Has this year’s legislative session left you feeling discombobulated? Befuddled? Frazzled? Perhaps even perplexed? Well there’s a good reason for that – this year legislators have introduced the most bills since 1973, which is when Montana law had to undergo a massive overhaul to incorporate our brand-new Constitution! As we get into the closing few weeks of this session, please remember to take some time for yourselves. But for now, enjoy yet another edition of What the Helena!

Calls to Action

HB 889 would create protections for mobile home residents, including setting year-long (instead of month-to-month) leases as the default, mandating landlords to provide 60-day notice before they change or end a lease, and preventing landlords from retaliating against residents who speak up about park issues. Tell your Senator to vote YES on this step towards addressing Montana’s housing crisis.

SB 109 draws a highly partisan, gerrymandered map for the Public Service Commission’s districts. The PSC oversees Montana’s utilities, including NorthWestern Energy; it’s crucial that these districts are representative of Montana’s communities, not one political party. Tell your Representative to vote NO on SB 109.

SB 458 defines ‘sex’ in Montana law in a way that erases intersex people, prevents individuals from filling out & receiving legal documents in alignment with the gender they live as, collapses the umbrella of ‘sex-based discrimination’ to no longer include sexual or gender minorities or pregnant people as protected classes, and could cost taxpayers up to $7.5 billion to implement. Tell your Representative to vote NO on SB 458.

Housing: Good, Bad, Ugly

This week, a handful of zoning reform bills we’ve been excited to support were voted on in the House. First, a quick breakdown of each bill:

  • SB 245 legalizes multi-family and mixed-use developments in areas currently zoned for commercial, retail, or parking use, helping Montana move toward more dense and walkable cities.
  • SB 323 legalizes duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in areas of cities with a population larger than 50,000 that are currently zoned for single-family construction only. 
  • SB 382 presents local governments with a menu of zoning reform options, requiring them to adopt the five that they believe will best help their towns increase the supply of attainable housing. 

All three of these reforms passed the House with incredible bipartisan support, and will now head to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law. As if that’s not enough good news…

SB 268, which would have significantly impeded local governments’ ability to regulate short-term rentals (like Airbnb) was resoundingly rejected by the House, with just 27 of the 100 Representatives voting in favor of the bill. This is an absolutely crucial step toward ensuring the new development options opened up by the suite of zoning reforms are used to house Montanans, not for wealthy developers and out-of-state investors to make a quick buck. 

While we’re on the topic of housing, we’d be remiss not to inform you that Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s HB 785 was tabled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. This bill would have required landlords to give tenants 60 days notice when terminating or changing their lease, and we’re beyond bummed to see it go down. Not only that, but the process was sneaky AF: the committee voted on the bill without notice or debate. You just might see this committee’s chair later on in this newsletter…

A debunked definition

Senate Bill 458 was heard for the last time in committee, to an uproar of opponent testimony, citing the immeasurable impacts that this bill would have on the intersex, transgender, non-binary, and Two-Spirit Montanans who this bill would define out of law.  Opponents cited factual, legal, and budgetary issues (SB 458 has estimated potential costs of 7.5 billion dollars – half of Montana’s budget!) with the bill while uplifting the strength and resilience of the trans community. Bill Sponsor Sen. Carl Glimm and the House Judiciary Committee were urged to consider whether the harmful impacts of SB 458 are worth inserting a biologically inaccurate definition of sex into the Montana Legal Code. 

Some members of the committee raised questions concerning some of the unsettling and harmful pieces of the bill, while others made unsuccessful attempts at “gotcha” questions (did you know that the existence of bisexuality is proof that there are only two sexes? Apparently Rep. Caleb Hinkle thinks so…) This is another bill that, regrettably, the sponsor appears not to be fully aware of the contents and repercussions of. Even after we heard from a great deal of varied and well-informed testimony, Senator Carl Glimm still wouldn’t admit that his bill would have any negative consequences. 

No matter how this bill turns out, opponents of SB 458 have done a very thorough job of debunking the definition that it aims to insert, and if the committee votes for this bill, they should be well aware that they are voting to codify biologically inaccurate language. We’ll keep you updated!

Cutting off CoreCivic

We are super relieved to let you know that Montana taxpayers will not be paying nearly $8 million over the next two years to send 120 incarcerated Montanans to a for-profit prison in Arizona. Wait… what??! Yup, an expanded contract with CoreCivic, a private prison giant, was added to the state budget mid-March, much to our dismay. 

However, this amendment has recently been removed from the budget, thanks to a counter-amendment from Sen. Ellie Boldman. Instead of paying $8 million for a temporary “quick fix” for overcrowding, lawmakers are instead working to increase bed space in-state, so those 120 people can remain in Montana, where their friends and family members are still able to visit them and help them re-enter society once they are released. Next step – fully ending Montana’s contract with this truly evil company.

Hero of the Week – Rep. Jonathan Karlen (D- Missoula)

You may have heard this rumor swirling around, that Montana might just be in the middle of what some would call a housing crisis. This week we want to congratulate our hero, Rep. Jonathan Karlen of Missoula, for introducing a bill that would create protections for some of the most vulnerable Montanans in the housing crisis: mobile home residents. HB 889 addresses a worrying trend we have seen in the past few years, where out-of-state investors purchase Montana’s mobile home parks and try to squeeze every penny out of their residents by raising rents, fees, and cutting maintenance. HB 889 does many things that would help alleviate this crisis, with some highlights including: 

  • Setting year-long, rather than month-to-month, leases as the default (unless both parties agree on different terms). 
  • Mandating landlords to provide a sixty-day notice before they change the terms of a lease.
  • Preventing landlords from targeting residents who speak up about the problems with the park by maliciously raising their rent or changing other park rules to punish them

While we agree with Rep. George Nikolakakos (R – Great Falls), who stated in the bill’s committee hearing last Wednesday that HB 889 “is just a first step” in creating all the protections Montana’s mobile home residents need, it is still a critical step to take. HB 889 has already passed the House and its Senate Committee with bipartisan support, so tell your Senator to vote YES on HB 889.

Villain of the Week – Sen. Keith Regier (R- Kalispell)

Our villain this week, Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell, seems to be the walking definition of “doesn’t play well with others”. One of his bills, SB 109 (the one about drawing new PSC districts) was heard in the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations committee on April 7th. To review, the PSC, or Public Service Commission, is a group of elected Montanans whose job it is to regulate the utility companies of Montana, like the monopoly that is NorthWestern Energy. Follow this link to learn more about the PSC!

During the hearing, there were 3 different amended maps proposed that nearly stuck to Regier’s espoused reasonings for his map: cities can benefit from being split, legislative district lines should be used to make these maps, and districts should be balanced in population distribution (his was actually the least balanced).  Rep. Derek Harvey of Butte, one of those who proposed a different map, mentioned in the hearing that Sen. Regier has not responded to anyone wanting to work with him on modifying his proposed (and very gerrymandered) redistricting map. 
Regier himself had no questions or comments during the hearing, and yet one by one, each amended map proposal was shot down. Gerrymandering and not cooperating with fellow legislators to best serve your constituents? That’s villainous behavior in our book! Ask your Representative to vote NO on SB 109 as it currently stands.