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May 2, 2023

Ed. note: Apologies for today’s late delivery of Capitolized. We usually like to send it to you around 6 o’clock in the evening. Events at the Legislature today cared not a whit for that schedule. So we’re late, with the latest. At least until tomorrow. Thanks for waiting.

With the 90th and last possible legislative day looming, the lawmakers, staff, lobbyists, reporters and other denizens of the Montana Capitol this week knew that the end of the 68th Legislature was nigh. 

But if anybody expected that lawmakers would adjourn sine die in the time and manner they did Tuesday evening, they kept their cards held close.

At around 3:20 p.m., Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers — who, as the shepherd of the Senate’s super-minority Democratic caucus, is generally not in a position to set the day’s agenda, let alone end the session — made a motion to sine die. After some back and forth over the rules with Senate President Jason Ellsworth, the motion — a non-debatable one, per legislative rules — went to the board for a vote. 

26-24. All Democrats and 10 Republicans — Ellsworth and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick not among them — supported the motion, ending the Senate’s work this session, putting the automatic kibosh on a number of bills and sending the Capitol into chaos. 

“I think any opportunity for us to direct activities rather than be directed is satisfying,” Flowers said after the vote. “I didn’t offer a sine die motion as any kind of vindictive attempt to, you know, assert our power. I just felt like we no longer had anything to gain for Montanans or for our constituents by being here any longer. We’ve already been here longer than any session I’ve served in, and it was just time to go home. And obviously, a lot of Republicans felt the same way and voted with us on it.”

Up the hallway, the House still had a full agenda in front of it, including a final vote on House Bill 2 — the Legislature’s main budget vehicle and a prerequisite for session closure. Representatives were expecting to participate in more committees in the afternoon. The adjournment motion caught them off guard, as it did just about everyone else. 

The primary issue is that the House and Senate have to ultimately vote on the same version of a bill. If the House amended a Senate bill on the floor after the Senate adjourned for the session, the bill would essentially be dead. Moreover, lawmakers had spent much of the past several days in conference committees, where delegations from each chamber reconcile different versions of a bill. The Senate adjourned before it voted to concur many of those conference committee amendments, including on House Bill 816, a must-pass “end-game” bill for the GOP that provides for property and income tax rebates as well as a broad array of other expenditures.  

And the governor’s office issued amendatory vetoes — which essentially state that Gianforte won’t sign a bill unless the Legislature makes his requested changes — on a number of proposals after the Senate adjourned. The fates of Senate Bill 4House Bill 29, and House Bill 37 aren’t clear. 

The House managed to catch up. It reconsidered and reversed previous votes to bring differing versions of bills, including HB 816, into alignment. It then brought the roughly $13.4 billion HB 2 up for a vote. By around 9:15 p.m., after a slate of final votes, the House, too, adjourned sine die.

“The question was always going to be do we feel like we can complete our work today or do we need tomorrow in order to finish up our work … and I’m pretty sure the Senate just answered our question for us,” Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, told Capitolized. 

Republican leaders celebrated a session marked by their party’s historic two-thirds supermajority, which — when they kept the ranks together — allowed them to pass a slate of conservative policies from tax cuts to a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth. 

In the Senate, Ellsworth and Fitzpatrick made clear their frustration with fellow Republicans’ support of the sine die motion — “I’m very disappointed that Montanans sent us here for a period of time and we couldn’t find or muster a couple more days to give to the citizens that elected us,” Ellsworth said — but lauded their caucus’ accomplishments. 

“This session was one for the record books,” Ellsworth said in a written statement. “We considered the most bills of any Legislature in 50 years, delivered the largest package of tax relief in Montana history, and passed perhaps the most significant improvements in property rights and housing policy that the state has ever seen. I want to thank all senators of both parties for their hard work this session and wish them well as they return home to their local communities.” 

Democrats took the opportunity to reflect on a difficult session for their party, though they also counted some wins, including a session-long push to increase payments for Medicaid providers. 

“I think all things considered, we were able to exert influence on some of the key issues,” Flowers said after the vote. “We did not get everything we wanted or anything close to it. But I think we were able to steer on some issues and kill some bad bills. But that is the nature of having 16 out of 50 in the Senate.”

As the session inched closer to its end, the mood in the Capitol became increasingly congenial. Retiring and termed-out lawmakers reminisced, exchanged hugs, and brought Dixie cups containing heady brown liquid onto the floor. House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, received a bipartisan standing ovation after his end-of-session speech. 

That was a far cry from only a few days earlier, when the House in particular was consumed by the standoff between Regier and one Democrat who wasn’t on the floor Tuesday: Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula

Just last week, the House voted to bar Zephyr from the floor, anteroom and gallery following Zephyr’s pointed criticism of legislation restricting health care for trans youth and a subsequent protest that challenged the speaker’s ongoing decision not to recognize Zephyr during floor debate. Zephyr has since taken votes from an ad-hoc office on a bench in the hallway. The House gallery has been closed since the protest, and heightened visible security has become the norm in recent days. 

Democrats made only glancing references to any of that in their farewell speeches. 

“We had serious disagreements and we had to work through I would say unprecedented hard times and we were able to keep the House working for the people in Montana during that,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said, adding that she wished the galleries were full of people to witness the session’s final moments.

For her part, Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, said her caucus withstood “unprecedented and baseless attacks.” 

Regier, despite his role as a central character in the Zephyr saga, sounded conciliatory on Tuesday night, handing out kudos to retiring lawmakers and making ample use of metaphors. 

“There were many times of sunlight and there were also some of shade, but overall, it’s been an incredible ride over the last four months here for us all,” he said.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

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For the Record

On Monday, Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, hosted a press conference in front of the Capitol, flanked by other Republican lawmakers, to denounce Internet rumors and speculation about her family following remarks Seekins-Crowe made on the House floor earlier this session about her daughter’s battle with depression.

The flashpoint started over Senate Bill 99, a ban on gender-affirming medical care that opponents and LGBTQ+ advocates say will put transgender minors at increased risk of suicide by blocking access to medical treatments for gender dysphoria. During a March House floor debate, Seekins-Crowe said she supported the bill and — in light of the references to teen suicide — referenced choices she made when her own daughter was struggling.

“Someone once asked me, wouldn’t I just do anything to help save her? And I really had to think. And the answer was no. I was not going to give in to her emotional manipulation because she was incapable of making those decisions, and I had to make those decisions for her. I was not going to let her tear apart my family, and I was not going to let her tear apart me. Because I had to be strong for her. I had to have vision for her life when she had none,” Seekins-Crowe said. She did not identify her daughter as a member of the LGBTQ+ community or say anything about her seeking gender-affirming care.

Weeks later, a clip of the representative’s speech resurfaced on social media and, Seekins-Crowe said, was quickly misinterpreted by media outlets and online commentators. Her daughter, she clarified Monday, is not transgender and was “never considering any kind of transitioning.” What Seekins-Crowe said she meant to communicate was that she did not condone behaviors that were “destructive,” such as self-harm or refusing medical treatment.

In a now-deleted video posted to TikTok, Seekins-Crowe’s daughter, Ashley, addressed the inaccurate narrative alongside her partner. The story her mother recounted, she said, was more than a decade old. She said she’s alive and well and recently returned from a deployment with the U.S. military. Without addressing SB 99 or the broader topic of medical care for trans minors, the couple said they appreciated the concern expressed for Ashley and asked the public to respect their privacy.

Seekins-Crowe said she and her family members had received threats and harassment in recent days and that she is not comfortable staying at her home. She used the press conference to blast media outlets that took her comments out of context or amplified sources spreading misinformation. 

“This experience should be a lesson and a warning, a lesson to those living in the false reality of Twitter and online media and those in the mainstream media who amplify unverified sources: Do better,” she said. “Your callous indifference toward my family may be meaningless to you, but it has taken a toll on those I loved the most.”

None of the media outlets in attendance at the press conference — Lee newspapers, MTN News, the Daily Montanan and Montana Free Press — published articles or broadcast segments about Seekins-Crowe’s March comments.

— Mara Silvers

Day in Court

A Helena district court judge on Tuesday denied Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s motion to temporarily block enforcement of House Republicans’ discipline against her — a punishment last week that banished her from the House chamber and barred her from debating legislation on the floor. The Missoula Democrat can still vote remotely and has been doing so from a makeshift workspace roughly 20 feet down the hall from the chamber.

The ACLU of Montana and two private law firms filed suit Friday on behalf of Zephyr and four of her constituents, claiming the actions of House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, and House Sergeant at Arms Brad Murfitt violate their constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law. 

The sanction came after Zephyr made comments on the House floor against Senate Bill 99, a ban on gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors. She said that lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill would see blood on their hands, a reference to the increased risks of suicide for young people without access to medical treatments for gender dysphoria. 

Regier subsequently refused to recognize Zephyr on the House floor for multiple days, saying he was acting to uphold decorum in the chamber. Last Monday, Zephyr’s constituents and supporters protested from the House gallery when she was again ignored, leading to police, including some with face shields and batons, clearing the gallery and arresting seven protesters. Throughout the action, Zephyr remained standing by her seat, holding her microphone in the air, a display House Republicans later said encouraged protesters. The House voted to bar Zephyr from the House floor two days later in a party-line vote, 68-32.

Zephyr’s lawsuit asked that the discipline against her be unenforced for the remainder of the session and that she be allowed to speak on the House floor, an immediate remedy for what the lawsuit alleged was an irreparable harm. 

District Court Judge Mike Menahan, a former Democratic lawmaker, panned the requested solutions in his Friday ruling, saying the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their case and that the suggested intervention would be a breach of the separations of powers.

“Plaintiffs’ requested relief would require this Court to interfere with legislative authority in a manner that exceeds this Court’s authority. Plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief which far outpaces the facts at issue here,” Menahan wrote. 

“Even if the Court ultimately finds the House of Representatives, Speaker Regier, and Sergeant at Arms Murfitt acted unlawfully under the facts of this case, it does not have the authority to issue a broad permanent injunction to effectively remove all legislative authority under Article V Section 10 [of the Montana Constitution] in relation to a single member,” the judge continued.

Regier celebrated the ruling in a statement issued through a spokesperson late Tuesday. 

“The Montana courts have recognized that the Judicial Branch has no power to revise or overrule the power expressly held by the Montana State Legislature to conduct its business. The House is continuing its work for the people of Montana,” Regier said.

Zephyr slammed the ruling in a statement posted to Twitter Friday night, promising to continue fighting to represent her constituents.

“The court’s decision not to reinstate me undermines the democratic principles our country was founded on,” she wrote. “I vow to continue standing for my constituents & community to fight for our democratic institutions. If we can’t get justice in the courts, we will get it in the ballot box.”

 — Mara Silvers

Eye in the Capitol

Sens. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, and Jason Small, R-Busby, stand behind a stack of bills Small has accumulated on his desk this session on May 2, 2023. Credit JoVonne Wagner/MTFP

Heard in the Halls

“Thanks everyone, I hope to never see you again. Just kidding!”

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, delivering her end-of-session remarks on the House floor following the chamber’s adjournment.

On Background

Recreational marijuana tax bill headed to Gov. Gianforte’s desk: For more on SB 442 and the 2023 Legislature’s weed tax debate, see this story from MTFP’s Amanda Eggert. (MTFP)

House Republicans bar Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr for breaching decorum: Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s decorum fight defined the last two weeks of the session. For how it got started, read this. (MTFP)