As an organization that advocates for the safety and well-being of all Montanans, the last few months of the 2021 Legislative Session have been tough.
After a disappointing election where Republicans gained 10 state seats and control of the governor’s office for the first time in 16 years, we expected to see the Republican agenda advance. This was no surprise. What was not expected were the ways in which GOP leadership would use their power to exploit the legislative process and enact controversial policies to safeguard their unilateral control from years to come.
The tactics used to engineer this power grab were bold and manifold. Members of the minority party were silenced during floor debates. Committee chairs invalidated the experiences of constituents and bullied organizations who came to testify at hearings. There were attempts to conduct committee hearings without Democrats present and a move to exclude reporters from Republican caucus meetings, despite Montana’s strong open meeting laws.
Unfortunately, there seem to be few accountability measures in place in these instances. Legislators in the majority party can easily get away with even the most blatant abuses of decorum with little consequence, as we saw. The pace of the session is too quick for the media and other organizations to give each of these abhorrent occurrences the scrutiny that our democracy deserves.
When legislators are elected to office, it is their job, first and foremost, to listen to their constituents. However, during the 11th hour of the session, Republicans packed last minute line items into hard-fought budget bills and added sweeping amendments with no opportunity for public input. While this behavior is not uncommon at the end of any legislative session, the degree to which it occurred was unprecedented. No matter which side of the aisle you stand on, we should all be concerned with a rushed government that excludes the voices of the people who it governs.
Much of our own time and energy as an organization was spent fighting baseless attacks on Montanans’ rights and bodies, rather than working towards meaningful compromise and solutions to the issues facing our state. It is exhausting to show up time and time again, fighting harmful bills that should never have been introduced in the first place.
If you weren’t able to keep up, here are some key policy takeaways from the 67th Montana Legislative session:
- In a state with a commitment to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment” written into our Constitution, we’ve rolled back clean water protections and allowed Northwestern Energy, our state’s energy monopoly, to forgo investments in renewable energy projects.
- In a state where voters and politicians are vocal defenders of our constitutional rights, we’ve enacted bills from ALEC, a corporate-funded right-wing group selling prepackaged agendas to curtail First Amendment rights.
- Legislators who campaigned on the promise of keeping the government out of private decisions, put forward bills doing the exact opposite: putting the government between individuals and their doctors.
- In a state built on the backs of blue-collar workers, our legislators introduced bills to attack unions while offering tax breaks for the wealthy.
- In a state brimming with Montana pride, conservative organizations brought in paid out-of-state lobbyists to testify on controversial bills, while dismissing the experiences of Montana families.
- Republicans who campaigned on small government, demonstrated an obsession with consolidating power into the hands of a few (themselves) and dismantling local control across the state — launching an assault on local governments, health boards, and the Montana Board of Regents.
Perhaps most concerning this session was the attack on democracy itself. The Legislature and Gov. Gianforte passed multiple laws that will undoubtedly make it harder for Montanans to cast a ballot. To accomplish this, the Gianforte Administration spread dangerous lies and misinformation around “election integrity.” Make no mistake: this is a calculated effort to sow undue skepticism and distrust in Montana’s elections in order to justify voter suppression legislation that will keep people of color, young people, people with disabilities, and others away from the polls.
In addition, there were over a dozen GOP bills introduced to undermine the Judiciary, an independent branch of government. It’s clear that to Gov. Gianforte, the court system is the last barrier to unilateral Republican control. Our legislature knows that these power grabs are unconstitutional – which is why they’ve padded the Secretary of State’s office with money to defend their voter suppression bills in court. In the meantime, Legislative Republicans have launched a well-timed campaign to smear the reputation of the Montana Judiciary. These actions are a threat to the checks and balances of our democracy and should concern every last one of us, regardless of your political beliefs.
Spend a day listening to heartfelt testimony on any number of the bills heard this session and you will realize the thousands of lives affected by this legislation. These laws shape our lives. They perpetuate injustice. The process of sharing your story in front of people who do not listen, who intimidate you into silence, or gaslight you into believing your experience isn’t real, is traumatizing. Yet, this is the reality of the state legislature. It is an unsafe and violent environment for many, especially BIPOC and other historically marginalized communities, and yet Montanans keep showing up. Because our lives and the future of our state depend on it.
We must also acknowledge the shortcomings of our legislative process in itself. Montana is one of only a handful of states with a “citizen legislature,” meaning it is made up of ordinary folks who serve part-time in addition to their regular jobs. While a citizen legislature has the advantage of representing a broad range of folks, not everyone is in a position of privilege to take 90 days off work, resulting in a body that is not truly representative of all Montanans.
In addition, Montana is one of only four states with a biennial legislature, convening only every other year. This means that two years of budget and policy work is crammed into just four months of lawmaking. At several points throughout this session, the haste at which complex bills were being heard was not only impossible to engage with, but insulting to the people whose lives these laws will impact for years to come.
The current structure of the Montana legislature is not conducive to meaningful public participation and perpetuates systems of inequality. It is a reproductive organ of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. While we must work for change within this oppressive institution, we must simultaneously question its purpose, functionality, and impacts on all Montanans, and imagine alternative ways to create change in our communities. At Forward Montana, we are committed to doing both.
We are incredibly grateful for anyone who made an effort to testify this session. Union members showed up en masse and quashed right-to-work legislation which passed in other states. Medical professionals, young people, and LGBTQ+ Montanans and allies worked tirelessly to stop two bills that would have prohibited transgender youth from accessing lifesaving healthcare. Together, we protected access to Medicaid and SNAP for thousands of low-income Montana families. Your stories and voices make a difference.
We are thankful to everyone who contacted legislators, wrote into local newspapers, or started conversations with loved ones around the issues that matter to you and will continue to affect our lives for many years to come. We are also extremely grateful to many of our hard working legislators who continued to represent us day after day and fight for all Montanans. They are true public servants.
At Forward Montana, we have big dreams for our state, and we recognize that we have a long way to go. Our legislative process is steeped in white supremacy and harms ALL Montanans in one way or another. There are no simple solutions, but there are countless creative, compassionate, and dedicated young Montanans who believe in a better future. This gives us enormous hope.
Whether you’ve been civically engaged for years or just started paying attention, we hope this legislative session galvanized you into action. As citizens, we are not meant to be spectators in the political game we call democracy, but engaged participants. As a wise person once said, “The antidote, the only antidote, to the power of organized money is the power of organized people.” We’re going to need everyone’s help to renew our democracy in the wake of the 67th Legislative Session.
Please take a break to rest, rejuvenate, and regain your strength, and once you feel ready, we hope you’ll continue to join us to fight for a more equitable and inclusive Montana.
We’d love your feedback on how we can best work together.