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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Flathead Water Compact Bill Stalled After Familiar Rules Debate

Judge James Manley today ruled the portion of the water compact unconstitutional that protects members of a yet-to-be-created water compact board from being sued.
Flickr user Brad Smith (CC-BY-NC-2.0)

The contentious Flathead Reservation water compact appears to be taking the same convoluted path to the House floor as the Medicaid expansion bill did last week.

After hearing ten hours of testimony on the compact over the weekend, the House Judiciary Committee gathered first thing Monday morning to take action on it. That action consisted of 13 amendments, all proposed by Republicans, starting with Keith Regier of Kalispell, who proposed eliminating all references to off-reservation water rights.

“The off-reservation water rights are unique to this compact compared to all of the others and seems to create a lot of problems with opponents to this and I bring this amendment to make the bill better," Regier said.

That drew immediate and angry reactions from Democrats. First, because off-reservation water rights are a key part of the compact, guaranteeing the tribe access to traditional fishing sites, as spelled out in a nineteenth-century treaty. Second, supporters say the compact is a negotiated settlement and can’t be amended.

Rep. Carolyn Peas-Lopez of Billings: “This whole situation is wrapped up in bundles and bundles and swaths of rags of ignorance. These amendments are being proposed for none other than the purpose of killing a bill that has been decades in the making.”

In the same vein as Regier’s amendment, was one by Matthew Monforton of Bozeman, to bar any water claims by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes east of the continental divide. Monforton denies that the tribes have any history of hunting or fishing east of the divide, and he says the tribe’s threats to file water rights claims there were just a way to gin up support for the compact’s approval.

“Compact has been sold to farmers and ranchers east of the continental divide based on fear and lies. Lies echoed by the governor and the attorney general and numerous dark money shills," Monforton claimed.

Supporting Monforton was Billings Republican Clayton Fiscus, who claimed that a court ruling overturned the concept of time immemorial water rights, which would give priority to the tribe’s water claims.

“The claims of aboriginal rights don’t exist because time immemorial has gone by," Fiscus maintains.

Every one of the 13 Republican-sponsored amendments was approved by the committee on an 11 to 10 vote, with all the Democrats and one Republican voting no.

Billings Democrat Virginia Court accused Republicans of not only undermining the compact, but also disrespecting the time and effort put into it.

“The U.S. government and the tribes and the people that put together this current contract have worked long and hard on these issues. And for us to come in as a committee of 18 or 20 and destroy it piece by piece is pretty heart rendering."

Regier countered that amending the bill to make it better is their job as legislators.

"We have an obligation as a legislature to make legislation the best that we can. So we have a difference of opinion, that’s fine. And the water of Montana is controlled by the state of Montana for all of us, not just one group."

But after passing all 13 amendments, allegedly to improve the bill, the same majority on the committee then voted to effectively kill it with a “do not concur” recommendation.

A short time later on the House floor, Democratic leader Chuck Hunter tried to get the committee’s vote overturned. Speaker Austin Knudsen, a Republican, ruled against Hunter and the Democrats appealed Knudsen’s ruling. That’s the same process the Democrats used on the Medicaid bill, and it had the same outcome.

Speaker Austin Knudsen: “Rules committee will meet tomorrow at eleven o’clock I believe …Representative Essman?  ...rules committee will convene tomorrow at eleven o’clock in a room to be determined."

Last week, it took two meetings of the House Rules Committee before the Medicaid bill got to the House floor. Both times a bipartisan majority in the House overruled the Rules committee. Backers of the water compact hope they can make the same process work in their favor. They’re hoping to get the compact passed in the House without amendments before the end of this week.

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