Well, folks, we’ve made it through the first week of the 2023 legislative session! Our new representatives are sworn in (unlike those in the U.S. House…), the bill drafts are coming in hot, and we’re back with our weekly update on WTH is happening in Helena. Buckle in, friends; this session’s going to be a wild one!

Toplines for this issue: rules fights, harm reduction, Indigenous justice, and, already, attacks on transgender youth

Plus, join us on January 20th for Protect Our Home: A Climate Advocacy Day in partnership with Montanans for a Liveable Climate. This event in Helena will include skill-building sessions, policy breakdowns, kid-friendly activities, and more– RSVP at this link, and we’ll see you there!

To hear more about our team’s takeaways from this first week (or if you prefer to listen to your news), be sure to check out the What the Helena Podcast! 

Senator Keith Regier Needs a History Lesson

On the first day of the session, Senator Keith Regier of Kalispell introduced a resolution to request that the United States Congress “investigate alternatives to the American Indian reservation system.” After listing a handful of supposed justifications for this request, Regier’s resolution goes on to say that to confer sovereign nation status to tribes inside the borders of the United States is “diametrically opposed to the Constitution of the United States.” 

Let’s pause there. If you, like Senator Regier, need a refresher: this is blatantly false. Let’s crack open our handy-dandy pocket Constitutions and take a look at Article VI, Clause 2, also called the “sovereignty clause,” which reads: 

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Now, you probably know that over the course of the last few hundred years, the United States has signed hundreds of treaties with tribal nations. According to the very Constitution Regier calls upon to prove his point, these treaties are the supreme law of the land. Can’t get much clearer than that! To illustrate just how ridiculous Regier’s stance is: even Christopher Columbus, the notorious genocidal slave trader and colonizer, recognized the nationhood of tribes. The fact that our government contains people who regard Indigenous sovereignty with less understanding than f*cking Columbus is absolutely unacceptable.

In response to this bonkers resolution, Sen. Shane Morigeau, who represents Senate District 48 in Missoula and is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, told the Flathead Beacon: “I keep saying it over and over that a lot of people in the Montana Legislature could benefit from some very basic civics lessons about our state’s history. Sadly, this is what happens when you don’t have Indian Education for All for our legislators.” Sen. Morigeau has also stated that he intends to bring forward a bill that would require just that. 

Senator Regier’s proposed resolution is just one more development in a long, long line of actions taken by the Montana government and its officials that intend to strip power and recognition from Indigenous nations in our state. Just last month, Drew Zinecker, a legislative aide and former hopeful to fill the recently-vacant legislative seat in HD 80, publicly asked: “If the reservations want to say they are independent countries … but they want a lot of handouts, why are we counting their ballots?” 

This sentiment lines up with Regier’s resolution, and shows just how deeply the Montana government is entrenched in colonialism and white supremacy. The resolution hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing yet, but when it is, we’ll let you know. 

In the meantime, we recommend learning more about the history and importance of tribal sovereignty by checking out this article by Dr. Shaawano Chad Uran, a member of the White Earth Nation and professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington.

Embracing Indigenous Leadership

In much better Indigenous justice news: HB 18, sponsored by Representative Tyson Running Wolf of Browning, would establish a way to develop and fund multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional, and multi-disciplinary missing persons response teams.

Rep. Running Wolf introduced HB 18 by saying that this is for all Montanans, not just Indigenous folks, while also pointing out that Indigenous people go missing at a much higher rate than other Montanans– up to four times the rate of non-native folks, according to the Department of Justice. 

Because local law enforcement staff and other responsible agencies lack the infrastructure, training, and funding needed to lead on missing person’s cases in a timely manner, the burden falls onto the community. As the first 24 hours of a case are crucial in bringing loved ones home alive, the leading search teams are made up of the missing person’s family and friends, who are also under-resourced and undertrained. This all makes coordination challenging, as there may be multiple local, state, and federal agencies involved. This becomes especially complicated when someone goes missing on a reservation, where jurisdictional questions can be even more prevalent.

The key part of this bill is that it allows for the creation of multidisciplinary, community-based teams. It encourages cooperation of folks from all sorts of backgrounds, setting the stage for collaboration between community-based teams and formal agencies. These entities would have to come together to create a group agreement, or memorandum of understanding, before applying for training money. This process alone would make these teams stronger, more capable of understanding and collaborating with one another, and better able to respond to the crisis of missing people, especially missing Indigenous people, in Montana. 

Unlike Senator Regier’s resolution, Representative Running Wolf’s HB 18 is a real solution to a real problem faced by Montana’s Indigenous communities, and is an excellent example of what it could look like for tribal and non-tribal governments and entities to collaborate in meaningful ways. We appreciate his work, and look to him as an example of what can happen when Indigenous people lead in government. 

HB 18 passed out of committee this week, and will now head for a vote on the House floor. Let your Representative know that you support this bill– and if you don’t know who your reps are yet, you can find out here

Three Cheers for Harm Reduction

While there are plenty of ridiculous or downright scary bills already being proposed, the news isn’t all bad! One exciting bill that we’re keeping an eye on is SB 26, sponsored on the request of the Department of Health and Human Services by Senator Ryan Lynch of Butte. SB 26 seeks to revise what is or is not considered “drug paraphernalia.” Specifically, this bill would remove fentanyl testing strips from the definition of “drug paraphernalia,” allowing them to be used and distributed legally.

For background: fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used to treat pain in cancer patients, but is also used to lace substances such as heroin and counterfeit pills. Fentanyl is extremely powerful, and thus dangerous even in small quantities (although not quite as dangerous as the police would have you believe– you won’t overdose just from touching it). Many folks using substances laced with fentanyl are unaware of its presence, and can easily die of a fentanyl overdose. Fentanyl-laced drugs are on the rise, but folks who use drugs are already at high risk of criminalization and thus may be afraid to obtain the currently-illegal testing strips to use more safely. Allowing legal access to the test strips will allow folks to screen drugs for fentanyl, hopefully preventing overdoses, which is a cause we can all get behind!

This evidence-based harm reduction approach is not new; in a similar bill a few sessions ago, the legislature increased access to naloxone, a drug that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. We can also compare this decriminalization to that of syringe exchange programs, which are legal in Montana and have been shown to decrease instances of HIV and hepatitis C by as much as 50%

The passage of this bill could also help with the de-stigmatization of drug use and addiction, potentially empowering more folks to seek out treatment if they so desire. In its hearing this week, there wasn’t a single opponent to the bill, so its odds are looking good. If that changes, we’ll let you know, but for now, let’s celebrate good legislation as it comes!

Hero of the week

We are pleased to introduce our first hero of the 2023 legislative session, Representative Ed Buttrey of Great Falls. Representative Buttrey set his party hat aside in favor of good governance. We hope to see more of this throughout the session!

The House of Representatives operate under a set of rules dictated by House Resolution 1. On the first day of the session, Rep. Buttrey proposed an amendment to HR 1. He proposed to lower the number of votes required for a “blast” motion from 60 to 55.

Now, you may be asking: WTF is a “blast” motion? Great question! 

Normally, a bill gets introduced and debated in a committee. If the committee likes the bill, they will pass it to the House floor where the bill will get debated and voted on by the entire House of Representatives. Under a “blast” motion, a bill can be “blasted” past or out of committee to be debated by the entire House.

We think this is a great idea for a few reasons.

First, the Speaker of the House assigns bills to committees. In theory, the Speaker could send bills he doesn’t like to committees where he knows they will die (which we certainly hope wouldn’t happen, as that would be a massive abuse of power…….).

Second,  this serves to balance the power scales just a little, allowing the minority party, with 32 representatives in the House, to ask that legislation get its chance on the House floor if they can find a third of the Republican majority to join the call. 

Third, as Rep. Derek Harvey pointed out during the hearing, there are also times during the session when deadlines are rapidly approaching and committees are hearing an incredible volume of bills in a short time. When that happens, it’s unlikely for a bill to get a truly fair hearing, if only because there are just so many hours in a day. In those cases, it could serve the people of Montana and the tenets of democracy to give the bill another shot. 

Rep. Buttrey’s amendment passed by a two-vote margin in the Rules Committee, but only after some tense debate. We witnessed a sneak peak of what’s likely to come: disagreements between far-right Republicans and those who still believe in some semblance of moderation.

While Representative Buttrey’s amendment wasn’t unprecedented, it’s exciting to see a member of the (super)majority party push back against the party line to advocate for a more democratic process. We applaud his leadership!

Villain of the week

Before we’ve even had a chance to settle into the routine of 8AM committee meetings and multitasking as an extreme sport, Senator John Fuller of Kalispell has already introduced yet another version of his twice-killed ban on gender affirming care for young people– and this time, it’s even worse. For this, he’s our first Villain of the Week. What do you call the zombie of a zombie? Apparently, you call it SB 99

To recap: during the 2021 legislative session, then-Representative Fuller introduced HB 113, a bill that would have banned all medication and surgery related to gender transition for people under 18. When that bill failed, he resurrected it as HB 427, which removed the ban on hormone blockers and medication but retained the surgical ban. After an outpouring of opposition from medical professionals, trans folks, and the people who love and understand them, that bill failed, too. So why, just three days into the 2023 session, did Senator Fuller think it was a good idea to give this fight another go?

SB 99 goes even further than last session’s HB 113 or HB 427. SB 99 would ban any medical transition (including hormone blockers and hormone replacement), and would also prohibit public employees (like teachers and school counselors) from supporting a minor’s social transition. This could be something as simple as using a name or pronouns that differ from the ones assigned to a student at birth– the first step in transition that a physician or therapist will usually recommend to a minor exploring their gender identity. 

In case you need a reminder, access to social transition and affirming relationships with educators save lives. This is an absolutely atrocious attack on an already-marginalized group of young Montanans. Senator Fuller apparently has no interest in learning from all the folks who attempted to get through to him in 2021. 

While SB 99 hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing, it has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. You can send that committee a message voicing your opposition at this link. Now’s also a great time to get in touch with your legislators and make sure they know that you don’t support interfering with people’s healthcare and freedom– or better yet, sign up for our phone and text bank on January 12th to help spread the word. When the time comes to show up to the hearing for SB 99, you can bet you’ll hear from us!

Aaaand that concludes our first edition of 2023’s What the Helena! This is shaping up to be quite the session, so remember: we’re in this for the long haul. What happens in Helena over the next few months will certainly change the way things work in Montana, but when it’s over, we’ll be here to keep building the future we want to see alongside all of you. Until then, take care, tune in, and show up in the ways that are meaningful and sustainable to you. TTY next week!

PS – stay tuned for Forward Montana’s forthcoming Legislative Engagement Guide, your one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about the legislature!

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