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Last weekend a reader reached out with what’s become a fairly standard request these past few months: a status update on a bill of particular personal interest. In this case, it was House Bill 234, a proposal from Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, that would bar teachers from distributing to students any material meeting the state’s definition of obscene. The bill passed the House in early February despite bipartisan opposition and got its first Senate hearing Friday in the chamber’s Education and Cultural Resources Committee. 

But not all senators agreed that’s where it should have landed. On March 16, the chamber took a vote on whether to redirect HB 234 to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The move failed 18-32. Our reader noted the development and was curious why such an action would be allowed.

Montana Free Press caught up with Kyle Schmauch, spokesperson for the Senate Republican leadership, to learn more about the process. Deciding what committee a bill will appear in falls to the majority leader in either chamber — the House Speaker or the Senate President. The choice has to be based on relevancy, Schmauch said, meaning a bill focused on ranching wouldn’t be routed to a committee dedicated to transportation issues. But some proposals could theoretically go to any one of several different committees, and on the Senate side the president has pretty wide discretion to make those calls.

HB 234’s impact on teachers and librarians made it a logical fit for an education committee, which, Schmauch said, is why Senate President Jason Ellsworth initially went that direction. However, HB 234 also revises existing state law that includes potential criminal penalties, which several Republican senators argued made it natural debate fodder for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Schmauch noted that this session, it’s typical for re-refer motions to come through Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, to maintain order on the floor.

There’s a lot more that goes into these considerations. The president might use bill assignments to help manage workflow, directing a proposal to one relevant committee if another is getting log-jammed. Usually Ellsworth consults with a bill’s sponsor and takes their committee preference into account, Schmauch said, but that’s more difficult at certain points in the session — namely after the March transmittal break, when Ellsworth had upwards of 200 bills on his desk awaiting committee assignments. And sponsors may have a particular committee in mind, either due to the perceived political leanings of that committee or a desire to have a particular member carry the bill on their behalf. If they don’t like the initial call, they’re free to ask the full Senate for a re-referral. But as HB 234 illustrates, lawmakers can’t always get what they want.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Retroactive reimbursement that Lake County Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, sought for law enforcement services on the Flathead Indian Reservation with House Bill 478, which was tabled March 29. Lake County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are both parties to Public Law 280, a 1963 agreement that gave the county partial criminal jurisdiction on the reservation. 

The Lake County Commissioners office told Montana Free Press that in fiscal year 2022-2023 the county spent $7.7 million of its overall $13.2 million budget on law enforcement and public safety efforts, including on the reservation. Now commissioners say the county can no longer afford to patrol the reservation portion of the county if the state does not reimburse expenses incurred through law enforcement on the reservation.

Senate Bill 127, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, sought an agreement between the state and Lake County on a reimbursement amount. It was tabled in the House Appropriations Committee March 29.

A third bill addressing the issue, House Bill 479, also sponsored by Read, seeks an annual $2.5 million reimbursement from the state to Lake County. HB 479, which passed the House April 3, is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 12. 

—JoVonne Wagner, Legislative Fellow

Following the Law ⚖️

Earlier this week, the Cascade County district court denied the Office of Public Instruction and the Board of Public Education’s motion to dismiss a lawsuitbrought by six Montana tribes and several individuals. 

The plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund, filed the complaint against OPI and BPE last year, alleging that the state has failed to fulfill Montana’s constitutional requirement to implement American Indian education in the state’s public school districts.

The defendants’ main argument for dismissal was that individual schools are responsible for curriculum enforcement and the use of state funding for IEFA implementation is at individual districts’ discretion. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that it is the responsibility of both OPI and BPE to enforce and oversee Indian Education for All in schools.

Judge Amy Eddy ruled from the bench that the question of responsibility for implementation does not justify dismissal of the lawsuit. The case is scheduled for trial no sooner than August 2024. 

—JoVonne Wagner, Legislative Fellow

The Viz 📈

As we reported this week, nearly all the GOP-sponsored constitutional amendments working their way through the Legislature appear to be falling short of the near-unanimous Republican support they need to proceed to next year’s ballot. But since votes for constitutional amendment proposals are tallied differently than other bills — and the live amendment proposals have so far received votes in only one of Montana’s two legislative chambers — we thought it was worth explaining how we arrived at our count.

Amendments to Montana’s 1972 state Constitution can originate either in the Legislature or through a signature-gathering drive, with the former path requiring support from 100 of the Legislature’s 150 representatives and senators before proposals can advance to a statewide vote.

This year’s Republican supermajority comprises 68 representatives and 34 senators, or 102 combined votes, enough in theory for a united GOP to forward amendments to the ballot without any support from Democrats. That count, however, leaves Republicans with a mere two-vote margin, and as it turns out the party hasn’t voted in lockstep on the eight amendment proposals that advanced to votes on the House or Senate floor before an April 4 deadline.

Shown here are the votes the five House-side and three Senate-side amendment proposals received in floor votes in their initial chamber, along with projected outcomes if upcoming votes in the other chamber fall along party lines.

One amendment proposal, an effort by Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, to enshrine a mental health trust fund in the state Constitution, drew bipartisan support in the Senate and appears positioned to potentially clear the House. Otherwise, though, the Republican amendment wave appears likely to crest short of the 2024 ballot.

Another two amendments, one establishing a right to carry concealed firearms and another forbidding Montana’s redistricting commissions from considering political data as it redraws political maps, could come within one vote of passage (one of the Senate “yes” votes on the latter came from Democratic Sen. Edie McClafferty, who later said she mis-voted). A third amendment, establishing a constitutional right to hunt, trap and fish, could come within two votes of advancing.

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter and Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Verbatim 💬

“We have a growth problem, like a big growth problem. We’re out of water. We have housing issues — all these housing bills we’re talking about, we need those because of places like Gallatin County. We have no place for people to live.”

—Bozeman-area Republican Rep. Jane Gillette during an April 1 meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, explaining her opposition to a bill that would have expanded a state tax credit program intended to encourage film productions to locate in Montana. Gillette said she was afraid additional people moving to the Gallatin Valley for film industry work would make the area’s growth challenges worse instead of helping her constituents.

“I’m not sure I’m too keen on having the values of the people who are typically employed by the film industry coming to Montana in general,” Gillette added. “In particular, where I live in Gallatin, we’ve seen a swing in different demographics and different values, and I’m not sure those values are our values.”

The bill in question, House Bill 897, was voted down by the committee 11-12. A smaller film tax credit boost, Senate Bill 14, remains pending before the Legislature.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

The Gist 📌

Shortly after House Bill 170, a measure titled “repeal state energy policy,” passed along party lines last month, Gov. Greg Gianforte signed it into law. With Gianforte’s signature, a 30-year-old piece of legislative guidance outlining a vision for the state’s energy future will disappear from Montana Code Annotated.

So, what was in the State Energy Policy, and why did lawmakers pass it in 1993? 

Broadly speaking, MCA 90-4-1001 sought to balance existing and emerging energy resources and technologies — everything from coal, wind power, and biomass to green hydrogen and synthetic petroleum products — with environmental protections. It also established loose guidelines for using transmission lines to move all those electrons around the state and emphasized the Legislature’s desire to keep electricity affordable for Montanans.

On one hand, 90-4-1001 established that it is the state’s policy to “expand exploration and technological innovation, including using carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery in declining oil fields to increase output.” On the other hand, it also says it’s the state’s policy to “promote energy efficiency, conservation, production and consumption of a reliable and efficient mix of energy sources that represent the least social, environmental, and economic costs and the greatest long-term benefits to Montana citizens.” 

There’s a lot in the policy, in other words, and some of the pieces don’t fit together neatly. 

Critics of HB 170, which was sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby,questioned the need to repeal the entirety of 90-4-1001 rather than strike or amend specific pieces of the code. Gunderson replied that it’s hard to predict exactly what forms of technology should be reflected in the policy since the state’s energy landscape is apt to change. He also said the policy is advisory-only, and therefore unenforceable. “It has no teeth,” he told the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee. The real nuts-and-bolts underpinnings of energy policy are reflected in specific laws and agency rules, he said — things like air and water quality permitting, tax structures and land use.

Democrats, meanwhile, are left to mourn the loss of a legislatively established energy policy. When HB 170 was heard by the Energy Committee on Jan. 9, Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, quipped, “I’m not looking for the governor’s policy — I’m looking for ours.” Lawmakers had amended it as recently as 2021, she added.

When HB 170 passed out of the Legislature on March 15, it did so on strictly partisan lines: not a single GOP lawmaker voted against it and not a single Democrat voted for it. 

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda —  Last week’s news about a proposed Bureau of Land Management rule that would put conservation on par with other BLM priorities — fossil fuel extraction, for example — is a big deal. Outdoor Life has more on what the proposed rule could mean for grazing leases, landscape restoration and wildlife habitat. 

Alex — The Guardian dropped a major expose this week about how a trio of rightwing groups amplifying false voter fraud claims sought to influence state-level election officials at a February conference. The documents driving that coverage — obtained by the watchdog group Documented — indicate several ties to Montana, including an organization that last year pressed Gallatin County for records pertaining to 2020 grants that election skeptics have dubbed “Zuckerbucks.”

Eric — Reading this story about how the new car market has skewed heavily toward luxury options in recent years, I was struck by how many parallels can be drawn between the automotive and housing markets — supply chain issues, manufacturing shortages and bonkers prices increasingly out of reach for lower-income buyers.

JoVonne — NBC news reported on Vogue’s oldest-ever cover star, a 106-year-old Indigenous tattoo artist from the Philippines. Apo Whang-Od, a Kalinga native, is known throughout her country for practicing the ancient tattooing technique called “batok.” 

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