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The state Capitol was lit up Thursday by glittering gowns, vibrant makeup and voluminous wigs — all worn by drag performers whose artistic expression has been hotly debated by Republican lawmakers throughout the legislative session. 

Hours before the drag queens, kings and nonbinary goddexes took to the Capitol steps to lip-sync and dance in an April snowstorm, lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amended version of House Bill 359, a ban on drag performances in many public spaces. 

Drag performers Montana Capitol on April 13, 2023.
Drag performers put on a show in front of the state Capitol on April 13, 2023. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

The latest version of the bill, as amended by its sponsor, Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, would ban drag performances and drag story hours in libraries, museums, and any public facility — like the Capitol building — that receives at least 10% of its funding from state or local government. The previous version of the bill would have applied only to drag performances, not to story hours, and would have banned such performances in any public space where a minor is present.

Republicans in the Montana House supported the bill, casting it as a way to protect children from what they describe as inappropriate performances, naysaying the concept of family-friendly drag shows. Democrats and LGBTQ bill opponents have scorned the policy for criminalizing art and pushing expressions of gender diversity out of the public eye.

Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, was the only Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday to express reservations about the amended bill, suggesting that it might conflict with First Amendment rights to free speech and be difficult to defend in court.

“If I struck everything that said ‘drag queen’ out of here and put ‘Christian youth group,’ would you still vote for the bill?” Friedel asked fellow committee members. He joined Democrats to vote against the amendment, which nonetheless passed 6-5, but rejoined Republican members to pass the new version on a party-line vote. 

Outside the Capitol later that morning, a drag performer named Buster lip-synced to the song “Show Yourself” from Disney’s “Frozen 2.” The t-shirt Buster wore at the end, printed with large black letters, read “I am not a crime.” 

Other performers picked songs carrying complementary messages: “Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance, “You Need To Calm Down” by Taylor Swift, and “I Dare You to Love” by Trisha Yearwood. Onlookers could be seen peering out at the crowd of about a hundred people from the Capitol’s second-story windows.

Shawn Reagor from the Montana Human Rights Network told the audience that, despite the advancement of the drag ban and other legislation he characterized as “the slate of hate,” the presence of the crowd and the performers was a reminder of the power of the LGBTQ community. 

“We know that drag is art. We know that drag is about joy. We know that drag is about celebrating who you are,” Reagor said. 

One bill on Reagor’s list, banning gender-affirming care for trans minors, has already proceeded to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. Another high-profile policy, Senate Bill 458, would define sex in state code based on a person’s reproductive characteristics, sidelining transgender and intersex people from dozens of parts of Montana law. That bill had a hearing Thursday morning but has not yet been voted on.  

If legislators continue to pass bills that harm his community, Reagor said, “we’re going to fight them in the courts.”

The festivities continued under the Capitol dome later in the day. Three performers hosted a drag story hour for kids and families in the rotunda that afternoon, where the audience was asked to reflect on themes of love, diversity and community as lawmakers occasionally poked their heads over banisters to watch.

After the story hour adjourned, Bozeman performer Alotta Hull Shadow said being in the Capitol felt better than expected, despite some gawking and unfriendly looks. Above all, Shadow said, it was a reminder that the legislation being debated doesn’t reflect her experience of living and performing in Montana. 

“The Legislature is really out of touch with the rest of Montana on this,” she said.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of phone and web messages received by the Legislature’s information desk as of Thursday in response to a pair of charter school bills. House Bill 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, would establish a charter school system governed by existing school boards and public school regulations. HB 549 has generated 277 messages for and 154 against. House Bill 562, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, would set up a system of community choice schools outside current state education laws and governed by boards elected independently by school employees and parents. HB 562 has generated 315 messages for and 1,309 against. Both bills have already advanced further than any charter school proposal in the past decade.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On April 13, Montana Free Press joined the Choteau Acantha newspaper as petitioner in a lawsuit over the process by which Gov. Greg Gianforte recently appointed Helena attorney Greg Bonilla to replace retiring Judge Robert Olson in Montana’s Ninth Judicial District. As MTFP reported last month, the advisory council tasked with forwarding recommendations to Gianforte closed its candidate interviews and deliberations in Conrad March 23 to Acantha editor Melody Martinsen and MTFP reporter Arren Kimbel-Sannit. The lawsuit alleges that closure violated Montana’s statutory open meetings laws and constitutional right to know provisions, and requests a declaration that future meetings of the advisory council must comply with those rights. The lawsuit is filed in Lewis and Clark County’s First Judicial District Court. 

—Brad Tyer, Editor

Push our Buttons 🕹️

Crafting a state budget is all about tradeoffs, like choosing whether to put a limited pool of public dollars to tax cuts or staff pay raises or investments in childcare, housing or mental health systems.

As lawmakers pull together the final pieces of Montana’s next two-year spending plan in the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, we’ve built an interactive calculator that lets you pick from some of the options on the table to see how they would shift the state budget’s bottom line.

Think you can craft a better budget than lawmakers? We’d love to hear about how and why. 

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Hot Potato 🥔

The week before the Public Service Commission was set to hold a hearing on NorthWestern Energy’s proposed $120 million electricity and natural gas rate increase, the utility company announced it had reached a settlement agreement with four parties previously opposed to its proposal.

As a result, Montana’s elected, all-Republican utility board spent much of this week reviewing that settlement agreement in an occasionally tense public hearing rather than combing through the details of NorthWestern’s initial proposal to raise residential electricity rates by 25% and natural gas base rates by about $14 million, as previously planned. 

The parties that agreed to the settlement describe it as a compromise that will allow NorthWestern to adjust its rates to mirror the costs it incurs to meet the needs of its various customer bases. Proponents say the utility company’s costs have risen with inflation, just as other businesses’ have, and that the utility was overdue for a rate case.

According to NorthWestern Director of Regulatory Affairs Cynthia Fang, the company has put about $1 billion into capital investments since its last rate case, which was finally decided in late 2020, when the commission authorized the utility to collect a $6.5 million increase from electricity customers. In opening remarks, NorthWestern’s attorney Shannon Heim said the proposal before the commission balances the importance of securing the company’s long-term financial health with its goal of providing safe, affordable, reliable and sustainable service to its customers.

Other settlement proponents include Montana Consumer Counsel, a small state agency charged with representing consumer interests in regulatory matters before the PSC; the Large Customer Group, which includes customers with high power bills such as oil refineries, lumber company Idaho Forest Group and mining company Sibanye-Stillwater; Walmart, which incurs a seven-figure electricity bill annually to power its 14 Montana stores; and a coalition representing the interests of Northwestern’s large federal customers, including Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Opponents of the settlement argue that NorthWestern has proposed a “historic” rate increase that will fall almost entirely on the utility’s residential and small business customers at a time when many can’t afford to pay more for basic necessities like power and heat. Opponents representing climate and renewable energy groups also bristled at their exclusion from settlement talks, suggested that the increase NorthWestern is seeking reflects irresponsible financial decisions, and accused the shareholder-owned utility of failing to chart a considered and coherent course into the future. 

350 Montana, a nonprofit active on energy and climate issues, accused NorthWestern of disregarding climate change models and impacts and discounting the increasing affordability of renewable energy sources in its energy procurement decisions. (NorthWestern’s attorney countered that the settlement hearing isn’t the appropriate venue to explore climate change issues.)

During Wednesday afternoon’s proceedings, David Dismukes, an economist representing Montana Consumer Counsel, described the proposed increase as “unfortunate” but justified based on his analysis of the utility’s cost of service studies and revenue requirements. MCC said the settlement will serve the public interest and noted that NorthWestern will not be able to recoup construction costs of the $250 million Laurel gas plant — which is currently stalled by court order — until the plant comes into service because MCC negotiated the removal of a controversial “reliability rider” from NorthWestern’s original proposal.

Testimony from the Large Customer Group emphasized that its members have subsidized, and will continue to subsidize, smaller customers’ utility service, and noted that their own rates will rise as well.

350 Montana attorney Monica Tranel countered in filings and oral arguments that 93% of the $81 million increase for electricity service will fall on NorthWestern’s residential and small-business customers. Tranel argued that regular Montana ratepayer interests weren’t adequately represented in settlement negotiations and that the settling parties’ agreement discriminates against those small ratepayers. She asked the commission to scrap the settlement and engage all stakeholders in a more inclusive negotiation.

Heated discussion of the rate case wasn’t confined to the streamed and recorded proceedings in Helena — it spilled over into commissioners’ voicemails and inboxes. At one point during Wednesday’s proceedings, District 1 Commissioner Randy Pinocci said his constituents are reeling over the proposal.

“You listen to the voicemail on my cell phone, my home phone and my work phone here — I’ve never heard anything like it,” he said. “We absolutely have rate shock.”

Pinocci said he’s concerned the rate increases will threaten the viability of farming operations in his district, the state’s largest and most rural, given the high power demands of irrigation equipment. 

Settlement proceedings started Tuesday and continued into Friday. The commission has nine months to issue a decision. If it rejects the settlement, it will continue to wade through the rate case filing NorthWestern submitted last summer.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

House Bill 338 passed out of the Senate this week after an amendment was added in committee. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, aims to address the teaching of Indian history and culture in public school districts statewide by requiring schools to report exactly how they implement the state Constitution’s mandate of Indian Education for All.

The amendment, requested by Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, replaces bill language “requiring” the Office of Public Instruction and Board of Public Education to enact Indian Education for All with a recommendation “encouraging” the agencies to do so. O’Brien said she introduced the amendment to help the bill pass out of the Senate Education and Cultural Resources committee earlier this month on a unanimous vote 11-0.

“I had reason to believe that it was not going to pass out of committee without the amendment, and it worked,” O’Brien told Montana Free Press this week.

Now Windy Boy is signaling he’ll try to rework the new wording when the bill returns to the House for reconciliation, telling MTFP he plans to ask for a “do-not-concur” that would send the bill into a conference committee for further deliberation.

—JoVonne Wagner, Legislative Fellow

Verbatim 💬

“This sort of signals an end to what we had to hold onto, in terms of investing in local news. It was just sort of a skeleton crew [already], but now, what is even left?”

Billings Gazette sportswriter and Montana News Guild co-chair Victor Floresco, assessing the past week’s layoffs of newsroom staff at Lee Enterprises’ Montana newspapers

3 Questions For 

Last month, Missoula County Public Schools announced that its months-long search for a permanent replacement for former Superintendent Rob Watson was finally over. Starting July 1, the torch will pass to current Kalispell Schools Superintendent Micah Hill, who took his position in the Flathead Valley in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Montana Free Press caught up with Hill recently to chat about his transition to Missoula and what he makes of the political atmosphere around public school issues.

MTFP: What’s at the top of your to-do list once your feet hit the ground as Missoula’s new superintendent?

Hill: I’ve heard some concerns around the [MCPS] strategic plan and fully implementing that and being able to move the district forward in a way that ensures that we’re developing that educational potential for kids. But also, valuing the hard work and effort that goes into being an educator. I certainly heard a lot about that through my meet-and-greets with some of the concerns that were brought up by staff. It just seems like there’s maybe some frustrations, sometimes in communication, sometimes just in the complexities of the job and feeling supported and knowing how to handle challenging students or challenging situations.

MTFP: When this search was launched last fall, there was a real thirst among community members to find a new superintendent who will stick around Missoula for the long haul. How do you plan to address or assuage those concerns?

Hill: It wasn’t listed in the job description, “Must also be able to walk on water.” When you look through the community feedback and stakeholder input, it’s a huge job … It doesn’t dissuade me from wanting to do the work or lead initiatives. But it’s a two-way street for the community and the superintendent to be able to work together to provide that type of longevity. If the position is always about this political side of things, I don’t think that’s why we got into education. We truly want to be educational leaders, we want to move the needle on student improvement and faculty improvement and job satisfaction.

MTFP: Public education is also a major issue in the Legislature right now. What are you seeing there that could impact MCPS and your new role leading the district?

Hill: Where do you start? We were talking this morning about the election changes and going to an every-two-years cycle and extending the terms for trustees, changing some of those election laws related to how schools budget and when. There’s also some of this legislation that comes out of, I’ll just call it a “manufactured crisis in education,” where we’re really focused on things that aren’t happening within our schools that are part of a larger national conversation.

I don’t think we’ve even come close to moving the needle on teacher pay for larger districts. Even the new allocations and funding, they’re going to support the smaller districts … but when you look at those formulas, and they’re adding $1 million into the TEACH Act, it has absolutely no impact on 75% of the school districts in Montana. That’s not really going to move us from 50th to 49th. We’re still going to be 50th in teacher pay across the nation.

On the bright side, at the end of the day we do what we do best and we adapt and we change and we pivot where we have to and then we make the best of every situation given what we have.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda —  I was delighted to stumble across Montana State Library’s list of all the mountain ranges in the state this week. I think of it as the guide you didn’t know you needed in your life.

Alex — I know, I know — another selection from the New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast. But this one was a fantastic distraction from the usual glut of political news: an inside look at why Major League Baseball is making some big rule changes this season. Just be warned, you’ll immediately want to rewatch Moneyball.

Eric — Want to spend 15 minutes with your jaw on the floor learning everything you didn’t know you didn’t know about injection molding? Yes, yes you do.

Mara —  It’s that time of year again (weeks left to go in the Legislature, green things starting to grow out of the ground) when it’s almost impossible not to fantasize about summer. On that note, mark your calendars for the event(s) of the season: Montana Shakespeare in the Parks

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