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April 25, 2023

House Speaker Matt Regier took no press questions Tuesday and provided little insight into how he and other legislative leaders will handle the final days of a 2023 session increasingly consumed by conflict between Regier and Missoula Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the state’s first openly transgender female lawmaker.

In short, a feeling of disarray has descended on the House. Tuesday’s floor session was canceled, adding to a backlog of remaining legislative work with only a few days left in the session. The Senate, meanwhile, has been chugging along, and will soon send its amendments to the state budget, House Bill 2, back to the House. Even Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who condemned statements Zephyr made last week, seems interested in the Legislature resolving the matter quickly, telling a TV news affiliate that “every minute the Legislature spends on this is a minute they aren’t working on legislators’ important bills or Montanans’ priorities.”

“The timeline moving forward is very fluid. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done,” Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, the House Rules Committee chair, said Tuesday. 

Regier, in his weekly press conference Tuesday, called Monday’s protest a dark day for the state and the Montana House of Representatives and took aim at both Zephyr and the media covering the weeklong saga. He did not describe any next steps, nor did he explain why the House canceled its floor session Tuesday.

“This is also a disappointing day for Montana media,” he said. “The entire story was not told. Headlines that have happened over the last week stating that the Montana House leadership or GOP has silenced anyone is false. Currently, all representatives are free to participate in House debate while following the House rules. The choice to not follow House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr.” 

Last week, Zephyr suggested Republican lawmakers would have blood on their hands for supporting Senate Bill 99, legislation restricting gender-affirming care for transgender minors. She later said she chose her words with precision to highlight the increased risk of suicide for trans youth. 

But Regier determined that she breached decorum, and though he did not officially censure her or call her to order, he’s since refused to recognize Zephyr during floor debates, as is his prerogative as the speaker under House rules. He suggested last week that he will keep doing so until she apologizes. 

Democrats objected, leading to a series of votes in recent days on motions to uphold Regier’s decision. Super-majority Republicans have generally stood by Regier. 

The standoff came to a head Monday when, after another vote to affirm Regier’s rule, protesters in the gallery erupted in chants of “Let her speak” and “Whose House? Our House.” Regier ordered the gallery closed and police swept in, arresting seven protesters on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing. Zephyr, meanwhile, stood on the House floor with a microphone pointed toward the gallery, even as most lawmakers went off to the sides or left the chamber.

House Republican leadership in a statement later called the protest a “riot by far-left agitators.” 

“House Leadership will still stand firm in our commitment to decorum, safety, and order. We will uphold the people’s will that sent 68 Republicans to Helena,” the statement reads. 

Now a major question lingers unanswered: What happens next?

After Regier’s press conference Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, entered the speaker’s office along with Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman. Neither emerged with much in the way of insight, at least not that they were willing to share. 

“They’re looking into various options that they have,” Abbott said, adding that she does think some sort of official disciplinary action will be announced on the House floor when representatives reconvene on Wednesday. 

Knudsen, who has been advising Regier on his options, said leadership hasn’t made a decision, but that there are several paths toward disciplinary action.

Those range from expulsion, which under the Montana Constitution requires a demonstration of “good cause” and a two-thirds vote, to some sort of motion to officially censure Zephyr or strip her of committee assignments. 

“This is all so nebulous just because the body needs to be able to protect itself. You can’t put in rules everything that could happen,” Knudsen said. 

The limited time left in the session further complicates the decision, he said, though he added that he believes there would be broad support in the Republican caucus for some kind of discipline.

Abbott, the House minority leader, said she expects her caucus to be unified against any such action. 

“The main thing that I know is everyone in our caucus believes that this is extreme, that this is disenfranchising 11,000 people, and that the focus should be on the legislation that is moving through this body that is really harmful to the trans, nonbinary and two spirit community,” Abbott said. “There’s no disagreement on the fact that everyone in our caucus believes that Zooey should be recognized … and then I think people have different opinions on tactics and strategy.” 

Knudsen himself is in an interesting position. Before the session began, he challenged Regier for the speakership as the avatar of the interests of comparatively moderate members of the Republican caucus. He declined to comment on whether he would have handled the past week’s events differently than Regier.  

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Bill Report

trio of school choice bills cleared one of their final legislative hurdles Tuesday, passing the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on identical 11-8 votes. House Bill 393, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, would direct per-pupil state funds from school districts into savings accounts to reimburse the parents of special needs students for educational costs outside their public school. House Bill 562, also sponsored by Vinton, seeks to establish a charter school system outside the current oversight and regulations applied to public schools. House Bill 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, would allow for charter schools under the oversight of locally elected public school boards and subject to existing public school regulations. Republican Sens. Jeff Welborn of Dillon and Mike Lang of Malta joined the committee’s six Democrats in opposing the bills. Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, noted prior to the vote on HB 562 that it and HB 393 are projected to increase property taxes if passed. All three bills also generated legal notes outlining potential constitutional questions.

House Bill 359, the ban on drag performances in most public spaces from GOP Columbia Falls Rep. Braxton Mitchell, is headed to a free conference committee — where lawmakers can make sweeping amendments to reconcile differing versions of a bill — after the House voted 66-33 Monday against Senate amendments to the proposal that replaced all references to “drag” with the term “adult-oriented.” 

Eye in the Capitol

Montana Highway Patrol officers make an arrest in the House gallery after a protest in support of Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, on April 24. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

Billions and billions

Amendments to Montana’s primary state budget bill, House Bill 2, were debated on the floor of the Senate Monday, with senators tweaking the $14 billion bill as it passed one of its milestones en route to funding state agencies for the next two years.

Most notably, lawmakers added $15 million in General Fund money to the budget to boost the rates paid to reimburse private health care providers through the state Medicaid program. That spending, on top of a rate increase that was already in the budget bill, will help narrow a gap between funded levels and the rate levels proposed by a state-commissioned study.

The budget bill still needs a final Senate vote before heading back to the House, where representatives have the chance to consider Senate-side amendments. A thumbs-down on those amendments sends the budget to a conference committee for wrangling on final details. Concurring with the Senate’s changes, however, would kick the budget along to Gov. Gianforte.

— Eric Dietrich

Heard in the Halls

“The incentive should be to not only to do better, [but to] put on your work boots in the morning, grab your work pail, pat your kid on the head and say, ‘You’re big enough — you should go to work too.’”

Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, arguing on the Senate floor Monday for a budget amendment that would have stripped funding from Montana’s expanded Medicaid program. Molnar and some other critics of the program argued it discourages abled-bodied adults from working because participants can lose coverage if they increase their income too much. The amendment would have reduced state spending by $2.1 billion, most of that federal matching funds, and ended the program that currently provides about 124,000 Montanans with health coverage. The proposal failed, 19-31.

On Background

Monday’s protests concerning House Speaker Matt Regier’s ongoing decision to not recognize Rep. Zooey Zephyr on the House floor quickly became statewide and national news. It’s easy to call something a “watershed moment,” but this may be close — House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said Tuesday she’s never seen anything like it in her 20 years in various roles at the Capitol. Here’s some of the most notable coverage of Monday’s action, which led to seven arrests on misdemeanor trespassing changes. 

Photos: Arrests and protests at State Capitol in support of Rep. Zooey Zephyr (Helena Independent Record). 

Protests in support of transgender Montana lawmaker disrupt Legislature(Montana Free Press)

Lawmakers are being silenced for speaking out against anti-trans bills (The 19th)