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April 28, 2023

The House Judiciary Committee will meet again on Monday, May 1, lawmakers announced Friday. 

That’s a departure from the state of play as of late Thursday night, when lawmakers on the committee told Montana Free Press they believed it would not meet again this session. The remaining bills on the committee’s agenda had either been re-routed through another committee or blasted straight to the House floor, which Democrats believed was an effort to prevent Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, from speaking in committee for the remainder of the session.

The House voted to formally discipline Zephyr this week, barring her from the House floor, antechamber and gallery, but not from committees. On Thursday, though, the schedules of the two committees on which Zephyr serves — Judiciary, and Human Services — had been cleared, and Zephyr and other Democrats said they believed they would not meet again, effectively blocking her from participating in this session’s remaining committee action, even though the motion to discipline Zephyr made no mention of committee work. 

“I bet you can guess why,” Human Services Committee Chair Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, told MTFP in response to a question about why bills were moved out of Carlson’s committee. 

Zephyr said she believed Republican leadership was using “every tool at their disposal to disenfranchise the 11,000 Montanans who elected me to be here to speak.” 

Now it appears she’ll have at least one more opportunity to participate in committee, though what Judiciary will do during its Monday meeting isn’t clear. 

Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, the committee’s vice chair, said he isn’t sure what bill the committee will consider Monday, but that he believes there is a resolution or study bill from the Senate that still awaits committee action. 

One regular fixture won’t be there, at least not in her normal capacity: Jamie Van Valkenburg, who spent most of the session working as a nonpartisan clerk for the House Judiciary Committee, quit her job Friday morning to work as an aide to Zephyr. The committee will have to find another clerk for Monday’s meeting, she told Capitolized. 

Van Valkenburg said she and Zephyr have gotten to know each other during their shared work on the committee. 

“Representative Zephyr contacted me last night and said, ‘I need help! You’re really smart.’ She said I was really smart. I don’t believe it, but it’s fine,” Van Valkenburg said. “I was looking around at all the work I had left to do with [the House Judiciary Committee] and there wasn’t anything left.”

As of last night, Van Valkenburg said, she also believed the committee would not be meeting again this session. 

She had no ill words for the Legislature, but said she and Zephyr are both part of the LGBTQ+ community, and she wants to support Zephyr in her future endeavors. 

“Being a clerk, you don’t have a voice,” she said. “It’s been awesome to watch [Zephyr] in committee and on the floor speaking up for marginalized communities and how they’ve been treated.” 

Van Valkenburg said she’ll be managing emails, press inquiries and other administrative and media matters for Zephyr. 

Under House rules, each lawmaker may sponsor one legislative aide — they’re called “interns” in the rulebook — each session. The lawmaker must pay to sponsor the staffer. The practice is permitted, just not particularly common. Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, also employs a legislative aide, former Public Service Commission staffer Drew Zinecker. 

Van Valkenburg said nobody from her old job has commented about her new one — just “a couple of looks.” 

The House voted to discipline Zephyr Wednesday following a protest that erupted in the House gallery Monday after House Speaker Matt Regieragain declined to recognize Zephyr during floor debates. 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. Zephyr is a transgender woman.

Regier contends that Zephyr breached legislative decorum, and in response he chose, as is his prerogative as speaker, not to recognize her during debates for several ensuing days. 

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. By Friday, her ad hoc office had grown to include a small stable of volunteers, in addition to Van Valkenburg. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

The Pork Remains

An impassioned speech railing against the “gluttony” of last-minute “pork” packed into a major infrastructure bill, made by Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick on the Senate floor Thursday evening, failed to persuade his colleagues to strip out most of the projects that attracted vocal ire from him and the chamber’s fiscal leadership.

The debate stemmed from an evening meeting April 20 where Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee passed a series of amendments adding more than $20 million in district-specific projects to the $1.2 billion House Bill 5, eventually spurring committee chair John Esp, R-Big Timber, to abruptly end the meeting in frustration.

Those line items, inserted in the spending bill with days left in the session, in effect short-circuited the Legislature’s standard process for infrastructure spending, which starts with agency-administered programs that solicit grant applications, rank projects and prepare funding lists included in the governor’s budget proposal, and then pass through multiple rounds of legislative review. Those efforts are intended to fairly divide limited dollars between different parts of the state and minimize the extent to which political horse-trading in the Legislature influences decisions about which projects get funded.

As HB 5 went before the full Senate for debate Thursday, Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, had prepared a series of amendments to strip out the finance committee’s line items. He urged his colleagues to vote for reverting the bill to its earlier form, calling the spending “inappropriate.”

“We take pride here in this Capitol that we are not Washington, D.C., that we follow the right process and we don’t lard up bills with unnecessary pork,” Fitzpatrick argued. “But that’s not what has happened down in Finance and Claims on House Bill 5. This thing has been larded up with a bunch of things that don’t belong in there.”

“This is really the session of gluttony,” he added, referring to spending made possible by the state’s $2.5 billion budget surplus. “Everybody is mad they’re not getting their spending and there’s this bitterness in the building because of it. And so it’s time that we stop. It’s time to take out the pork.” 

Initially, it appeared senators might be chastened into following Fitzpatrick’s lead. Senators stripped $9.6 million in funding for a mining museum in Butte, an amendment that had been advanced in the finance committee by Butte Sen. Ryan Lynch, a senior Democrat.

Lynch voiced support for that removal. “I do agree — maybe this did go a little too far,” he acknowledged. The funding was removed on an overwhelming 46-3 vote.

As Fitzpatrick brought a second amendment, though, taking aim at another $5 million in state spending added at Lynch’s behest for a veterans’ home in Butte, the chamber began to balk. That amendment failed, 21-28.

The majority leader tried again, moving to strip funding for $1 million in water and sewer upgrades for the city of Columbus. That money had been inserted during the finance committee’s Thursday night session at the behest of Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus.

“I don’t think the city of Columbus should be treated any differently than any of the other cities in the state of Montana,” Fitzpatrick argued. “The towns in my district, they apply to the local government and they do it that way. We don’t come into here, and I don’t go down into Senate Finance and Claims and I don’t ask for a million bucks for the city of Cascade.”

That motion also failed, 22-28. So did Fitzpatrick’s next attempt to target $60,000 backed by Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, for building a warming hut in Bannack State Park.

At that point, the majority leader conceded defeat, abandoning other amendments. Late-process line items that added $8 million for a reservoir and park project near Billings and $2 million for a train depot renovation in Miles City remain in the bill. That spending had been championed by Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, and Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, respectively.

Earlier in the debate, McGillvray had picked up his mic to defend Lynch’s museum proposal — and his own reservoir funding. Unlike the federal government, he noted, the state isn’t running a budget deficit.

“Last time I checked, it’s the prerogative of any representative or senator to add an amendment to any bill,” he said.

“I had some constituents come to me and the senator across the aisle had some constituents come to him,” McGillvray said.

As the debate concluded, Fitzpatrick said he’d vote in protest against the infrastructure bill, which funds a slew of projects ranging from a $5 million grant program for homeless shelters to a $23.5 million building for Gallatin College, a two-year campus affiliated with Montana State University in Bozeman.

So did Sen. Mike Cuffe, the bill’s sponsor, who expressed disappointment at how the floor amendment votes had gone. 

“There was some real opportunity for some conservative Republicans to step up,” said Cuffe, R-Eureka. “The majority chose to vote the way they did.”

The bill ultimately passed the Senate 34-14.

Fitzpatrick also said on the floor that he expects Gov. Greg Gianforte to veto the disputed line items — unless they’re amended out in final negotiations as lawmakers try to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

“He’s going to make us look bad and we’re ultimately going to hurt our own reputation,” Fitzpatrick said. “At some level we need to start policing ourselves.”

—Eric Dietrich

Bill Report

House Bill 332, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, cleared the Senate Wednesday on a bipartisan 29-21 vote. The proposal would establish a new statewide health insurance trust for public schools in an effort to help participating districts drive down the cost of benefits for teachers and other staff. HB 332 requires that at least 12,000 employees statewide be covered in order for the trust to qualify, and places oversight in the hands of the state auditor. Bedey originally proposed investing $60 million in the trust, but the Senate Finance and Claims Committee amended the total down to $40 million, meaning the bill will have to pass back to the House for further consideration.

Senate Bill 99, the high-profile ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth, was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte with amendments he suggested, his office announced Friday. 

House Bill 562 and House Bill 549dueling GOP-backed charter school proposals that both stalled in the Senate earlier this week, are now back in the mix, having been revived and passed by slim margins on second reading Friday. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, told caucus members Friday that both proposals are among a handful of “endgame bills” that need to pass before lawmakers can go home this session. He said he realizes some lawmakers in the Senate don’t like the bills, or don’t like charter schools in general — candidly, he said, he shares those reservations — but that the House wants them passed. “We need to get this issue resolved,” he said. “Pass the bill, let the court decide whether it’s valid or not. This issue is going to come around forever and ever and ever.” 

Eye in the Capitol

A sign on the office door of Ryan Osmundson, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget director, reads “ATM Out of Order due to the 2023 Legislature.” Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit/MTFP

Heard in the Halls

“Despite the efforts of my good friends on the other side of the aisle to get this bill passed, I want to say it’s a bad bill, it flies in the face of fairness, I urge you all to vote no.”

Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, speaking against Senate Bill 565, a GOP proposal to increase the signature threshold for third and independent parties to qualify for the ballot, on Thursday evening. The implication of his remarks is that the more Democrats got up to talk against the bill, the better chance it had of passing, despite what seemed like broad, bipartisan opposition in the chamber. The bill ultimately failed, 39-60.

On Background

School choice gaining legislative traction after years of debateFor some history on the charter school proposals making their way through the Legislature this session, see this story from early April. (MTFP)

Anyone hungry for pork? To see how all this extra spending ended up in the Legislature’s infrastructure spending bill to begin with, refer to last Friday’s Capitolized. (MTFP)

Lawmakers revive bill making it harder for third parties to qualify for ballot — only to kill it againSenate Bill 565, and its companion, Senate Bill 566, are perfect examples of late-session antics. The bills came seemingly out of nowhere, implicated some shenanigans by national Republicans, quickly occupied a healthy chunk of public discourse, died and came back countless times, and now seem to be truly dead. Maybe.