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This week saw the close of Montana’s 68th Legislature, the lawmaking maelstrom that consumed the Capitol for the first four months of the year.
Over the course of the session, which opened Jan. 2 and ended with the Montana House’s sine die motion Wednesday evening, lawmakers considered a total of 1,698 bills and resolutions. With Gov. Greg Gianforte still reviewing many of the bills the Legislature has sent to his desk, more than 900 of those are likely headed toward passage.
Even for those of us who spent most of the session inside the Capitol building, it’s hard to really wrap our heads around just how much work went into drafting, debating and negotiating this year’s crop of new laws. The database we’ve been filling to power our Capitol Tracker guide tallies more than 440,000 individual votes cast on bills by the state’s 100 representatives and 50 senators. The session also saw 3,270 public hearings and 2,604 distinct second reading debates on the House and Senate floors.
That sheer volume of democratic process is, I suspect, even more bewildering for those of you who’ve been trying to follow the Legislature from elsewhere in the state. And as we all grapple with our human desire to make sense of bewildering things, it’s tempting to grab at a handful of those 1,700 bills to decide they’re the ones that truly define what the session means for Montana’s future.
Doing that, you can quite easily pick a narrative that matches your politics. Looking at the session as an LGBTQ activist? Supermajority Republicans flexed their power to enact a wave of hardline legislation regulating transgender Montanans. Looking at the session as a money-minded entrepreneur? Pro-business Republicans cut your taxes and, depending on your industry, may have slashed some red tape. Looking at it as one of the Vaughn fourth-graders who lobbied to have huckleberries named the state fruit? You got a bipartisan victory.
All those takes on the session (and many others) are true, in a sense that’s not unlike the old parable about blind men and an elephant. Approaching the legacy of the 2023 Legislature from different directions, bringing your specific personal values and interests to bear on it, won’t necessarily lead you to the same takeaway as your neighbor.
Here at MTFP, our six reporters, two editors and a few pinch-hitting freelancers have spent the session trying to capture as many angles on the Legislature as we can. As I tally things, we’ve published more than 200 web stories about the session, on top of our twice-weekly Capitolized newsletter, our weekly Session podcast co-produced with public radio, and the weekly Lowdown recap you’re reading now. And then there’s the Capitol Tracker, which has helped as many as 76,000 people find information about bills and lawmakers. As part of the tracker project, we’ve listed the bills we think were the session’s key measures (you can see those here, and also look up how your district’s lawmakers voted on them). That list ended up including 78 bills.
Our goal with all that coverage isn’t to present a single, monolithic view of this year’s session, nor to advocate a “correct” way to remember it for history. Instead, it’s to give you and all our readers the information and context you need to develop reasonably well-informed opinions about the work of one of Montana’s essential institutions. And perhaps, too, to give you a sense for how much of the Capitol’s voluminous proceedings we’ve had to leave unreported — perspective that might temper opinions with a dash of humility.
Regardless, it’s been an honor to know you’re reading or listening or browsing our various efforts to cover as much of the public’s business as we can this session. We hope we’ve been helpful — and hope you stay tuned as we shift our attention to the news that’s coming next.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
“Closer Together,” a group show of fashion textiles, finished shoes, block prints, clay designs and other artwork created by students from Lame Deer High School, will be on display at Refuge Gallery in Basin, starting May 7, through June 24. A music video created by Lame Deer students and Silkroad Ensemble musician Kojiro Umezaki, also titled “Closer Together,” will make its world premiere at the opening. For more information, visit montanaartistrefuge.com.
Glad You Asked 🙋🏻
In the lead-up to Tuesday’s local school board elections around the state, a reader reached out for some endorsement-related information. It turns out that a state employee in the education sphere had penned an op-ed supporting a school board candidate, and our reader wondered if such an endorsement was legal.
The short answer? Yes. There’s a large chunk of Montana law dedicated to the conduct and ethical behavior of public employees, which the Commissioner of Political Practices’ office has specially carved out in a publicly available information packet. Those laws address a range of expectations for upholding the public trust, including not using state funds or resources such as work hours, equipment or office stationery to economically benefit a business that a state employee has a financial stake in. The same goes for soliciting support for a political party, a candidate or a ballot initiative. As the State Human Resources Division notes in its fact sheet on political activity for public employees, “While individuals have the right to participate in the electoral process, it is important for public officers and employees to keep their political activities separate from their official duties.”
Any questions or complaints related to suspected violations of that rule ultimately fall to the COPP office to investigate. So, just to be doubly sure, MTFP checked with Commissioner Chris Gallus. Sure enough, he confirmed that provided the activity occurs on their personal time and their own dime, “nothing prohibits the First Amendment free speech rights” of public employees.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Megawatts of “behind-the-meter” solar — e.g., residential rooftop solar — expected to be generated in Montana by 2030. If projections hold, there will be a fourfold increase in installed small solar capacity in Montana in seven years. That trend tracks, roughly, with increases expected in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Those statistics come out of a 2021 study by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council referenced in NorthWestern Energy’s 2023 Montana Integrated Resource Plan, which serves as a look ahead for the utility as it weighs demand projections against its existing energy portfolio and considers opportunities to bring additional energy generation resources online. NPCC is calling for a “strong expansion of behind-the-meter solar,” NorthWestern’s plan says, noting that Oregon and Washington account for the vast majority of that market.
“Along with changes in the region’s supply, load demands are also changing,” according to NorthWestern’s report. “Population growth, building electrification, electric vehicles, demand side management, data centers and behind-the-meter resources are all expected to affect load growth and consumption patterns in the future.”
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
“With regard to the pro-life issue, as this governor is fond of saying, we are now directionally correct. But that’s just a start. We will not rest until the Armstrong decision is overturned, until every life is protected from the moment of conception, and until the scourge of abortion is lifted forever from the great state of Montana.”
—Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, speaking at a May 3 bill signing ceremony with Gov. Greg Gianforte and Republican lawmakers. Gianforte on Wednesday signed five of 10 abortion-regulation bills passed by lawmakers, including one that requires an ultrasound before an abortion and bans the procedure after 24 weeks. That law, which took immediate effect, was temporarily enjoined on Thursday by a district court judge in a case filed by Planned Parenthood of Montana. The judge found that the ultrasound requirement, along with other aspects of the law, “impermissibly infringes on Montanans’ constitutional right to a pre-viability abortion.”
Hot Potato 🥔
During the final days of the 2023 session, one bill continually loomed on the periphery of the action, a question waiting for an answer but never seeming to get one.
House Bill 566, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, initially sought to ease unrest among educators about new parental notification mandates for sex education passed in 2021. Anderson’s bill would have brought more clarity to notification time frames for teachers and parents, and passed out of its first committee with unanimous support. But a series of amendments gradually expanded the bill’s scope, adding proposed remedies for notification violations and broadening the definition of sex ed to include issues such as gender identity and reproductive rights. HB 566 began to accumulate Democratic and Republican opponents alike, culminating in a 100-0 vote in the House to reject another suite of changes picked up in the Senate.
That landed the bill, on April 26, in a free conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers thought they’d reached a compromise. But in an abrupt twist, Anderson told colleagues he’d be opposing a final amendmentcrafted the night before — an amendment he’d agreed to carry himself. He’d received an email from Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton noting that while public education advocates had been squarely behind his initial “common sense” resolution, the latest changes would “create even more conflict between parents and teachers.” Anderson said he’d spent the night calling various school officials around the state for feedback, and their reactions were similarly trepidatious. The committee deadlocked on a vote, thrusting HB 566 into procedural limbo.
Still, the proposal continued to pop up on floor agendas, first in the Senate on May 1 and then in the House on May 2, suggesting to the public and the press that it still had legs. It turns out both appearances were inadvertent, the result of issues with the Legislature’s bill tracking system. HB 566 had missed a 24-hour deadline for the House to reconsider its rejection, and the bill’s only path forward was a blast-style motion on the House floor. As the last few hours of the session ticked by, no such motion came. And when the House moved to adjourn late Tuesday night, HB 566 experienced the same fate as so many other bills this spring: a quiet death.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — And now for something totally different: a video of Montana-based slide guitarist Dan Dubuque playing “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana in a pretty wooded environment. “It looks like he’s plugged the guitar straight into the mountain,” according to one of my favorite comments on the performance.
Alex — Nothing helps hit the reset button after a flurry of work activity quite like a non-work-related podcast. And while the episode was a 15-year-old rerun, This American Life delivered in spades this week with “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar,”the tale of a kidnapping, a century-old legend, and a quest that reunited one family while driving another apart.
Mara — MTPR statehouse reporter Shaylee Ragar pitched in on a great segment on NPR this week about Montana’s bill to define “sex” as binary and reproduction-based. Tennessee and Kansas have both advanced similar legislation, setting the stage for likely lawsuits in state and federal court if they are signed into law.
JoVonne — The Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill that would allow Native students to wear traditional regalia for school ceremonies like graduation. But Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, vetoed the bill earlier this week. Native News Online reported on the veto and Stit’s reasoning.
Eric — With the Legislature wrapped for the year, I suppose it’s time to switch attention to one of Montana’s other traditional targets for public outrage: tourists who venture too close to Yellowstone bison. NBC Montana has what might be the first park-visitors-gone-wild video of the season.
Arren — Billionaire industrialist Dennis Washington, reportedly Montana’s richest person, got unknowingly caught up in a “jaw-dropping” campaign finance scandal involving his longtime friend Herschel Walker, the former football player and Georgia Senate candidate, per the Daily Beast.
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