Well, we’ve made it. After five long months, a slew of national news headlines, and nearly 800 bills passed, the 68th Montana Legislative Session is finally, blessedly over. So what comes next?
First, we rest. Then, we continue– with municipal elections this fall, communities to build back up, and rulemaking processes that will determine how these 788 new laws are implemented, there’s a long road ahead of us. We hope you’ll join us.
For this week’s wrap-up edition of What the Helena, we decided to focus less on the nuts and bolts of policy change (although that’s in here, too) and more on our advocacy team’s experience watching the legislative session unfold. In a system that can feel so dehumanizing, it feels more important than ever to bring everything back to what ought to matter most: the people of Montana. So, here it is: sine die!
Queer & Trans Rights
I came into this session knowing very little about how the legislature works, and with, admittedly, very little faith in the legislature’s ability to enact much positive change for people in Montana. I think I only vaguely knew that these people were actively making the laws, and I had this idea that bills proposed were written by experts. I was baffled by the hilarious amount of ineptitude present in that building, as well as the amount of bills that seemed very clearly motivated by personal beefs and beliefs. It was kind of shocking to continuously witness lawmakers demonstrate their willful ignorance, disregard for truth, and lack of interest in actually reading the bills that they sponsor.
I came into this session fearing that it would make me jaded and bitter about organizing, that I would end the session feeling spent and confused. There were certainly months where the transphobic rhetoric and unwillingness to recognize the humanity of trans people brought me to unprecedented levels of depression and despair, and I have become even more firm in my belief that the state will not, and cannot, liberate us. The system isn’t broken – it is a vice, a mechanism of control that is tightened by fear. All six of the anti-trans & queer bills that we tracked diligently throughout this session have passed through both chambers, and SB 99, the bill banning gender-affirming care for minors, has been signed into law. Lawmakers have ignored the pleas of the queer community and the testimony of medical experts in order to define intersex and transgender people out of law (SB 458), allow medical providers to discriminate on the basis of “ethics” (HB 303), allow students to bully their trans peers (HB 361), and characterize drag as inherently sexual and inappropriate for minors (HB 359). We’re gonna take HB 234 as a win, because even though it did pass, the amended version has been defanged and can no longer be construed to automatically ban queer content from schools. But still, the vice tightens on the queer and trans community.
To me, the passage of these bills demonstrates the fear that these legislators hold, not just of trans people, but what we represent. What power do we hold that is so threatening to them? The vice tightens but we are liquid, we shapeshift, we are expert escapologists – no matter how hard they try, they cannot crush us out of existence. We are creating worlds where colonial constructs, capitalist greed, white supremacy, and an angry god do not dictate law; we are creating worlds where the bases of their power are null – and that scares the SHIT out of the Regiers of this world.
It makes sense – I’m scared too. Sometimes the vice feels like a cradle, but it is still a vice, and my brown, trans body lusts for a new world. These last two weeks have made it clear that now is the time to transform. Witnessing the trust, love, and sheer numbers of the queer and trans community has lifted me to a place I did not know existed. I have been revitalized by the sheer power of community, by the magic that trans and queer people hold, and I am ready to do what must be done. The portal has opened, this world is just starting her transition and we are ready to support her the whole way.
Chloe Runs Behind (they/them), Issue Advocacy Organizer
I have often said during this session that I came into it with a 5th grade level understanding of how the legislative process works; vaguely knew some of how bills become laws, knew that we elected folks to do something in relation to the bills, but that’s about it. When I learned Montana has a citizen legislature, I found some of my general political cynicism fading a bit; after all, if most of them are everyday Montanans, surely they’ll be better at listening to the rest of us, even with the ominous label of “supermajority” hanging over things, right?
Wrong, so very wrong. I will say, there were some amazing heroes along the way, trying their best to get legislation through that actually addressed the real concerns Montanans face: inflation in everything except wages, climate crises, housing insecurity, access to healthcare, supporting basic human rights, and more.
However, the vast majority of legislators showed time and again that they were not listening, instead focusing on their own agendas and ignoring their constituents. So many folks showed up in opposition to the bills that attack climate justice and our rights to clean air and water, including HB 170, HB 971, SB 208, and SB 228. From repealing Montana’s energy policy and attacking a court decision that tries to make projects consider climate impacts, to banning the ability of local control over both limiting energy choices and the location of oil and petroleum plants, and more.
This was so disheartening, to watch over and over again as they continually ignored both protocol and everyday Montanans in favor of big businesses or hateful out-of-state agendas. But y’all, we SHOWED UP ANYWAY – Working together with our neighbors towards the things that matter, as corny as that sounds, is what will make the difference towards creating change for our collective good. In doing this work with everyday Montanans, y’all have taught me so much about community and how at the end of the day we need to take care of each other in the face of all this BS. We can do this together.
-Kat Elam, Billings Issue Advocacy Organizer
It’s challenging to stay positive about the state of democracy in Montana after this year’s session, but for old time’s sake we should remember everything that happened over the last few months. At least in terms of legislation, things didn’t go that bad this session for democracy? The Governor signed SB 77, a really important bill that ends prison gerrymandering in Montana by counting inmates where their last address was rather than inflating the population of the towns they’re incarcerated. However, the heavily gerrymandered, Republican-tilted Public Service Commission map was also enacted when SB 109 was passed. SB 93is also a crummy limitation on the right of citizens to directly participate in democracy by passing ballot initiatives, as it requires a $3,700 fee to get one on the ballot and allows the Secretary of State or Attorney General to reject the initiative before it even makes its way before voters.
But, compare this to all of the anti-democracy bills that didn’t get passed! Bills that would restrict Montanans’ freedom to vote for whomever they want in primaries (SB 484, SB 565, and SB 566), make our judiciary partisan or outright eliminate court elections (HB 464, HB 595, HB 915, SB 302, SB 311, SB 372), eliminate other nonpartisan elections (SB 200, SB 317), or otherwise overcomplicate election procedures (SB 433, SB 435, SB 441).
While celebrating all of these huge pro-democracy victories is certainly in order, the flagrant violations of constitutional principles in the name of decorum is a disheartening attack on democracy. Montanans have the inalienable right to defend our lives and liberties, and our government is derived from the power of the people. Yet, the Republican supermajority has continually shown that they do not care that our state was so conceived and so dedicated. Expelling a duly elected member for utilizing an apparently insulting rhetorical device and depriving 11,000 Montanans from having a voice in Helena is blatantly discriminatory and should be offensive to anyone who cares about democracy. But it doesn’t stop there – Republicans have scheduled bills to prevent public participation in the legislative process (see the rushing of HB 971 through the Legislature with two weeks left in the session for proof of this), closed off the People’s House to the public, and clamped down on press freedom.
In light of this, I’m left conflicted about how to feel going forward. On the one hand, I think putting my hopes in the two-party system to pull our state out of this tailspin is wishful thinking. Yet, we still have a great task remaining before us – to shape Montana into a place we want it to be. We showed up throughout the legislative session and made our voices heard, but I choose to remain cautiously optimistic that all this work and effort was not in vain. We did get some wins, after all! I truly believe that we all have the capability to contribute towards a brighter future for this state, and I hope you feel the same.
Zach Mangels (he/him), Legislative Fellow
Working on housing this session was a massive lesson in sitting with contradiction. Landlords passed bills to further tip the scales in their own favor (like HB 282 and HB 283), legislation to help bolster tenants’ rights (HB 785) and invest in affordable housing (HB 574) floundered, and Montana took huge strides forward in putting an end to racist, classist zoning policies that have bogged down our cities for decades (SB 323, SB 245, SB 382). All of this is true.
As an effect of my excitement about zoning reforms that could have huge impacts on Montanans’ ability to live and thrive in this state, I often found myself testifying and lobbying in support of bills sponsored by Republican legislators who do not think that I, a trans person, should have the right to exist.
One of the most exciting zoning bills of the session, SB 323, requires municipalities of more than 5,000 people to allow duplexes anywhere a single-family home can be built (extending to fourplexes in cities larger than 50,000 people). An extremely similar bill died last session when sponsored by Democrat Danny Tenenbaum, but sailed through with bipartisan support this session under Republican Senator Jeremy Trebas’s wing. Over the last several months (and increasingly toward the end of the session), Trebas has spent his free time bullying, misgendering, and harassing my friends and my legislator on the internet.
It can be hard to focus on something like wonky zoning policy when the state is actively trying to eliminate people like you from society, but the session always asks us to do hard things. I feel excited about the zoning reform policies we were able to help usher through the legislature, and proud of the rooms I was able to get into. Montana has become a national leader on statewide zoning reform, and I’m hopeful that these new policies will help our cities meet the moment and take steps to resolve our state’s ongoing housing crisis.
However, I also understand now more than ever that our current political system does not allow for us to approach this work in our full humanity. It asks us to choose between our personal truths and our political goals. It forces us to leave ourselves at the door, to equivocate, to cater to the norms and structures of white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism. But I also understand more than ever that as young people, as queer people, as trans people, my community has a unique ability to see the world for what it could be– to recognize that the future doesn’t have to look like the present. And this community has only gotten stronger, more powerful, and more connected over the last five months. I have a lot of hope for the future of Montana; I hope you’ll stick around for the ride.
–Izzy Milch (they/them), Senior Advocacy Manager