CALLS TO ACTION
Who doesn’t love some good ol’ fashioned censorship? Representative Bob Phalen is putting forward HB 234, which seeks to tell kids what they can and can’t read. This bill would prevent public schools, public libraries, and museums from displaying or disseminating any materials deemed ‘obscene’ (by anyone) to minors– a move that has predominantly been used to censor materials dealing with race and queerness. Send in a public comment using this form and say NO to government interference in the right to access information.
HB 163, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf’s bill to extend the state’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force through 2025 was passed out of committee on Friday and will now move to the House floor. Call or email your legislators and ask for their YES vote!
Just three weeks into the legislative session, we’ve seen three Republicans resign from their seats. When a sitting legislator resigns, the central committees for the party and county (or counties) they represent are tasked with selecting a pool of candidates for their replacement. Those candidates are then passed along to the county commissioners (or, when the legislator represents more than one county, a joint committee of commissioners from both counties), who make the final decision about their replacement. This is how approximately 40,000 Montanans will end up riding out the 2023 legislative session represented by someone they did not elect.
This session’s first resignation was tendered by Sen. Terry Gauthier from Helena, who resigned back in November shortly after the election so he could pursue a 20-country motorcycle tour. Sen. Gauthier has been replaced by now-Sen. Becky Beard, whose seat in the House of Representatives was then given to now-Rep. Zach Wirth.
Next up was Rep. Doug Flament of Lewistown, who stepped down last week in the interests of seeking medical treatment for a health condition. At the time we’re writing this, his replacement has not yet been announced, but because the legislature is in session, the clock is ticking. This replacement process must be completed within 15 days of Flament’s resignation, or by January 26. We wish Former Rep. Flament all the best as he takes this time to tend to his health, and eagerly await news of his replacement.
Finally, the resignation that’s generated the most buzz: now-Former Rep. Mallerie Stromswold of Billings, one of the state’s youngest legislators, announced her immediate resignation last Saturday. In her resignation and subsequent interviews, she cited the cost of paying rent in both Bozeman, where she attends Montana State University, and Helena; mental health challenges; and the significant backlash she received from the Republican caucus for her party-defying votes during the 2021 legislative session. She also called out the legislature’s foundations as an institution that is fundamentally inaccessible to many Montanans. From her resignation:
“The Montana Legislature was designed for people — often men — who have flexible schedules with steady and significant incomes. But our state is so much more than one type of person. Legislative systems need to adapt so that more young people, students, single parents, and those living on low incomes can serve. It is also critical that representatives focus more on policy solutions and less on party divisiveness.” –Mallerie Stromswold
We couldn’t agree more, and we appreciate Former Rep. Stromswold’s honesty about the struggles she faced in the legislature. We sat down with her this week to talk about the state of Montana politics and what our generation can do about it. Listen to our interview on the What the Helena podcast!
Remember SB 26, the bill that would have legalized fentanyl test strips? The one that could have saved countless lives from preventable overdoses in Montana? It was tabled in committee, thanks to a motion by Sen. Brad Molnar of Laurel, who prefaced this move with a stigmatizing speech about people who use drugs. Once a bill is tabled in committee, it’s likely to be as good as dead, but in the event of its revival, you can count on us to let you know.
HB 163, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf’s bill to extend the state’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force through 2025 was passed out of committee on Friday and will now move to the House floor! This bill, hand in hand with HB 18, would support Montana’s MMIP Task Force for the next two years. We already talked about the importance of bills like these, those that actually address real problems and answer a “call to action heard from constituents, departments, and the missing,” as Rep. Running Wolf said when he closed his bill. Call or email your Representative and ask for their support!
Representative Bob Phalen is out here with a fun new bill addressing everyone’s top political priority: telling kids what they can and can’t read. HB 234 seeks to amend a law that currently applies to stores and newsstands by also restricting public schools, public libraries, and museums from displaying or disseminating materials deemed ‘obscene’ to minors.
These institutions would no longer be able to decide which materials to hold based on their library or museum policies, and could face charges for exposing minors to anything that someone might consider obscene.
While the bill does not provide a definition of “obscene materials,” this intentional vagueness reflects coordinated, national efforts to censor marginalized voices through book bans. In the words of American Library Association President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, it would “deprive all of us – young people in particular – of the chance to explore a world beyond the confines of personal experience,” continuing to note that “efforts to censor entire categories of books reflecting certain voices and views shows that the moral panic isn’t about kids: it’s about politics.” In Florida, Utah, and Missouri, where censorship laws like HB 234 have passed, school districts have begun to remove so-called ‘obscene’ books from library shelves – largely, texts that deal with issues of queerness and race.
Not only does this bill defy the right of every Montanan to freely and confidentially access information and ideas, HB234 would sap time, energy, and money from services and programs that actually help people – while potentially criminalizing public servants! Our libraries and schools already have processes in place to make sure children are receiving age-appropriate materials, and ultimately, decisions regarding what we can and cannot read should be up to the individual, not the state.
In recent years, we’ve seen the lives and livelihoods of librarians across the U.S. threatened by advocates for book bans. Just last year, as Kalispell’s Imagine IF Libraries were cast into disarray and heartache over censorship struggles, library workers received an ominous delivery: books riddled with bullet holes.
The absurd thing is, most of these calls for censorship aren’t coming from individual parents themselves, but from advocacy groups like Moms For Liberty and legislators like Phalen. According to a 2022 poll, large majorities of voters and parents of children in public schools actually oppose book bans, a stance shared by 75% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans across the country.
Respectably, the people of Montana have continued to prove that we aren’t on board with book bans. Despite the national trends and ruthless efforts in our state to ban books dealing with themes of gender, sexuality, and race, we have yet to see any book bans actually go through.
Let’s keep it that way . It’s time to tell the House Judiciary Committee and your legislator that you support Montanans’ freedom to read and reject this harmful and unnecessary bill. Send in a public comment using this form and say NO to government interference in our right to access information.
Hero of the week
This week, Rep. Kelly Kortum of Bozeman introduced legislation that would make the cost-of-living crisis thousands of Montanans are facing a little more manageable. For his role as the primary sponsor of HB 233, which would have required landlords and property managers to refund application fees to applicants who aren’t offered the rental, Rep. Kortum is our Hero of the Week!
Picture this: you fork over hundreds of dollars in fees to apply for a handful of apartments, only to hear back that all of your applications have been declined. Now, you’re out hundreds of dollars, and still have nowhere to live. Across Montana, the last few years have seen the lowest rental vacancy rates in decades. This means that for every open apartment, there could be dozens of applicants– all of whom are filling the pockets of property managers they may never hear from again. HB 233 was a bipartisan piece of legislation that would level this playing field, changing the game for renters in our state just trying to get by.
HB 233 was met with overwhelming support during its hearing on Tuesday, with the only opponent testimony coming from the Montana Landlords Association (shocker!). Despite this, it was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
While we’re bummed that HB 233 won’t be moving forward right now, tabling doesn’t always mean the end of the line for a bill— we’ll let you know if it rises from the dead.
This isn’t the only game-changing bill we’re expecting to see from Rep. Kortum this session. We look forward to seeing what else he’ll do to serve the people he represents. We appreciate his commitment to making Montana a place we can all thrive!
Villain of the week
As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Barry Usher of Billings has command of the room and conversation, in theory to keep order and provide both opponents and proponents space to say their piece on a bill in a timely manner. Unfortunately, Chair Usher abused that power this week during the hearing for SB 154, a bill from Senator Keith Regier that would “define the right to privacy to clarify no right to abortion.” For this, he is our Villain of the Week.
Calmly listening while the proponents spoke, he only once reminded them, between speakers, to “stay on the topic of privacy,” saying that the bill “isn’t about abortion.” This was one of many red flags, as the word “abortion” appears twice in the two-sentence bill.
When the opponents came up? He interrupted no less than six times in the middle of different folks’ testimony on the quintessentially private nature of reproductive care, and responded to committee member Sen. Jen Gross’s concerns about his decidedly anti-democratic running of the hearing by saying: “Chair hears and ignores.” Yikes.
One of the many opponents Chair Usher repeatedly interrupted and argued with was former representative Mike Meloy, a lawyer with an emphasis on constitutional law who was merely trying to point out that– surprise surprise– the legislature does not have the authority or purview to interpret the Constitution (remember a little thing called “checks and balances”?) Usher’s response? “We’re not talking about the authority to pass the bill, just the right to privacy.” To be clear, here’s what happens when the legislature passes bills when they do not have the authority to do so: the state gets sued, and we, as taxpayers, foot the bill. To refuse to listen to those very taxpayers when they raise their concerns about proposed legislation is deeply villainous behavior.
And that’s a wrap on week three of the session! If you’re in Helena (or will be soon), we highly recommend checking out the exhibit at the Holter Museum curated by our friends at TransVisible Montana. “Transilience,” the display of art entirely by trans, nonbinary, and Two Spirit Montanans, opened on Friday and will be up through March 30.
Talk to ya next week!