*January 10, 2021*

Welcome to What the Helena! We’ll be hitting your inbox weekly with everything you need to know about Montana’s 67th Legislative Session and how it affects young Montanans. Was your New Year’s resolution to be a better activist? You’re in the right place. Thanks for joining us!

The legislative session kicked off this week amid a pandemic without any COVID-19 precautions in place. Yep, you read that right. We’re talking no social distancing, no mask mandate, and no clear plan in place for when legislators or staff are exposed to COVID-19. Which it turns out, they already have been.

With Republicans controlling the House, Senate, and our Governor’s office (for the first time in 16 years) and heated debate already in progress about how to hold a legislative session during a public health crisis, we know it’s going to be a long and arduous few months. Buckle up, friends.

Covid rules, more like NO-VID rules

This week, public health guidelines went out the window in favor of a panel of party leaders (mostly Republicans), who will “potentially” respond to COVID-19  issues. The panel met on Friday morning— 5 DAYS INTO THE SESSION — to begin hashing through the details. #betterlatethannever 

The current lack of COVID-19 protocols at the legislature has placed Montana businesses, jobs, and lives at grave and unnecessary risk. Needless to say, this is concerning AF.

On the bright side, the session is being held “hybrid,” meaning there is an option to participate virtually and for the first time ever Montanans can make their voices heard from the comfort of their own home! If you’re wondering what the Forward Montana Staff is up to for the next few months, we’ll be in our pajamas screaming from the virtual rooftops.

URGENTLY protecting the rights of queer and trans youth

Here at Forward Montana, we believe in a world where our bodies and identities aren’t up for debate. This seems like something we could all get behind, right? Wrong, apparently. House Republican John Fuller has already introduced two bills that could have deeply damaging effects on trans youth in Montana — and they’re getting introduced fast.

HB112 would bar trans, nonbinary, and two-spirit kids from playing on sports teams that align with their gender and HB113 would prohibit medical professionals from treating gender dysphoria in trans and gender-nonconforming minors. Both of these bills, if enacted, would have catastrophic effects on the well-being of queer and trans youth in our state. They are set for hearings this Wednesday, January 13th, at 8am.

Please call your representatives NOW and tell them you do NOT support either of these super slimy, harmful bills. If you don’t know who your representative is, you can find out here.

We also encourage you to submit public comment, either verbally during the hearing or in writing ahead of time. If you’d like help making public comment, contact Izzy at izzy@forwardmontana.org by 12pm on January 12th.

Concealed carry? Not on my campus

The session was barely underway last Wednesday when a terrifying bill, HB102, was heard in committee. This bill removes power from the Board of Regents, AKA the decision makers for the Montana University System, and allows concealed carry on our university campuses! (WTF?!) 

Supporters of this bill argue it will make campuses safer, while students, faculty, staff, and young people everywhere say more guns will increase the risk of suicide and gun violence.

This is not the first time the MT legislature has seen gun bills like this one introduced, but their fate could look very different this time around.

On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee will vote on HB102. It will likely move out of committee and go up for a vote on the house floor. Check out our action alert here – we’re counting on y’all to help spread the word that firearms do not belong on our campuses!

Action on MMIP

Are you still with us? Starting to feel stressed? Us too. But don’t worry, there are also some good bills.

SB4 extends the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, which was created last session to address the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP). Here in Montana, Native Americans are four times more likely to go missing than non-Native people. It’s an understatement to say this task force is urgent and needed. Check out our friends at the Indigenous Organizer’s Collective to learn more.

Villain of the Week

Welcome to our favorite segment, where we reveal legislators who are out for their own dang self interest, not yours. This week, it’s democracy exterminator, Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell.

As the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Regier attempted to silence the public by stating that the committee would not allow us to testify over Zoom. Yep, Regier tried to limit your ability to participate in the democratic process. #gross

“For 130 years, people have been coming to this building to testify on bills. They rode their horse, their old Model T, but they came here physically to the Capitol. And I’ve decided not to accept Zoom testimony from witnesses outside of the building here,” he proclaimed. Smh, dude.

Someone tell Regier that this isn’t the dark ages. Annnnd it’s a global pandemic. Anyways, all of the chairs of the Senate committees decided to allow virtual testimony during the coronavirus pandemic, so nice try Regier, but democracy wins this time around.

Hero of the Week

Because we all need a hero and this week we’ve got one of the very best, it’s House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena, who swooped to the rescue during Friday’s COVID-19 Panel meeting. Abbott continuously pushed back on Chair Jason Ellsworth’s weak COVID-19 guidelines which “strongly encourage” legislators to wear a mask or stay home while they’re waiting for a COVID-19 test. You know, if they feel like it. Not cute, Rep. Ellsworth. (He did not wear a mask, ICYMI).

Abbott responded with patient but firm insistence on requirements, not suggestions. She weathered condescending accusations of “politicizing” COVID-19 with grace. And she joined us on this week’s edition of our podcast to talk about how the session is shaping up for her. *drops mic* (Our podcast can be found on SpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or Breaker!)

No matter how hard things get during this session, we’re glad to have determined and level-headed legislators like Rep. Kim Abbott fighting for the health of all Montanans. Thanks Kim!

WHEW. Congrats, you made it. That’s it for this week! Still have questions or are curious how you can get involved? Reach out to Abby at abby@forwardmontana.orgWe’re happy to help! Otherwise, we’ll catch you next Sunday!