Notes from the Field / What the Helena 2021

What the Helena – Week 5

February 9, 2021
*February 7, 2021*

Let’s get our priorities straight

We’re in the thick of a pandemic and an economic crisis, yet our Republican-controlled legislature seems more concerned with attacking individuals’ rights (voting rights, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ+ rights, to name a few) than focusing on bills that would help Montanans through these tough times. We’re as angry as Anna on this season of The Bachelor.

But we’re not without hope — the high schoolers, legislators, and fellow organizers and advocates who have come together to fight the good fight are inspiring us every damn day.

Three blatantly bad bills (and a bonus!)

This week in voting rights: three pieces of legislation searching for a nonexistent problem to solve.

HB176, the bill to end same-day voter registration, was resurrected in committee and sent to the House floor after two legislators — Rep. Kathy Whitman of Missoula and Rep. Gregory Frazer of Deer Lodge — flipped their votes at the last minute under pressure from Governor Gianforte’s office. Apparently his vote matters more than their constituents’. HB176 went on to pass on the House floor. Stay tuned — we’ll let you know which Senate committee it’s headed to next and how you can make your voice heard.

SB169 by Sen. Mike Cuffe of Eureka would change voter ID laws, adding a photo ID requirement and extra documentation of a voter’s address. If you’re a renter like us, you know that your name may not be on the utility bill, meaning more hoops to jump through to cast a ballot. Take it from our friends at the ACLU: there are plenty of reasons why voter ID laws are no good. Frankly, this bill stinks of voter suppression. Let the Senate State Admin committee know how you feel about SB169.

HB240 is a sneaky and confusing tax bill that almost flew under the radar this week. It would prohibit parents or guardians from claiming their kid as a dependent if the child is registered to vote at a different address. The bill sponsor, Rep. Brad Tschida of Missoula, believes it will provide property tax relief in college towns. He also seems to believe property owners’ votes matter more than those of young people. We’re NOT having it. Give the House State Admin committee a shoutand ask them to vote NO on HB240.

We know these bills are BAD with a capital “B”, but here’s one to smile about! S/O to Rep. Kelly Kortum of Bozeman for bringing forward HB287 to save us from paying postage on our absentee ballots and wondering, DO I NEED A STAMP ON THIS? Three cheers for HB287!

The fight for Indigenous People’s Day continues

Indigenous Peoples’ Day takes place on the second Monday of October in Bozeman and Missoula. The state currently recognizes the day as Columbus Day, but Indigenous activists want to change that. In the 2019 legislative session, Rep. Shane Morigeau of Missoula sponsored a bill to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Montana — but it ultimately didn’t pass.

The movement for Indigenous Peoples’ Day is about acknowledging the racist, colonialist implications of Columbus Day, especially when over 7% of Montana’s population is Native American. In Rep. Morigeau’s words, it’s about recognizing “what [Columbus] means to Indigenous people and what he did to Indigenous people. It’s not who we are in Montana.”

That’s where SB94 comes in. Sponsored by Sen. Susan Webber of Browning, SB94 once again works to formally establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day and will have a public hearing on Wednesday. Tell the Senate State Administration Committee to vote “YES” as one step toward honoring the true owners of the unceded land that makes up Montana.

NorthWestern Energy, we’re watching you

Grab a cup of coffee folks, ‘cuz it’s time to talk about NorthWestern Energy. NWE is a utility company that serves South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana (what happened to North Dakota?! We’re wondering that too) and has a BIG TIME monopoly on the utility market in our state. As the sole electricity provider across Montana, NWE has the power (and **corporate backing**) to invest in expensive dirty energy sources, which will likely hike up the price of YOUR utility bills. That sneaky scoundrel.

Last week, two bills were introduced that both address how NWE acquires energy resources — and they couldn’t be more different.

Remember HB99? This bill would no longer allow NWE to seek permission from the Public Service Commission to pass off the cost of buying fossil fuels onto consumers, closing the pre-approval loophole while protecting customers and the climate. Win-win! Before the hearing, roughly 200 Montanans got in touch with the committee to issue their support. Go, you!

Meanwhile, Rep. Larry Brewster of Billings brought forward HB245, the dreadful polar opposite of HB99. HB245 is an anti-consumer bill that would increase NWE’s ability to overcharge customers and make it more difficult for the Public Service Commission, which regulates NWE, to do its job. If your legislator is on the House Energy, Technology, and Federal Relations Committee – tell them to vote NO on HB245.

Red flags on the housing front

Y’all ever heard of inclusionary zoning (IZ)? IZ ordinances are adopted by cities and towns, requiring that new residential developments include a percentage of homes that are affordable to people with low to moderate incomes. Some local governments have enacted IZ efforts around the state that aim to address Montana’s housing crisis. Seems reasonable, right? Well, Rep. Sue Vinton of Billings disagrees. This week she introduced HB259, a bill that seeks to prohibit inclusionary zoning in Montana cities and towns, and we’re seeing huge red flags.

Rep. Vinton actually stated “I haven’t conducted the research, but inclusionary zoning hasn’t been particularly successful in our state.” We haven’t conducted research either, but we’re pretty sure that’s something you should do before attempting to reverse years of affordable housing efforts across the state! SMH (shake my head, save my housing).

Done with the death penalty

Other things our legislators are talking about instead of the economic crisis: reviving the death penalty. Current Montana law requires an “ultra fast-acting” drug to be used in executions. But in 2015, a judge ruled that the state’s execution drug wasn’t “ultra fast-acting,” effectively pressing pause on the death penalty in Montana.

HB244, carried by Rep. Dennis Lenz of Billings would allow the state of Montana to resume executions, and it would make those executions even more barbaric. 

Let’s get some things straight: first of all, the state should not be killing anyone. Capital punishment, like all of the prison industrial system, is deeply discriminatory, disproportionately affecting people of colorpoor people, and queer people. It is a horrifying, inhumane overreach of governmental power. On top of all that, public opposition to the death penalty is at an all-time high, especially among young folks. Read the room, Rep. Lenz.

On the bright side, Rep. Ed Stafman of Bozeman is sponsoring a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana once and for all. This bill hasn’t been introduced yet, but stay tuned!

Democracy defenders!

Humor us for a moment. Imagine a soccer game between two teams — “Anti-Democracy” and “Democracy”. Team Anti-Democracy has the ball and is charging towards the goal at the other end of the field (playing dirty, swinging arms n’ shit). Team Democracy is bracing for impact, but is stacked with strong, young, passionate teammates that will do everything they can to defend that goal (even if it means a first-time slide tackle).

Ok, maybe we’re getting carried away. But this is exactly how we feel about three of Forward Montana’s 2020 High School Fellow Graduates (AKA: Democracy Defenders) who gave their first ever(!!!) testimony against SB99 this past week. SB99, introduced by Rep. Cary Smith of Poplar, is an anti-reproductive healthcare bill that seeks to make sexual education for K-12 schools opt-in only and bans abortion providers from providing any type of sex ed in schools.

Speaking with grace, confidence, and experience, their voices rang through the virtual halls and gave us all goosebumps. Thank you Ella, Ellie, and Brynn for paving the way for future generations. We are in such awe of our young people! (But really, some of us were not this cool in high school.)

Villain & Hero of the Week

And now for the section we’ve all been waiting for… Rep. Brad Tschida of Missoula took the flaming cake as our villain this week. Along with carrying that heinous voter suppression bill cleverly disguised as a tax bill (HB240, see above), he made one of our least favorite statements of the session so far when he proclaimed, “None of the issues raised by the opposition are valid.” 

The issues Tschida found to be invalid included the administrative nightmare these changes would create for voters and election officials AND more importantly, the impossible decision students would have to make between the ability to vote in the community in which they reside and potential financial loss for their family. To be clear, this bill would disenfranchise voters young across the state and we think those concerns are valid and should be taken seriously.

Amidst a long debate over HB176 last Thursday, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf of Browning, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, gave a powerful comment about his experience as a first-time voter.

Following years of feeling too intimidated by the process and county election officials, Rep. Running Wolf registered to vote for the first time on Election Day in 2006 — the year after Montana enacted same-day voter registration. Without this service, he said, “I probably wouldn’t be [at the Capitol] today.”

We are so glad Rep. Running Wolf is at the Capitol creating thoughtful legislation that addresses the digital divide by creating a rural broadband loan program. Rep. Running Wolf, your voice is necessary and appreciated.

Interested in learning more about our team? This week’s podcast features an interview with our organizers. Give it a listen! (You can also find it on Spotify or Breaker!)

Finally, thank YOU for caring about the future of our state! We appreciate you, and we’ll see you next week. Get in touch with any & all questions!