The 68th Legislative Session officially ended on May 3, 2023!
Check out our last WTH newsletter below.
“What the Helena” is back for another Montana Legislative Session! As with past years the f**kery has begun which means… more of our high-energy, no-bullshit way to stay informed on the news that matters to young Montanans. We will be keeping up on the issues right here or if you like your news in your inbox subscribe to weekly email updates or maybe you like listening to your news, so listen here for our “What The Helena” podcast.
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What the Helena Weekly Update
- What the Helena 2023 Issue 17: Sine Die
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
Queer & Trans Rights
Week 10- SB99 update- While following the path of this bill, it became very clear that supporters are not actually concerned about minors’ health, their concern is with minors’ identities. They don’t believe that young people and their families should be able to choose gender-affirming care, and they don’t believe that teachers should support trans students’ social transition, because something about a bunch of trans kids freaks them out….
And maybe they should be concerned! Maybe, young people with the critical thinking skills to question binaries and social constructs and the courage to live authentically are a very real threat to their worldviews – and their power. These cowards in the legislature are unsettled by what they see as a “fad” because they don’t want to admit that REAL change and transformation is occurring.
To the young people who will be affected by this bill, we recognize & validate your identity and want to affirm that while your body has been politicized, it is still YOURS.
Week 8 – This week they’re trying to define people out of legal existence with SB 458, which would “define sex in Montana law”. We’ll just paste their definition of “sex” here: “Sex” means the organization of the body and gametes for reproduction in human beings and other organisms. In human beings, there are exactly two sexes, male and female, with two corresponding gametes. The sexes are determined by the biological indication of male or female, including sex chromosomes, gonads, and nonambiguous internal and external genitalia present at birth, without regard to an individual’s psychological, chosen, or subjective experience of gender.
Week 7- HB 359, the bill that would ban minors from attending drag shows, restrict drag performances to “sexually oriented businesses,” and criminalize any trans performer for their art, passed in committee last week, but has not been voted on in the House yet, which means that it’s time to urge your Representatives to vote NO on this unenforceable, stigmatizing, and generally terrible bill.
Since our last update, several discriminatory bills have moved forward in the legislative process; HB 234 and HB 361 passed in the House, and we mentioned last week that SB 99 and HB 303 have also passed in their respective chambers (for a refresher on these bills, check out info linked to the bill number).
Week 6- House Bill 359, sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell of Columbia Falls, would do a lot more than “prohibit minors from attending drag shows.” While stepping into the role of all parents in Montana is already way out of the legislature’s lane, the bill also creates a legal definition of the art form that not only sexualizes performers, but also conflates any performance marked by gender non-conformity with ‘drag’
During the Senate floor hearing on SB 99 on Tuesday, some Senators seemed hell-bent on using stigmatizing, offensive terms and analogies for gender-affirming care, including making comparisons to lobotomies and amputations of healthy limbs. Senator Flowers wasn’t having it, and interrupted this language every. Single. Time. While the bill passed its vote on the floor and will now move to the House (where we’ll keep fighting it with everything we’ve got), Senator Flowers and the rest of the Senate Democrats refused to let it do so quietly.
Week 5- Despite overwhelming opposition from Montana families, teachers, medical professionals, and trans youth, SB 99 passed out of committee on Monday. Contact your Senator and let them know that you support trans youth’s access to gender-affirming care and oppose this harmful and unconstitutional bill.
HB 361 essentially allows students to deadname and misgender transgender students with no disciplinary repercussions. This bill “clarifies” the list of unlawful discriminatory practices in education to specifically exclude “calling another student by the student’s legal name” or referring “to another student by the student’s sex” – euphemistic language that would permit transphobic bullying and discrimination in schools. By interfering with schools’ abilities to handle student conflicts in a way that is affirming, legislators are again ignoring the mental wellbeing of trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit youth.
Let the House Judiciary Committee know that you don’t care much for transphobic, regressive and overreaching policies, and send them a message urging them to vote NO on HB 361.
A hearing for HB 361 will be held on Wednesday, February 8th at 8am, and folks will be able to sign up for virtual comment starting on February 5th. If you’re able to testify in person, you don’t need to sign up!
Week 4- On Friday (1/27), a hearing for SB 99 began at 8am and lasted until 1pm, filled with an overwhelming majority of local trans advocates opposing the bill, which attacks trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit youth’s right to gender-affirming care.
From those supporting this harmful bill, we heard a lot of misinformed and misleading testimony, with many proponents from out of state, including some notorious political detransitioners and a representative of the Family Policy Alliance, a group that submits draft bills like SB 99 to legislators at a national level.But guess what? Montanans showed the f up to this hearing in support of their trans family members, patients, friends, students, and selves, outnumbering proponents nearly 4 to 1.
One clear, powerful message stood out: the choice to seek gender-affirming care is a right and saves lives, and denying care to youth disrespects, disempowers, and endangers children. Stand with medical professionals, families, public employees, and most of all, trans Montanans, and send a message to your Senator and the Senate Judiciary Committee urging that they vote NO on SB 99.
Week 2– 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
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!
Week 1– started off with the introduction of SB 99 by our first Villain of the Week- Senator John Fuller of Kalispell. Scroll down to read about the anti-trans bill that’s been introduced. Want to get involved? Sign-up and join the phone/text bank happening Jan. 12 from 6 p.m.-8p.m.
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.
Week 11- SB 268,sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz of Polson, would do two things: first, it would define short-term rentals, like Airbnbs, as a residential (not commercial) use of property. Second, it would severely restrict local governments’ abilities to regulate short-term rentals in their cities. The impacts of these short-term rentals hit the hardest on a local level, and local governments need to be able to regulate these rentals in ways that make sense for their communities. SB 268 would take away that ability.
Week- 10- HB 574, a bill to establish a workforce housing trust fund, we are thrilled to recognize Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena as our hero this week. This bill designates $500 million from Montana’s general fund to be used for grants and loans for the development and preservation of affordable housing– something that is a dire need in Montana.
As Rep. Abbott pointed out during the bill’s hearing on Monday, there have been plenty of proposals so far this session that aim to address our state’s housing crisis. Many of these bills have been focused on zoning and regulatory reform, but haven’t included requirements or incentives that these newly-legalized building projects are affordable. We agree with Rep. Abbott that it’s time to come at this issue from all angles, and HB 574 is an exciting step toward a Montana where the people who make our communities what they are can afford to live.
Week 8- HB 553, also known as the Housing for Montana Families Act, we knew she’d need to be our Hero of the Week! This bill would make several exciting changes to Montana’s zoning code, but the topline is that HB 553 would allow for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, to be built in residential zoning districts throughout the state.
ADUs (which are smaller homes built on the same property as another residence) are often lower-cost options for people seeking affordable or multigenerational housing– and we know there are plenty of those folks in our communities right now! Despite this, their construction is either restricted or banned in much of Montana, feeding into exclusionary zoning policies that have been shown to increase racial and economic segregation. HB 553 would change that. Unfortunately, HB 553 was tabled in committee immediately after its hearing on Thursday.
Week 7- SB 323, sponsored by Senator Jeremy Trebas of Great Falls, would allow for duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes to be built in any area zoned for single-family homes in cities with a population above 50,000. Right now, many local governments are literally only allowing one size of home to be built in vast stretches of our communities. We think it’s time to strike this outdated code and push our cities to meet the needs of our growing population.
Week 6- SB 245 tackles zoning reform from a few angles, but the one we’re most excited about is that it would require Montana cities to allow multi-family and mixed-use housing in areas that are currently zoned for office, retail, or parking use. This means that developers could build attainable housing in areas that are already set up with the necessary infrastructure, upping our state’s housing supply at a lower price point and higher density than would result from building in previously undeveloped areas.
he mixed-use provision of the bill also means that folks in our communities would be able to live closer to where they work, shop, eat, and gather, leading to neighborhoods that are more walkable, livable, and welcoming. (If you’re having trouble envisioning what a mixed-use neighborhood could look like, just think Bob’s Burgers!) If this sounds like the world you want to live in, ask the Senate Local Government Committee to vote YES on SB 245!
Week 5- On Tuesday (1/31), the House Local Government Committee heard HB 337, a bill sponsored by Rep. Katie Zolnikov of Billings that would prohibit Montana cities from requiring lot sizes larger than 2,500 square feet. Currently, some of Montana’s most in-demand towns– like Missoula, Bozeman, and Kalispell– have minimum lot size requirements that force developers to build larger, more expensive single-family homes that are only attainable to wealthier folks. This bill would allow for more homes to be built within already-developed areas, meaning more walkable neighborhoods, decreased urban sprawl, and preservation of our ever-cherished wide open Montana spaces.
This is just one of many policies that could help increase the availability of affordable housing in our communities, and we’re stoked to see it backed by so much bipartisan support. Let your Representative know that you support efforts to increase housing affordability, and tell them to vote YES on HB 337!
Week 3- 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 (1/20).
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.
Week 2- 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. 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. You have to sign up to give testimony by 5PM Monday, so run, don’t walk!
Week 10 – This week we testified in support of SB 532 from Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell of Helena, a bill to establish the Montana Climate Action Act! This bill would establish a carbon tax on any company that emits more than 25,000 metric tons or more of carbon and other greenhouse gasses each year.
This bill shifts the physical price of pollution to those emitting it, incentivizing them to reduce those emissions, which then lessens harmful effects on folks in the forms of diseases like COPD, pneumonia, and so much more. Carbon taxes have been around across the US and the globe for over 15 years. It’s not a new concept, which means there’s a lot of research into the pros and cons. The tax implemented by SB 532 is low on the companies, starting at $10 per metric ton and increasing annually by $1 per metric ton, plus the rate of inflation, and they would receive help from the DEQ in planning the processes to reduce their carbon emissions! Unfortunately, SB 532 was tabled in committee.
Rep. Steven Galloway of Great Falls is the sponsor of both HB 282 and HB 283, both of which would further tip the scales in favor of landlords in Montana.
HB 283, which was heard in committee on Wednesday, would restrict local governments from imposing any restrictions or regulations on landlords that aren’t explicitly outlined in the Montana Landlord-Tenant Act– even if those regulations apply to all other businesses and residences in the city. Montana’s local governments already have very little power when it comes to the regulation of landlord activities, but this small change seems to essentially create a special legal class only for landlords, which, if you ask us, is absolutely bonkers.
Galloway’s second landlord bill, HB 282, has been heavily amended since it was first heard in the House, but it’s still bad news. Under the current version of HB 282, if a tenant either changes their locks without permission or doesn’t grant their landlord access to their home, the landlord can issue a 24-hour notice to correct this violation; if it’s not corrected within 24 hours, the landlord can issue a 3-day notice for termination of the lease. Now, under the Montana Landlord-Tenant Act, refusal of access is already grounds for lease termination, but this timeline is Galloway’s contribution.
Imagine this: You change your locks as an emergency safety measure, and decide to leave town for a few days to stay with a friend. In that time, your landlord decides they’d like to inspect your home, but they can’t get in. 24 hours later, you have three days to find a new place to live– a near-impossible ask in today’s rental climate.
Week 5- Remember HB 170, the bill (already passed through the House) to repeal the state’s current energy goals and development processes? Well, it had a hearing in the Senate’s Energy and Telecommunications committee on Tuesday this week, at which Forward Montana testified in opposition.
For reference, there are currently over 25 different statements listed as energy goals, including creating “new diversified energy development from all of Montana’s abundant energy resources.” Importantly, the policy specifically encourages the legislative body to consider not only economics, but also environm
All in all, this stuff is complicated, like all things in government; but along with other attacks around energy and climate (to keep up with all of those, check out the work our friends over at the Montana Environmental Information Center are doing) this bill makes us nervous. The Senate’s Energy and Telecommunications Committee hasn’t voted on the bill yet, so let them know you want them to vote NO on HB 170!
Week 4- On Friday (1/20) over 300 attendees showed up for a rally in the Capitol building to demand action around climate change NOW!
Disappointingly, the very next Monday, HB 170 passed through the House. This bill repeals the state’s energy goals and any process to develop future goals. By passing this bill, legislators are saying “good-bye” to any commitment the state had made toward transitioning to renewable energy. This flies in the face of democratic principles, considering how many people were just at the Capitol to demand action. Talk about being out of touch with the needs of your constituents, and the world in general! HB 170 is being heard in the House Energy and Telecommunications Committee on Tuesday, January 31 at 3pm. Send the committee a message voicing your opposition at this link!
Week 11- When this bill was heard in committee last Monday, Sen. Regier claimed that this actually improves representation because it gives each of these cities two commissioners to hold accountable. In reality, this map is nothing more than a confusing jigsaw puzzle that divides the vote of Montanans living in Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, and Missoula. There’s no good reason why, when the Commission only has 5 seats for the whole state, cities should be split between districts. It’s also worth noting that Regier’s new map didn’t have a single proponent at the hearing.
Rep. Sullivan has proposed to amend SB 109 to draw some common sense districts that would better represent Montanans.
- The first of Rep. Sullivan’s maps retains the historical practice which draws PSC districts around county lines, which allows for cities to remain intact.
- Rep. Sullivan’s second map draws the districts’ around state House districts, as Sen. Regier’s map does, but only splits one city (Missoula) and three counties.
- The final of Rep. Sullivan’s proposals also uses House districts, but doesn’t split any cities apart.
Redrawing the Public Service Commission’s districts is important, especially because the Legislature has chosen not to do it since 2003. Our current map was drawn by a court because the previous districts didn’t pass the constitutional standard of one person, one vote due to wildly unequal populations. But, the Legislature ought to draw the PSC’s lines fairly, and not to enact a partisan power grab.
Week 10- HB 405 is another proposed constitutional amendment, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway of Great Falls. This proposal would allow half-a-percent of registered voters in a county to sign a petition to call a grand jury to investigate an alleged crime. This bill would allow a tiny number of people (anywhere from 2 in Petroleum County to 530 in Yellowstone) to hijack the judicial system and investigate any supposed crime they wish. Under this bill, any indictment brought by the grand jury would have to be prosecuted by the county attorney– a massive waste of state time and money, as these cases are almost always meritless and lacking evidence.
Week 8- SB 441, sponsored by Senator Mark Noland of Bigfork, attempts to revive the Ballot Interference Protection Act– a measure that has been ruled unconstitutional twice. The original Ballot Interference Protection Act of 2017, or BIPA, made it illegal for Montanans to collect and return more than six ballots. It also imposed strict restrictions and registration requirements on people helping collect ballots. This act was ruled unconstitutional in 2020 due to its clear disenfranchisement of Native voters living on Montana reservations, who often rely on organizations like Western Native Voice to help them return their ballots to far-away elections offices.
SB 441, goes even further than either previous iteration of BIPA: it prohibits anyone but a family member from returning a voter’s ballot (with exceptions for election and postal workers). This is a clear attempt to further disenfranchise Native and disabled voters who rely on their communities to help them cast a ballot, and we’re not having it.
Throughout this session, we have had “reason to fear that the pestilential breath of [partisanship] may poison the fountains of justice” in Montana. There has been an onslaught of bills that would, in some form or another, make our state’s court system partisan and stop judges from being independent arbiters of the law. Below is a summary (that’s as brief as it can be) of some of the bills that have tried to attack our nonpartisan judicial system.
- HB 595, sponsored by Rep. Scot Kerns of Great Falls, would mandate that judge candidates undergo the same partisan nomination and election process as all other political candidates, as well as allow for parties to endorse certain candidates. This bill was heard by the House Judiciary Committee last Tuesday but was thankfully tabled!
- SB 372, another tabled bill, was proposed by Sen. Daniel Emrich also of Great Falls. It would have stripped Montanans of their constitutional right to vote for their Supreme Court justices. Instead, this bill would have put forward a Constitutional amendment requiring justices to be chosen by the House of Representatives and confirmed by the Senate.
- SB 311, by Sen. Barry Usher of Billings, is a bill so nice it failed twice. This bill would have made the Montana Supreme Court’s operations more difficult by reducing the number of justices from 7 to 5. With fewer justices to take on the Court’s caseload it is inevitable that a backlog of cases would pile up. This would mean that people awaiting the Court’s decision would have to wait even longer for their case to be resolved. This bill was narrowly defeated at its second reading on Wednesday, and defeated again when it was reconsidered on Friday.
- HB 464, sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder of Thompson Falls, would have required judicial candidates to state their party affiliation when they run for office. Otherwise, this law would act like they have something to hide from voters and list them as “undisclosed” on the ballot. This bill was also defeated on the House floor last Friday.
But there are still bills to be on the lookout for. SB 302 is another proposal by Sen. Daniel Emrich. This bill would make the November general election for judges partisan. However, this would take place only after a nonpartisan primary election, creating a confusing mess for candidates, election administrators, and voters alike. This bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
Week 7- HB 464, introduced by Rep. Paul Fielder of Thompson Falls, would allow judge candidates to declare their party affiliation when they run for office. But this bill is a little spicier than just that – it also requires candidates who do not list a party affiliation to be listed as “undisclosed” on the ballot. If you want laws that sow seeds of doubt in the actions of judges who follow their ethical obligation not to be partisan, HB 464 might be the choice for you!
Both of these politicizing proposals come courtesy of Sen. Daniel Emrich of Great Falls. The first is SB 302, a doozy that would require the November elections for judges to be partisan, but only after a nonpartisan primary. Next an amendment to Montana’s Constitution, that would do away with Supreme Court judge elections entirely! Instead, SB 372 would have the House of Representatives nominate a judge and then have them confirmed by the Senate. When the legislature is not in session (which is most of the time), the Governor would appoint justices to vacant seats. Montana has never had a system like this; since statehood the Supreme Court judge has always been an elected position.
Montana’s current system of nonpartisan judicial elections! This system recognizes that judges should not decide cases based on partisan alignment, but on the facts and arguments presented to them. An independent judiciary is indispensable to providing robust checks and balances on the other branches of our state government, which is why SB 200, another bill that would have allowed judges to run as partisans, was strongly opposed by Montana’s judges and lawyers and was unanimously tabled in committee just last week.
Week 11- Senate Bill 222 was heard in the House State Administration Committee, a bill that would essentially make it an unlawful, discriminatory practice to require state employees to participate in trainings on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The actual language of the bill is pretty strange, and as Dr. Angelina González-Aller of the Montana Human Rights Network powerfully stated in her testimony against the bill, this so-called “Montana Individual Freedom Act” uses factually incorrect characterizations of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion curriculum to grant people opposed to DEI trainings “the freedom to ignore history, the freedom to ignore the experiences of others, the freedom to repeat wrongs of the past, and the freedom to only serve a select subset of Montanans.”
After testimony from one supporter and several opponents, including Meshayla Cox, the owner and founder of CoEquity Consulting, a fairly robust questioning of this very faulty bill took place. Committee members expressed concern for how trainings would be evaluated as to whether they “compel” people to believe or feel anything listed in the bill and whether law enforcement would still be required to learn how to appropriately respond to acts of white nationalism and neo-nazism.
The committee also found that the bill’s sponsor, Senator Trebas, did not bring this bill forward due to any actual issues occurring in Montana or concerns voiced by his constituents, but took inspiration (and most of the language of this bill) from Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” (which has been temporarily blocked in court due to its unconstitutionality). Sen. Trebas also admitted that he has never actually participated in a DEI training, and that “we’re jumping on the bandwagon with this one, I guess.”
Week 10 – HB 517, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins of Missoula, is a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that claims it would enable the Legislature to ensure college students’ constitutional rights and liberties are not being violated. However, this bill seems to be a direct response to one court case. Last year, the Montana Supreme Court unanimously ruled that HB 102, which would have allowed open or concealed firearms to be carried on any campus in the state, is unconstitutional. Specifically, this act violated the constitutional authority of the Montana Board of Regents to create policies for the University System.
Week 7- Senator Mary Ann Dunwell of Helena is sponsoring a bill that we are delighted to support, SB 315. The comprehensive personal health, sexual health, and safety education proposed by this bill gives Montana’s current sex ed policies a much needed update, and includes criteria for providing age and developmentally appropriate information on consent and healthy relationships, anatomy and physiology, puberty and adolescent sexual development, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation and identity, sexual health, and interpersonal violence.
HB 432, which would codify Montanans’ constitutional right to abortion care. In her opening on the bill, Rep. Bishop specified that this bill doesn’t grant Montanans any protections that are not already enshrined by our constitutional right to privacy; instead, it updates Montana law to reflect reality. It also repeals several abortion-related bills that are legally unenforceable, making Montana’s healthcare landscape much clearer to folks who may be confused by conflicting code when seeking this essential reproductive care.
Week 6– The House handily passed HB 302, sponsored by Rep. Alice Buckley of Bozeman. This bill would require private insurance companies to increase coverage of contraceptives from the current 90 days up to a full year supply! With all of us living very busy lives, and so many living in rural areas far from a pharmacy, this bill would help folks to avoid gaps in supply.
HB 303, the “Medical Ethics & Diversity act” sponsored by Rep. Amy Regier, which has already passed through the House. If passed all the way to the governor’s desk, easy access to birth control might be on the line for lots of Montanans, as pharmacists could refuse to give contraceptives based on religious beliefs– which has happened right here in Montana. Also, don’t forget that legislators like (another) Regier are trying to push bills like SB 154, which would threaten abortion access by “clarifying” our Constitutional right to privacy to exclude this basic reproductive care.
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