sponsor and chair of the select committee, Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, also said he’d be open to allocating state money to the cause, but added that counties should still have “skin in the game.”
In other words, while the select committee’s meetings have come to an end, debate about the policies it recommended are far from over. How its work will improve or enhance public trust in Montana’s elections — and to what extent it will impact local election officials — now hinges on the full Legislature agreeing with the committee’s vision of balance.
—Alex Sakariasssen, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Number of students enrolled in the Montana University System as of fall 2022. On Monday, the organization that collectively represents them — the Montana Associated Students — unanimously approved a resolution opposing a pair of bills in the 2023 Legislature that MAS asserts would infringe on the constitutional authority of the Montana Board of Regents. Both bills call for a constitutional amendment granting the Legislature control over campus policies governing student rights and civil liberties. One of them, House Bill 517, got its first hearing last week. The MAS resolution echoes concerns voiced by HB 517 opponents at that time, who argued that “the separation of power between the Legislature and the [regents] is in the best interests of all students, both current and prospective.” Copies of the resolution were sent to Gov. Greg Gianforte, the seven members of the Board of Regents and all 150 Montana lawmakers.
—Alex Sakariasssen, Reporter
“I’ve worked too hard on behalf of the public to fight for transparency and public participation. And I think this is bogus that it’s been closed. These two candidates are going to have to deal with a lot more than the piddly questions that I was going to ask them.”—Former Cut Bank Pioneer Press publisher LeAnne Kavanagh, who resigned Thursday from an advisory council appointed by Gov. Greg Gianforte to recommend a replacement for retiring Judge Robert Olson in the 9th Judicial District. Kavanagh resigned before the advisory council’s deliberations in Conrad Thursday after reporters from the Choteau Acantha and Montana Free Press were denied access to candidate interviews and council deliberations.
Public Comment 🗣️
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is seeking public input as it dives into a rewrite of its 2003 Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. At Gov. Greg Gianforte’s request, the department is replacing the document that’s guided Montana’s management of gray wolves since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal protections — at the direction of the U.S. Congress — in 2011.
“The new wolf management plan will include the latest science surrounding wolf management, better transparency on wolf management, and be easier to update in the future,” according to an FWP release. “Public input received during the scoping period will help FWP staff determine public interest, identify potential issues that would require further analysis, and may provide further insights for creating the new wolf plan.”
As part of the process, FWP is conducting virtual public scoping meetings on April 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. and on April 11 from 6 to 8 p.m.
This is the first of what will be several rounds of public comment on the matter. (There will also be comment periods when the draft Environmental Impact Statement and draft plan are released.) For this round, comments are due by April 22. They can be emailed to email@example.com.
The plan rewrite comes during a turbulent period for wolf management, with proposals seeking to reduce wolf populations garnering considerable public comment during the 2021 legislative session and in Fish and Wildlife Commission meetings. The state’s approach to wolf management also inspired an October lawsuit that’s currently before a state district court judge in Helena. The USFWS is about six months overdue to release a decision that will give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on restoring federal protections for Northern Rockies wolves due to concerns about “human-caused mortality.”
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
The Viz 📈
The state budget bill that passed the House this week — all $14,318,925,185 of it — involves an often-baffling array of numbers. As I work to wrap my head around its significant figures, one approach I often find helpful is to translate the millions and billions of government finance into more personalized statistics.
Here’s that math: Just about 1.1 million people live in Montana. Dividing that $14.3 billion evenly among us produces a per capita figure of roughly $13,000 — the amount of spending the current draft of the state budget bill authorizes on behalf of each and every Montana resident for the coming two-year budget cycle.
Note that figure includes both state revenues and federal spending (the latter of which accounts for half the state budget bill — about $6,500 per capita). However, it excludes some of the biggest-ticket spending likely to be authorized by the Legislature this year, such as infrastructure programs and tax rebates.
The state’s single biggest spending category by far is health and social service programs administered through the Department of Public Health and Human Services. Those programs, many of which are heavily subsidized by the federal government, provide hundreds of thousands of primarily lower-income Montanans with access to, for example, Medicaid health care coverage and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Other major spending centers include the Department of Transportation, which builds and maintains highways; education agencies; and the Department of Corrections, which is responsible for the state prison system.
Some highly visible parts of state government, in contrast, represent much smaller slices of the spending pie. The state court system, for example, is budgeted for about $110 per resident over the next two years.
This year’s budget bill will likely be amended in the Montana Senate in the coming weeks, but amendments are unlikely to dramatically change this picture before the bill heads to Gov. Greg Gianforte for his signature.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
On Our Radar
Amanda — I finally cracked “Coming into the Country” by John McPhee this month. The 1976 classic about Alaska and its residents had gathered dust on my bookshelf for years. Now that I’m a third of the way through it, I don’t have the faintest idea why it took me so long to pick it up.
Alex — The Guardian took a detailed look this week at how the conservative parental rights movement is shaping national Republican politics. And if you’re curious for an on-the-ground picture of the impact culture war debates are having on local communities, check out this video of the chaos that erupted Wednesday when a California school board discussed its ban on critical race theory.
Eric — This Eli Saslow story about a pair of Phoenix, Arizona, restaurant owners struggling to keep their sandwich shop running near one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments made me think long and hard this week.
Mara — A partnership between the Washington Post and the public research group Kaiser Family Foundation resulted in a striking survey and accompanying reporting about transgender people in America. The findings are worth reading for anyone tracking the debates at the state Legislature on bills affecting the lives of trans people. Particularly relevant as lawmakers are poised to ban gender-affirming care for Montana’s trans minors through the passage of Senate Bill 99: the finding that 66% of trans adults knew they identified as such before they were 18.
JoVonne — High school basketball plays a big role in Montana, but many Native communities anticipate challenges not just from other teams, but with referees. This Missoulian story, “Treated different: Biased reffing hurts Native youth,” shows readers the struggle Native student athletes face when basketball season arrives.
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