UPDATED April 28, 2023: The House announced Friday that the House Judiciary Committee, on which Rep. Zooey Zephyr serves, will meet again on Monday, May 1. Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, the committee vice chair, told Montana Free Press he believes there is a Senate study bill or resolution that still needs consideration, but did not identify it.
The motion to discipline Missoula Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr that lawmakers approved on party lines this week barred her from the House floor, antechamber and gallery, though it allows her to vote remotely and participate in committee meetings.
But after legislative leaders on Thursday redirected a handful of bills and rejiggered their schedules for the remainder of the session, it now appears that Zephyr won’t have another chance to speak in committee during the final days of Montana’s 68th Legislature.
Zephyr serves on the House’s Judiciary and Human Services committees. As of Thursday morning, both committees were set to meet again before the end of the session to consider a small number of study bills, generally low-stakes proposals that direct lawmakers to dig into certain issues.
But Republican leadership rerouted the committees’ bills either directly to the floor or to an apparently unrelated committee on which Zephyr doesn’t serve. The remaining meetings of the Judiciary and Human Services committees were then canceled.
The Montana House of Representatives has voted on party lines to discipline Missoula Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr, barring her from the chamber’s floor, anteroom and gallery for the remaining few days of the 68th Montana Legislature.
“I bet you can guess why,” Human Services Committee Chair Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, told Montana Free Press in response to a question about why bills were moved out of Carlson’s committee.
Zephyr said Thursday that she believes neither of her committees will meet again this session and nobody has explained why.
“They are utilizing every tool at their disposal to disenfranchise the 11,000 Montanans who elected me to be here to speak,” she told MTFP.
House Joint Resolution 30, a study of criminal fines, fees, and forfeitures sponsored by Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, was heard in the House Judiciary Committee on April 24, as was House Joint Resolution 24, an interim study of prisons. Both awaited committee votes. Thursday morning, lawmakers moved to “blast” the bills, allowing the full House to vote on them without prior committee action. Both resolutions passed the House late Thursday.
Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, explained on the floor that the “circumstances of the past couple days,” the committee didn’t have time to vote on them. The House hasn’t taken second-reading votes on bills in two days, having been consumed with disciplinary proceedings against Zephyr.
As the floor finished its work several hours later, Livingston Rep. Laurie Bishop, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told lawmakers she sees it differently. Several committees have managed to meet in the last two days despite the chaos on the floor, she said.
“The conclusion that I feel like I’m coming to is we were kept from that committee and the work that was assigned to that committee because of the member from House District 100 and trying to keep her from the process that we do there,” Bishop said. Zephyr represents House District 100.
Great Falls Republican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway’s House Joint Resolution 33, calling for a study of “abortion complications and abortion pill side effects,” was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on April 21. Judiciary hears almost all abortion-related legislation. But Thursday morning, the bill was re-referred to the House Business and Labor Committee, which then passed the bill to the House.
House Joint Resolution 41, a study of “fentanyl use and marijuana abuse” requested by Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, was originally referred to the House Human Services Committee. As with HJ 33, HJ 41 was re-referred to Business and Labor Thursday morning and then passed onto the floor. The House endorsed both resolutions Thursday evening.
Bozeman Rep. Alice Buckley, the ranking Democrat on Human Services, said the chair did not explain the switch to her. Buckley said she knew the committee had completed almost all its work, but expected to meet at least one more time. Now, she said, it appears it won’t convene again at all this session.
“The pattern is marginalizing and silencing [Zephyr’s] voice in a lot of different ways that aren’t consistent or specific to any procedural motion,” Buckley said.
She had assumed the committee was going to meet both Tuesday and Wednesday, but both meetings were canceled.
The House voted to discipline Zephyr on Wednesday following a protest of House Speaker Matt Regier’s decision to not recognize Zephyr during floor debates that erupted in the House gallery Monday. During the disruption, while protesters chanted “let her speak” and police began handcuffing people and removing them from the gallery, Zephyr remained on the floor, holding her microphone in the air.
The standoff between Regier and Zephyr began last week, when she told lawmakers they would have blood on their hands for supporting Senate Bill 99, legislation that restricts gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Regier contended that Zephyr breached decorum, and, as is his prerogative as speaker, chose not to recognize her during debates for several ensuing days. Zephyr is a transgender woman.
Thursday was Zephyr’s first day as a lawmaker without access to the floor. She spent the day-long floor session seated at a bench around the corner from the chamber and across from the snack bar that keeps lawmakers, staff, lobbyists and reporters fed — especially in the crunch-time latter days of the session.
She said the speaker told her she couldn’t sit on the bench and had to move into minority-party offices Thursday morning, but she ultimately remained there undisturbed after an informal summit between Republican and Democratic leaders.
The dustup over seating and the re-referral of bills seems to stem from the fact that there was a lack of clarity in the motion to discipline Zephyr, Buckley told MTFP — or at least a gulf between what it says and what Republican leaders actually want.
“It’s [Regier’s] way of communicating that’s not specific, that’s not tied to the motion that was made,” Buckley said.
Knudsen, the chair of the House Rules Committee, defended the committee switches as a side-effect of the late-session crunch in remarks late Thursday evening.
“I can certainly see how [Democrats] would come to that conclusion,” he said on the floor. “I think the veterans of this body certainly understand that at this point in the session a lot of things are happening very quickly, balls get dropped, we try to pick them up as best we can, and sometimes that means doing things a little bit differently than we do the rest of the time.”
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