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With the Montana Legislature 65 days through its 90-business-day session, another looming procedural deadline had lawmakers scrambling again this week, this time trying to ensure their budget bills and proposed constitutional amendments clear at least one legislative chamber before the calendar crushes the stragglers this coming Tuesday, April 4.

Crunch time for lawmakers, of course, means a head-spinning whirlwind for anyone trying to follow the news out of the Capitol. This week, the building hosted 173 hearings on bills with fiscal notes and 10 on bills to put constitutional amendments on next year’s ballot, alongside ongoing debates over legislation dealing with, among other issues, abortioninfrastructure and housing.

When the dust settles next week, the culled bill herd will provide Capitol watchers a better sense for which proposals are most likely to advance into law this year, both in terms of state spending and measures that would ask voters to better align Montana’s state Constitution with the preferences of the Legislature’s Republican supermajority.

On the budget side of things, must-pass state agency budgets and perennial infrastructure program bills have already advanced in the House, leaving most of the remaining focus on one-off spending and tax-cut bills. The House, where most spending measures start their legislative journey, is likely to pass enough one-off budget bills to overspend the remainder of the state’s budget surplus, leaving it to Senate-side action to wrangle a final plan that doesn’t leave the state in the red.

Constitutional amendment proposals — among them measures that would, pending voter approval, let the governor appoint Supreme Court justices and prevent the state’s independent redistricting commission from formally considering political data — will be trickier to track since they aren’t voted forward like regular bills. Amendment proposals require a two-thirds majority of the combined House and Senate — 100 votes in total — rather than specific majorities in either chamber. That means, for example, that a proposed amendment that picks up only 50 of 100 votes in the House can still pass to voters if it manages to win support from all 50 senators.

In practical terms, though, most GOP-backed constitutional amendments will likely meet opposition from minority-party Democrats, who control 48 legislative seats. With 102 Republican lawmakers between the House and Senate, constitutional amendments that face unified Democratic opposition will fail if only three Republicans vote against them. And any amendment that passes the Legislature will face another round of scrutiny from voters on the 2024 ballot. 

Regardless of how things shake out, our reporters will be keeping an eye on things for you, through the final days of the session and beyond.

Thanks for reading,

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of bison killed by hunters just outside the Yellowstone National Park boundary this winter, according to the latest report issued by the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

That number, double the previous record, has prompted Bozeman-based nonprofit Gallatin Wildlife Association to send a letter seeking Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s intervention.

The group is calling for a new management framework that will result in fewer bison killed immediately north of the YNP boundary. This winter’s kill rate has been particularly high since heavy snows have driven hundreds of bison out of the park into Beattie Gulch in search of winter forage. Nearly a third of the park’s bison population has been shot by hunters, culled by wildlife managers, or removed for brucellosis testing or quarantine this winter, according to GWA’s letter.

“The systematic killing and culling of YNP bison at Beattie Gulch, a practice the IBMP has condoned each year, has run into a 21st century ethical nightmare,” the letter, written by GWA President Clint Nagel, says. “The practice has not proven successful for bison ecology or safe for the general public, residents, or for those who participate in the annual hunt itself. This is why we think it is best if you intercede.”

The letter calls for a new approach to bison management that will allow the national mammal to roam freely outside Yellowstone National Park, including onto the Custer Gallatin National Forest land where hunting is currently most concentrated. Buffalo Field Campaign spokesperson Tom Woodbury has described the current hunting practice as a “canned hunt” that puts hunters at risk, too.

“If hunting were to cease or be drastically reduced at Beattie Gulch, bison survivors would be able to roam, explore, and instill possible memories of where they may find springtime forage,” GWA’s letter continues. “This could very well benefit their decision-making processes in the future, for at present treaty hunting is preventing migratory behavior, an important aspect of bison ecology.”

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

As Montana’s 68th Legislature grinds on, LGBTQ+ advocates are assessing what is yet to come. With bills to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, prohibit drag shows in public places, and define “sex” in state law based on reproductive characteristics still advancing toward the governor’s desk, civil rights groups are preparing for lawsuit season. 

After Senate Bill 99, the gender-affirming care ban, passed the House last week, the ACLU of Montana and the national LGBTQ rights group Lambda Legal were the first to announce their intent to sue if the bill becomes law.

“Gender-affirming care is a critical part of helping transgender adolescents succeed in school, establish healthy relationships with their friends and family, live authentically as themselves, and dream about their futures,” the press release said. “If this bill is signed into law, we will defend the rights of transgender youth in court, just as we have done in other states engaging in this anti-science and discriminatory fear-mongering.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, took issue during a Friday phone interview with the suggestion that his legislation is discriminatory. He argued that the bill, which is en route to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk, is meant to apply to all children while being narrowly tailored to specific procedures and treatments. 

“I recognize that hyperbole is the coinage of this game known as politics, but I take exception to the [suggestion] that I’m trying to harm a particular group of people,” Fuller said. “I’m not. I’m trying to protect children.”

Another proposal, Senate Bill 458, has also caught the attention of national legal experts. In a Monday press conference, lawyers and representatives from the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union said the law to rigidly define “sex” in state code “could be easily challenged” for violating transgender peoples’ federal constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. 

“It’s such a core interference with decisions that people have every right to make for themselves and in consultation with their own families and medical professionals,” said Paul Smith, professor at Georgetown Law and counsel to plaintiffs in the landmark gay rights case Lawrence v. Texas. The advancement of SB 458, he said, makes it seem as if the state is “simply refusing to accept the concept that transgender individuals really exist.”

HRC and the ACLU have not promised to sue over SB 458 — the bill has yet to be heard in the House and could still fail to gain approval from the majority of lawmakers. One potential motivation for shelving the proposal this session is a recent legal analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff finding that the bill could put up to $7.5 billion of Montana’s federal funding at risk, depending on how state agencies implement the bill. 

If the Legislature’s 90-day process of policy making is a sprint, the litigation that could follow might be an ultramarathon. Legal fights over Republican-backed laws in 2021 — including abortion restrictions and a bill that makes it harder for trans people to change the sex on their birth certificate — have kept attorneys (not to mention journalists) busy for well over a year. 

The sponsor of SB 458, Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment about the potential for a future lawsuit. 

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Hot Potato 🥔

The past three months have featured one legislative debate after another over proposed changes to how counties conduct elections and verify their results. But this week, the conversation took an inevitable turn into the realm of enforcement — in other words, how Montana will police the integrity of its elections moving forward.

The first pitch came Wednesday from Rep. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, who suggested the state establish an “election security team” made up of eight appointees handpicked by statewide officials, legislative leaders and the Montana Supreme Court. Duram’s House Bill 905 would task that team with overseeing a post-election hand count of all ballots cast in every Montana precinct — numbering 663 as of the 2022 general election — and report its findings to state and county election officials.

The bill’s reception in the House State Administration Committee was less than enthusiastic. Duram argued that while the undertaking would be “arduous,” HB 905 warranted careful consideration given the suspicion and mistrustexpressed by certain voters. But opponents of the bill, including Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg, countered that the cost of conducting such a count would far exceed the $100,000 appropriation made in the bill. Keegan Medrano with the ACLU of Montana panned the bill’s lack of codified qualifications for security team members, referring to the proposed group as an “election version of the Keystone Cops” — a phrase that committee chair Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, rebuked as derisive and a breach of decorum.

The committee quickly tabled HB 905 on a 16-2 vote. But members didn’t have to wait long for another bite at the enforcement apple. On Thursday, Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, appeared with House Bill 953 in tow, proposing a robust and multi-tiered path toward responding to election-related complaints.

HB 953 received a somewhat warmer welcome, having been crafted with bipartisan support by the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Election Security. The bill seeks to lean on Montana’s existing jurisdictional structure in handling allegations of election crime. Under HB 953, such allegations would be filed in a new electronic case management system and referred to the appropriate authority. That referral chain would begin with the commissioner of political practices, but could fall to the state attorney general or the relevant county attorney if necessary. The potential crimes addressed in HB 953 range from citizen interference with election officials to undue influence over voters, and the bill also sets up a new investigator position at the commissioner of political practices’ office to handle complaints.

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, told lawmakers that the bill, which he helped craft, would allow citizens with election-related concerns to receive the closure that, according to the select committee’s hearings, they may not currently get. Evan Barrett, a constitutional convention scholar who helped establish the COPP office in the 1970s, added that HB 953 is “a bill that ought to be passed.” And pass it did. On Thursday, the committee opted to forward the bill to the House floor on a vote of 13-5.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

The Viz 📈

Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service

After last weekend’s storm dropped upwards of 50 inches of snow in the mountains of  south-central Montana, I was eager to check out the latest snowpack data put out by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which helps the U.S. Department of Agriculture keep tabs on water supply.

While most of the state is sitting at 80 to 120% of the 30-year median for Snow Water Equivalent, a measurement of the amount of water in the snowpack, there’s a clear outlier. As of Thursday, the Bear Paw SNOTEL site sat at a whopping 239% of its 30-year median. There’s an equivalent of 9 inches of water in the snowpack that feeds into the Milk River basin, more than double what that basin held last year at this time, and about 25% more than it held in 2011, when a robust snowpack followed by heavy spring rains caused the Milk River to overrun its banks. There was so much water running into the Milk River and other Missouri River tributaries that year the Fort Peck Reservoir’s spillway had to be employed for water release.

I reached out to Glasgow-based National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Mikelson to contextualize the northeastern Montana snowpack data. His take? The Milk River and other tributaries that feed into the Missouri River are worth keeping a close eye on the next few weeks. The areas that look particularly prone to flooding are located just upstream of the Milk River’s confluence with the Missouri.

“At this time, the highest probability for minor flooding is hinting at mid-April for areas along the Milk River from Tampico through Nashua,” Mikelson said, adding that his projection does not take into account any possible ice jams that might form. 

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

4 Questions For 

Ever since the Republican-backed ban on gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth passed the Montana House last week, spokespersons for Gov. Greg Gianforte have been tight-lipped about where the administration stands on the bill as written. Now that Senate Bill 99 is on its way to his desk, reporters took the opportunity to ask the governor about the bill and its possible impact during a Thursday press conference. The questions, which were not asked consecutively, have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: Governor, you talked just now about Montana being a place where health care providers would want to work, where they want to come and practice. We’ve heard a lot of concern from health care providers around a couple of bills this session that would further regulate health care, specifically SB 99, which would ban gender-affirming care. I’m curious what you’d say to health care providers about those concerns.

A: Yeah, so there’s a lot of bills moving through the Legislature. I was proud to get the recognition that this is one of the best states in the country to practice medicine. And our priorities in health care have really been to increase access to care and we’ll continue to promote those priorities.

Q: What are your thoughts on Senate Bill 99?

A: So there’s a lot of bills moving through the Legislature. I understand that’s on its way to my desk, but hasn’t made it yet. And, when it does, we’ll give it careful consideration.

Q: One follow-up on that if you don’t mind. I’m just wondering since it’s very similar to some of the bills that were working their way through the Legislature last session. You heard from constituents about those bills last session and I’m assuming that you’ve heard from constituents so far at this session as well. What are you hearing from people about that bill?

A. Well, in any bill that comes to us, and again, there’s still, I think 1,500 bills working their way through the process, there are many facets. It’s extremely important we take the input of constituents and hear from all sides. We look at the fiscal impact of these bills and that analysis has not been completed by our office. So I’ll just wait to give you specific comment until we get all the information together.

Q: I’m just going to circle back to this one more time since we have the opportunity. I’ve talked to a couple of parents and families who say that they’re considering moving out of state because of Senate Bill 99, because they wouldn’t be able to access the care that they need for their kids, for their adolescents. What do you say to those families?

A: You know, I’ve met with transgender parents, transgender children. We need to make sure everybody’s voice is heard as we make a decision on this bill when it gets to my desk. And we’re still collecting that input.

Verbatim 💬

“Given the magnitude of the problem, there is not enough money in the state budget to subsidize housing in a way that would be meaningful across the entire state.”

—Gov. Greg Gianforte at a press conference this week, responding to a question about why he’s focused on market-oriented efforts to address the state’s housing crunch by encouraging home construction instead of championing measures that would put more state dollars into building rent-restricted housing for residents who can’t afford unsubsidized rents.

His administration, Gianforte said, is focused on broadly increasing the supply of homes available on the market by growing the state’s construction workforce and discouraging burdensome land use regulations. Having more homes available in the state broadly would in theory make it harder for landlords and home sellers to maintain high prices.

The state’s Board of Housing funded projects that would produce 158 units of rent-restricted housing last year at an average subsidy of $186,000 per unit. State housing officials have told lawmakers this year the state needs 31,000 more homes and apartments that are available to rent at prices affordable to very-low-income renters, which equates to a $5.8 billion price tag at that per-unit average.

Real estate website Zillow said the typical home in Montana was valued at $421,000 in February, up from $265,000 at the beginning of 2020. 

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

On Our Radar 

Amanda — Well now, this isn’t something you see everyday: a former firefighter suing the Forest Service over its fire management decisions. Last week a federal judge in Salt Lake City ruled against a Missoula-based smokejumper-turned-attorney who filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Utah water users association displeased with the government’s response to two fires that collectively burned nearly 100,000 acres in 2018. 

Alex — As much as I love a good action-heavy popcorn flick, the classic cinema buff in me has grown pretty weary of Hollywood’s descent into superhero franchise land. Comic book diehards can give me guff, but I felt vindicated recently after listening to longtime New York Times film critic A.O. Scott explain why he’s “done with the movies.”

Eric — Perhaps inside baseball for anyone who doesn’t work in media, but I’ve seen a ton of discussion this week about this column from former Washington Post editor Marty Baron defending the ideal of journalistic objectivity.

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