Capitolized is a twice-weekly digest that keeps an eye on the representatives you voted for (or against) with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday? Sign up here.

April 11, 2023

For almost three weeks, Senate Bill 99 sat in a stack of papers on some desk in the Capitol, fading slightly from the political foreground. After passing through a procedural step called “enrolling,” the bill was awaiting signatures from the Senate president and House speaker before it could be transmitted to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office.

The bill to ban specific medical treatments for transgender minors — who want to live their lives in congruence with how they feel about their gender instead of abiding by the label of “male” or “female” they were given at birth — sailed through the Republican-held chambers earlier in the session over the vocal opposition of Democrats. Politically speaking, the only question that remained about SB 99 was how Gianforte felt about it

Lawmakers, lobbyists and the media finally got some clarity about the topic on Monday. Shortly before noon, the governor’s office notified legislative leadership and staff via letter that Gianforte wanted to request amendments to SB 99, according to a timeline provided to Capitolized by Jerry Howe, executive director of Legislative Services. Within hours, the bill was moving again — it received the needed signatures from Senate President Jason Ellsworth and House Speaker Matt Regier and then proceeded to the second floor to be marked up with bright red revisions from the governor. (Howe said two procedural missteps by legislative staff and a Senate clerk temporarily made the bill’s official status page reflect that Ellsworth and Regier had signed the bill on Thursday and that the bill was transmitted to the governor on Friday. The page has since been corrected.)

In another letter accompanying his requested amendments, Gianforte said he shared Republican lawmakers’ “profound commitment to protect Montana children from invasive medical treatments” while dismissing many of the medical best-practices for how to treat adolescents and teens struggling with gender dysphoria, going as far as to call “gender affirming care” a misleading term equivalent to “Orwellian Newspeak.” His amendments, he said, would make the bill even better. 

“Senate Bill 99 protects Montana children from permanent, life-altering medical procedures until they are adults, mature enough to make such serious health decisions,” Gianforte wrote. Among his proposed changes, Gianforte suggested revising the bill’s definitions of “male” and “female” and tightening the prohibition on public funds for any treatments or procedures listed in the bill, including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and mastectomies. 

Republicans in the Senate and House largely endorsed Gianforte’s revisions later that day and on Tuesday. But none of the governor’s revisions won approval from the groups that the bill would affect: transgender, nonbinary and two spirit Montanans and their families and much of the state’s medical community who say access to a breadth of treatments helps protect trans youth from depression and suicide, which they experience at disproportionately higher rates compared to other minors.

“Just like all routine care pediatricians provide, gender-affirming care is safe, collaborative, and developmentally appropriate,” said Dr. Lauren Wilson, president of the Montana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a Monday statement about Gianforte’s amendments. “This bill is an overly broad blanket ban that takes decisions that should be made by families and physicians and puts them in the hands of politicians. The Montana medical community has been united in opposing this bill throughout the legislative process.”

When the bill was again before House lawmakers for consideration, Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat from Missoula and the first openly transgender woman in the Legislature, had even sharper words for her Republican colleagues. 

“In the governor’s letter, he said ‘Montanans who struggle with their gender identity deserve love, compassion and respect.’ That’s not what trans Montanans need from you. We need access to the medical care that saves our lives,” she said. “… If you are forcing a trans child to go through puberty when they are trans, that is tantamount to torture, and this body should be ashamed.” 

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, stood to object to Zephyr’s last comment.

“I speak on behalf of our caucus. We will not be shamed by anybody in this chamber. We are better than that,” Vinton said. 

“The only thing I will say is if you vote ‘yes’ on this bill and ‘yes’ on these amendments, I hope the next time there’s an invocation when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands,” Zephyr responded.  

The House approved the governor’s amendments in a 66-34 vote. SB 99 is expected to soon return to Gianforte’s desk to await his signature. 

— Mara Silvers

We want to hear from you! 

Your input is important in guiding how we bring quality statehouse reporting to your inbox once the 2023 Montana legislative session has concluded. Please take a minute to share your thoughts about Capitolized. Thank you!

Bill Report

Senate Bill 565, one of multiple bills this session from Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, that would make it harder for independent and third-party candidates to make the ballot ahead of the closely watched 2024 U.S. Senate race in Montana, failed to pass the House State Administration Committee Monday, 8-10. 

Senate Bill 232which establishes a timeline for executive branch agencies to respond to public record requests, passed out of the House, 96-2, yesterday. The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, and carried in the House by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, was shaped with input from Gov. Gianforte’s office. Representatives Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, and Brandon Ler, R-Savage, were the lone “no” votes. In response to a question about whether the bill applies to local governments, Mercer said “local governments are not immune from the right to know,” but “the scope of this bill does not cover local governments.” Ellis has said she views the measure as a “test bill” that could be expanded by future legislatures.

Senate Bill 109a redrawing of Montana Public Service Commission districts that would split several cities and likely benefit Republican candidates, passed the House on third reading Monday, 65-32. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, began this session as a vehicle for implementing court-ordered adjustments to the PSC map following a successful lawsuit challenging the old districts’ compliance with the 14th Amendment’s “one person, one vote” principle. But Regier attached an amendment to the bill in February that proposed an entirely new plan to apportion the commission’s five districts, one that would divide several Democratic-leaning Montana cities between PSC seats. Currently there are no Democrats on the Public Service Commission. 

Senate Resolution 71, legislation sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, to confirm Gov. Greg Gianforte’s appointment of Greg Bonilla to a soon-to-be vacant seat in Montana’s 9th Judicial District passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, 7-4. Bonilla currently works as an attorney for the Montana Association of Counties and would replace retiring Judge Robert Olson. “Most importantly, he understands that the role of the judge is to fairly and consistently apply the law as written by the Legislature to the parties who appear before him and not to make new laws from the bench,” Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras told the committee in support of Bonilla’s confirmation, which now awaits a vote before the full Senate.

House Bill 234, sponsored by Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, passed the Senate Tuesday on a 35-15 vote. More commonly known as the 2023 session’s “obscenity bill,” HB 234 has stirred considerable debate between parents who don’t want their children exposed to materials they consider sexually explicit and opponents who see the bill as an attack on LGBTQ-themed books in school libraries. The bill was amended in the Senate to clarify that teachers would not be subject to the same criminal penalties applied to commercial newstands that display or distribute obscene material to minors — a change that critics of HB 234 see as making the bill more benign. HB 234 now passes back to the House for consideration of that amendment.

Vote Viz

A bipartisan coalition in the Senate passed an amendment to Columbia Falls GOP Rep. Braxton Mitchell’s House Bill 359, removing any reference in the bill to “drag” and replacing the term with “adult-oriented.” The bill no longer proposes banning “drag performances on public property where children are present.” Instead, the bill now prohibits “adult-oriented performances on public property where children are present.” 

Heard in the Halls

“I can tell you right now, if that bill goes [in its current form] even the most conservative judge will strike it down for unconstitutionality. The reason I brought this amendment today is to make sure that we get this across the aisle, we get this in front of the governor, he signs it, it goes to court and it can be defended by the [Montana attorney general’s] office.” 

Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, speaking in support of his amendment Monday to gut the drag-show provisions of House Bill 359. The bill in its previous form banned drag shows — and, depending on how one reads the language, possibly other forms of entertainment that could “appeal to a prurient interest” — in public venues. Friedel’s amendment, which passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote, removes any reference to “drag” in the bill, replacing it with the term “adult-oriented.” 

Eye in the Capitol

Credit: JoVonne Wagner/Montana Free Press

Earl Old Person Jr., center, poses with (clockwise): Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-BrowningRep. Michele Binkley, R-HamiltonSen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, Alyssa Kelly, Sharen Kickingwoman and Keegan Medrano for photos outside the office of Gov. Greg Gianforte Tuesday, April 18, after Gianforte signed Senate Bill 120, legislation to name a stretch of Montana highway after the late Blackfeet Nation chief Earl Old Person

On Background

Remapping the Public Service Commission: For more on Republican lawmakers’ effort to redraw Public Service Commission districts, check out this previous Capitolized item. (MTFP)

Montana Senate ‘guts’ Mitchell’s bill targeting drag performances, carrier saysSen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, the carrier of House Bill 359 in the Senate, said on the floor Monday that Billings GOP Sen. Chris Friedel’s amendment “guts” the bill. (Daily Montanan)

Where LGBTQ+ bills stand in the Montana Legislature: For a general overview of the status of LGBTQ+ bills in the 2023 Legislature, see this story from Montana Free Press reporter Mara Silvers. (MTFP)