CALLS TO ACTION
Want to take action without reading a whole newsletter? We’ve got you covered! Here are four quick things you can do to make your voice heard:
- HB 163, which would extend the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, is scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, January 18, at 8AM. You can send the committee a message in support at this link!
- The DPHHS is considering a rule that would effectively ban abortion for low-income Montanans who are insured through Medicaid. They are accepting written comments until 5PM on January 20th. You can send them a message through this form created by our friends over at Planned Parenthood, or by emailing a comment stating your opposition to email@example.com.
- Senate Bill 99 would harm current and future trans, non-binary and two-spirit youth by taking away their access to lifesaving, gender-affirming healthcare. You can voice your opposition at this link: bit.ly/takeactionsb99 and ask the Senate Judiciary Committee to OPPOSE SB 99!
- The hearing for HB 233– which would require landlords and property managers to refund rental application fees to applicants who aren’t offered the rental– is on Tuesday, January 17th at 8AM. If you have a personal story of exorbitant rental application fees to share, please head to this link, where you can sign up to give virtual testimony OR send the House Judiciary Committee a written message in support.
BONUS: Join us in Helena next Friday, January 20th, for Protect Our Home: A Climate Advocacy Day. RSVP at this link, and we’ll see you there!
As we wrap up the second week of the legislative session, our lawmakers’ priorities are starting to crystallize. While these priorities fluctuate wildly from legislator to legislator, one thing’s for certain *Smash Mouth voice*: the bills start comin’ and they don’t stop comin’.
If you listened to last week’s What the Helena podcast, you may remember a brief discussion about the incredible number of bills requested for this year’s session. As of today, there are 4,447 bill draft requests; of those, over 400 have been introduced. In the first week of the 2021 session, the legislature held 48 bill hearings. In the first week of the 2023 session, they heard 112. That’s more than a 200% increase…what’s up with that?
Montana politics nerds may have heard about Governor Gianforte’s signature Red Tape Relief Project. A good number of the bills heard in committee the first week of the session had to do with this project, which aims to “clean up” Montana code and remove regulations the Governor sees as cumbersome. While many of these clean-up bills have received broad support, others, like HB 64, have raised some eyebrows for reallocating power from citizen boards to government agencies. HB 64 would shift responsibility for oversight of telecommunications services for folks with disabilities from a citizen-led board to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, which has a demonstrated track record of placing political motivations over the best interests of Montanans (more on that later). You can read more about HB 64 and the Governor’s Red Tape Relief Project in this article by Helena’s KTVH.
Remember Senator Keith Regier’s resolution asking Congress to “investigate alternatives to the American Indian reservation system”? The one dripping with anti-Indigenous racism and stereotypes? Great news! After immediate and aggressive pushback, conversations with his constituents, and a talk with Sen. Shane Morigeau, Regier has withdrawn the resolution and will not be bringing it forward this session. We hope Sen. Regier has learned his lesson, and that in the future, he will do better at consulting folks affected by his proposed legislation before he brings it forward.
HB 18, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf’s bill to develop and fund comprehensive missing persons response teams, flew out of committee and handily passed both votes on the House floor. Now, it will head to the Senate for consideration. This is huge news, especially considering a similar bill died in the process last session. Hooray for progress!
A hearing for SB 99, Sen. John Fuller’s bill to ban gender-affirming care for young Montanans, has not yet been scheduled. However, y’all have already shown us that you won’t tolerate these attacks on freedom and privacy– at our Thursday night phone bank, volunteers made over 300 calls and sent upwards of a THOUSAND texts urging Montanans to voice their opposition to this and other anti-trans legislation. This gives us all kinds of hope!
There’s No Place Like (A) Home
This week’s all about priorities. While Montana is facing plenty of problems in need of solving, there are more than a few bills already moving through the legislature whose sponsors seem to be creating solutions in search of a problem– including SB 105, sponsored by Senator Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls.
On Tuesday, the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee heard SB 105, a bill which would prohibit cities and local governments from enacting rent control policies. An immediate red flag? All but one of the people who spoke in favor of the bill are property owners, landlords, or professionally tied to industries like real estate and property development, which is a pretty good indication off the bat that this bill would probably not be great for renters.
Even more flabbergasting? Local rent control is already prohibited by state law. According to the Montana Code Annotated, local governments do not have “any power that applies to or affects landlords… when that power is intended to license landlords or to regulate their activities with regard to tenants.” In normal-people words, that means that local governments already can’t impose rent control.
So why are we talking about this redundant bill? Just as people have different needs, so do their communities, and local governments need access to different sets of tools so they can address real problems (like the ongoing housing crisis) according to their specific community’s needs. The legislature keeps taking these tools away.
Back in 2021, the legislature passed HB 259, which prohibits inclusionary zoning– a tool that Whitefish and Bozeman had already been using to help address rising housing concerns in their communities. Inclusionary zoning policies require that new housing projects include a certain percentage of homes that will be affordable to low- and moderate-income folks, and could have been a great tool for Montana communities to help ensure their residents can access affordable, secure housing.
While neither rent control nor inclusionary zoning are a one-size-fits-all solution to Montana’s housing woes, it’s a bummer to see our elected officials taking away tools rather than helping brainstorm creative solutions to address the housing crisis in our state.
But wait! Speaking of solutions… HB 233, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Kortum of Bozeman, would require landlords and property managers to refund rental application fees to applicants who aren’t offered the rental. It would still allow landlords to recoup costs for things like background checks, but the balance of the application fee beyond those costs would have to be returned to the applicant within a reasonable period. It’s safe to say that every young person living in Montana has either spent hundreds of dollars on application fees only to still be stuck without a place to live, or knows someone who has. This bill could be a game changer for renters! We’re stoked to see it up for consideration, and applaud the bipartisan slate of representatives co-sponsoring this bill.
The hearing for HB 233 is on Tuesday, January 17th at 8AM. If you have a personal story of exorbitant rental application fees to share, please head to this link, where you can sign up to give virtual testimony OR send the House Judiciary Committee a written message in support.
Hero of the Week- Rep. Tyson Running Wolf
Rep. Tyson Running Wolf of Browning has spent his first two weeks of the session championing legislation that solves real, pressing problems faced by his constituents. For this, he is our Hero of the Week! During a session when so many other legislators seem to be focused solely on attacking Montanans’ freedom and taking away our rights, it’s important to recognize those that are putting in the hard work to help their communities thrive.
A prime example of legislation that will support Representative Running Wolf’s constituents is HB 163, which extends the state’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force through 2025. This bill would be crucial in continuing to support the task force, run through the Department of Justice, as well as the work of the broader MMIP movement here in Montana. HB 163 is scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee next Wednesday, January 18, at 8AM. You can send the committee a message in support at this link!
As a reminder, Rep. Running Wolf is also the primary sponsor of HB 18, which we talked about last week. Both of these bills are great support for each other; one extends and expands the Department of Justice Task Force, while the other works to create long-term support systems by involving and training local community members to work with law enforcement and other local agencies.
We appreciate Rep. Running Wolf’s commitment to bettering the lives of his constituents, and hope the rest of our officials will follow his lead.
Villain of the Week- Dir. Charlie Brereton
This week, we’re highlighting a villain not from the legislature (gasp!), but from an agency whose work over the last two years has been inextricably linked to laws passed in 2021. Rather than prioritizing the very real problems that fall under the purview of his agency, Charlie Brereton, the new director of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS), has spent his time creating rules that make it harder for Montanans to access the care and services they need. For this, he is our Villain of the Week.
Come with us, if you will, on a little trip down memory lane. In 2021, the legislature passed SB 280, a bill that required trans people to present proof of gender-affirming surgery (which the bill did not define) in order to change the gender marker on their birth certificate. Then, the DPHHS, who is in charge of administering updated birth certificates, got involved and made the situation even worse. They created a new rule– one of the most restrictive in the nation– making it essentially impossible for trans folks to update their birth certificates at all. This all resulted in a lengthy court battle that’s yet to be resolved. You can find updates on that here, here, here, and here.
Now, under Brereton’s leadership, the DPHHS is considering a rule that would effectively ban abortion for low-income Montanans insured through Medicaid. The proposed rule would create a slew of new requirements, documentation, and in-person exams in order to deem an abortion “medically necessary” and allow it to be covered by Medicaid. Importantly, all of this documentation has to be signed off on by a physician, which raises some red flags: many Montanans see nurse practitioners or physicians’ assistants as their primary care providers, and these professionals are more than capable of addressing their patients’ needs; requiring folks to get the sign-off from a doctor they may not have easy access to only creates more barriers. The rule also adds a requirement for prior authorization, which means that all of this documentation must be provided before Medicaid will pay for the abortion.
All of this would have a handful of adverse effects. The “prior authorization” change would mean that folks insured by Medicaid who need abortions would have to wait longer to obtain the care they need– especially if they first have to find a physician to sign off– which can make the procedure more risky, more invasive, and more expensive. Concerningly, the rule does not provide any sort of timeline for this authorization process, meaning there’s no telling how long people would have to wait in order to access care. The rule would also chip away at Montanans’ constitutional right to privacy by requiring patients to provide the Medicaid office with unnecessary health information, including results of a physical examination (many patients in rural areas rely on telehealth to receive care, so this is a consequential barrier) and information about any previous pregnancies. Finally, the DPHHS itself has admitted that this process would create additional costs for Montana taxpayers.
No one should have to jump through hoops and wade through red tape to access the healthcare they need, and the agency tasked with keeping Montanans healthy should focus on making it easier, not harder, for us to obtain that care. The public hearing for this rule happened on Thursday (with incredible turnout from opponents and just one comment in support), but the DPHHS is accepting written comments until 5PM on January 20th. You can send them a message through this form created by our friends over at Planned Parenthood, or by emailing a comment stating your opposition to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s what we’ve got for you this week! As of Friday, we’re officially one-tenth of the way through the legislative session… time flies! While our legislators’ priorities may sometimes be hard to comprehend, our priority will always be to provide you with accessible, engaging information about how to be part of all this hullabaloo. We can’t thank y’all enough for being along for the ride. ‘Til next week!