Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Capitol Talk: Zinke's Confirmation Hearing, Coal Tax Money, And Women's Rights

The Montana Capitol in Helena.
Mike Albans
Montana Capitol, Helena.

This week, Congressman Ryan Zinke had his confirmation hearing this past week to become the next Secretary of the Interior. Assuming that Zinke is confirmed, Gov. Bullock will soon call a special election to fill Zinke's Congressional seat. Republican Ken Miller is the latest new candidate for this position.

Part of this week's conversation also includes a proposed bill that would set up long-term financing for future infrastructure projects by using coal tax money, and several bills aiming to update Montana's sexual assault statutes.

Lastly, the hosts discuss the women's marches taking place across the country the day after Trump's inauguration and whether this is the start of a long-term movement.

Join Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson, and Rob Saldin now for this episode of  "Capitol Talk."
Sally Mauk: Rob, Congressman Ryan Zinke had his confirmation hearing this past week, hoping to become the new Secretary of the Interior and the first Montanan to ever serve in a Cabinet, and he got positive reviews.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, that's right. I thought he did just fine, and he should sail through the confirmation votes, and I'd actually expect him to get plenty of Democratic support. The reality here is that given that there's a new President in the White House and that President is Donald Trump, Zinke is a Secretary that Democrats will feel they can work with on many if not all issues, and given some of the other names on Trump's Interior short-list, I just think a lot of Democrats feel like they dodged a bullet on this one. Actually, on the flip-side, some Republicans might be a little disappointed that Trump tapped Zinke.

As for the hearing itself, I think he did just fine, particularly when you compare his hearing to some of the other confirmation hearings that we've seen just over the last week. I would say that I thought he sometimes came off as more comfortable talking in generalities or reminding everyone that Teddy Roosevelt is his hero. And of course, Teddy Roosevelt is a good hero to have if you're going to be leading the Interior Department. But he didn't always seem entirely comfortable or familiar with some of the finer details of the Interior portfolio, and on one level, that's not entirely surprising because prior to this, he spent most of his career focused on foreign policy, national security, but it does suggest he might have some homework to do to get up to speed on some issues that he's less familiar with.

SM: He did please conservationists when he unequivocally said he does not support selling off public lands, that he wants to keep those public lands public. And he also said that he does not believe as Donald Trump has said that climate change is a hoax. But hedged his bets on that, and this exchange was Senator Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders: You do not believe it's a hoax?

Ryan Zinke: No, I believe we should be prudent to be prudent. That means, I don't know definitively. There's a lot of debate on both sides of the aisle.

BS: Well, actually there's not a whole lot of debate now. The scientific community is virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems. There is the debate on this committee, but not within in the scientific community.

SM: Senator Sanders wasn't going to let Congressman Zinke get away with that.

RS: No, and prior to that, Zinke had said he did not think climate change was a hoax. Bernie Sanders liked that, but didn't like the re-phrasing that Zinke tried to do afterwards. But still, I think here, relative to some of Trump's other cabinet picks, some of the other names that were bandied about for Interior, even that has to be something pretty encouraging to a lot of Democrats.

And on the public lands issue, that was another thing that struck me in the hearing. Zinke has a little bit of an erratic track record here. At times, he's really stuck his neck out to defend public lands and oppose proposals for selling or transferring public lands, but then just a couple weeks ago, he voted for this large rules package that included a provision that will make it easier to transfer land to state control.

And some would say this is part of a pattern in which he sets himself up as a great public lands champion but then doesn't always follow through. Well, in hearing, as you say, he re-iterated many times his support for public lands and attributed that vote to the fact that it was a small piece of a much larger legislative package, saying he would have opposed it had it come up as a stand-alone measure. I'm not sure that that's going to convince all of his detractors, but it was certainly reassuring to many conservationists who were understandably confused by that vote.

SM: Chuck, assuming that Zinke will be confirmed, Gov. Bullock will soon call a special election to fill his Congressional seat, and it seems like every week, we come on the show and talk about the latest new candidate or potential candidate and this week will be no exception. There was another name thrown into the race, and it's a name familiar within the Republican State Party, Ken Miller.

Chuck Johnson: Yes, Sally, Ken Miller is a former state senator from Laurel, former state Republican chair, and he ran and lost races for governor in 2004 and 2012 in the Republican primaries. He's a conservative Republican, kind of in the Tea Party, conservative, Christian camp, which has a lot of followers. The odd thing to me is he would appeal to a lot of the same people that would be backing Greg Gianforte, who was the Republican nominee for governor last year and lost to Gov. Bullock.

And Gianforte has not yet declared he's a candidate, but has claimed to have nearly 100 of the delegates in his camp when they have the state convention. So to some extent, I don't understand why Miller is running against Gianforte, and Miller in fact said he wants Gianforte to run for governor in four years again. So we'll see if he stays in and if Gianforte does get in the race.

SM: That could shape up to be a certainly interesting race when the state Republican delegates meet to pick their candidate. Rob?

RS: One thing that struck me about Miller's entry is that he suggested Greg Gianforte is only interested in the House seat in-so-far as he can use it as a better way to position himself for a second run at governor. And what's especially interesting about this is that it is not the first time we've heard this about Gianforte. State Senator, Ed Buttrey, another one of the Republican candidates, made the same charge last week. Now, I don't know whether the allegation is true or not, but it certainly seems to be the emerging knock on Gianforte as a candidate for this House seat. The other candidates seem to be lining up with this message of: 'Hey, I actually want to be in Congress. Gianforte isn't really committed to it and will be out of there after one or two terms.'

SM: Chuck, the Legislature heard a bill this week that would set up long-term financing for future infrastructure projects by using coal tax money, and this is not a new idea.

CJ: No, Sally, a similar idea surfaced in the last session but was sponsored by a Republican senator, and it died late in the session. And essentially what this would do is set up a trust within the coal-tax severance trust fund to raise money for infrastructure and public works projects, and it would accumulate money over like five years and get to $50 million, and they haven't figured it out yet, but they would come up with a way to distribute some of the interest on that money.

You have to picture the coal-tax trust fund is one big pipe, and this would be a little pipe coming off the pipe. I always tell people there are other pipes like this, and it kind of looks like the plumbing job by the Three Stooges, but it works. There's a big amount of money in these coal funds and they're used for different purposes. I don't think this bill has much of a chance. It's sponsored by the Democratic Senate Leader Jon Sesso, and I have a feeling any infrastructure packages that becomes law this session, if any do, will have Republican names on them.

SM: It will certainly be part of the conversation about infrastructure.

CJ: I think so.

SM: Rob, the Legislature is also considering several bills this session to update Montana's sexual assault statutes, including one by Democratic State Senator Diane Sands of Missoula, to change the legal definition of rape.

RS: Exactly. Under current Montana law, for an incident to be considered sexual assault, there has to be an element of force used against the victim. So, as a practical matter, what this means, is that it's very difficult for a prosecutor to get a conviction unless there's obvious evidence that the victim physically tried to fight off the attacker. But we know now that for a variety of reasons, this often doesn't happen, even in cases that would clearly be considered rape.

SM: This bill has bipartisan support, and here's Wilsall Republican Nels Swandal, a former district judge speaking in support.

Swandal: A lot of the statutes and the elements of sex crimes came from property law, well before 1970 when these were written. They kind of just came up when women were considered chattels and not equal. Now society has evolved a great deal, we hope it has, but the laws have not evolved, and it's important that we pass this for the victims and potential victims.

SM: And the bill has passed the Senate, Rob, and it's on its way to the House and probably on its way to passage as is probably many of the other bills dealing with sexual assault. It seems to be a session that really wants to address that issue.

RS: Yeah, for sure, Sally. You mentioned the bipartisan support. You could even go further and say this bill hasn't even picked up a dissenting vote yet. It sailed through the Senate unanimously, and so I think clearly, this is something that legislators from both parties see as a sensible reform to update Montana's laws in this area, and there's no reason to think it will run into any trouble in the House, or of course, that Gov. Bullock would be opposed to it.

CJ: This package of bills came from an interim committee that studied the issue and so it got through an interim committee which is made up of bipartisan division of the Legislature, and I think a lot of bills that come from interim committees are pretty likely to pass because they have been studied pretty thoroughly and vetted from both parties.

SM: And that's the point of having interim committees in the first place, of course. Violence against women is one of several issues protested by women-led marches in D.C. and in every state to the day after the inauguration, including in Helena. And Rob, the marches that have been billed as being non-partisan, but in fact, they were organized directly in reaction to the new Trump administration.

RS: Of course. This is the alternative inaugural event, you might say. A lot of people across the country were expecting to be celebrating the inauguration of Hillary Clinton, be it in D.C. or at home. And these events are a way for the most part for these people to gather and commemorate this event, look forward to the next four years of pushing back against the new administration.

SM: It will be interesting to see, I think, how many protests do arise in the next few weeks and months in regards to the fact that the new president did not get the majority of the popular votes. That means there's a lot of disenchantment right off the bat that could be manifested in this way.

RS: Absolutely. We could look back to 2000 right after that very divisive election that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. But still, even there, George W. Bush took office with very strong levels of support. Trump is under water from the get-go. One thing that will be interesting to see is whether the energy and organization around these women's marches is something that will carry forward. Can that organization stick together in any coherent way, or is it going to be like the Occupy Wall Street movement that essentially fell apart after a couple of months because there wasn't any way of transferring that energy into concerted action in Washington. It will be fascinating to see what the opposition to the Trump administration looks like and how well it can coalesce as a movement that can do something more than just stage some protests around the country.

SM: Well, emotions are still high, and whether people will be in it for the long-haul or not.

CJ: Let's not forget that the Tea Party movement originated in 2009 after Obama's election and was thought to be a grass-roots movement opposing a lot of his ideas, and later research has shown it was kind of grass-roots as planted by the Koch brothers and their friends, but that's when it showed up, shortly after the election of Obama in 2008.

SM: And it was in for the long haul.

CJ: Still going. Although I don't think it's as strong as it was in the early years.

RS: Although it seems to me that they did have some real success is sending people to Congress, changing the Republican caucus in Congress, shifting in much more populist, conservative, libertarian direction, and again to me, that will be what's interesting about these marches. Is that more in the mold of Tea Party movement or more in the mold of the Occupy Wall Street movement that was never able to take that next step and actually translate that unrest into power back in Washington?

SM: Well, there's going to be a lot to talk about in the coming weeks and months.

"Capitol Talk" is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk is joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.

Tune in to "Capitol Talk" online, or on your radio at 6:35 p.m. every Friday during the session, and again on Sunday at 11:00 a.m.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information
Related Content