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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

A Coup Attempt, A Budget Proposal And COVID Confusion

'Capitol Talk' is MTPR's weekly legislative analysis program.
Montana Public Radio
'Capitol Talk' is MTPR's weekly legislative analysis program.

Montana lawmakers had very different takes on Wednesday's insurrection and the unfounded claims that fueled it. Gov. Gianforte released his budget proposal. And the Legislature started out with confusing and contradictory COVID-19 protocols.

Listen now on Capitol Talk, with MTPR's Sally Mauk, Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.

Editor's Note: We apologize that Capitol Talk aired Saturday morning instead of its usual time Friday evening. It will return to its normal schedule next Friday.

Capitol Talk is an analysis program, and we took the additional time to make clear that an Op-Ed co-authored by our regular contributor Rob Saldin of the University of Montana Mansfield Center and Political Science Department that ran in Montana newspapers this week is an opinion piece separate from and outside of this analysis program.

Sally Mauk Holly, whatever has been going on in state capitals the last couple of days has been overshadowed by the mob takeover of the U.S. Capitol this week. What has been the reaction among legislators and others in Helena to that riot and its aftermath?

Holly Michels Yes, it was pretty interesting because on the day of that insurrection as things were unfolding in D.C., it was kind of near the end of floor sessions here in Helena when things were getting very intense. So, lawmakers weren't really, as a big group, reactive that day. We heard a lot more things come on Thursday. There was a moment of silence on the House floor. It was mentioned in a prayer before the Senate session started.

But we did on Wednesday, when it happened, see statements from legislative leadership. Generally, what we were hearing from Republicans is a denouncing of the violence in D.C. And they were also pointing to a protest in Helena that was much more a protest, where what happened in D.C. went far beyond that. But it was people standing outside the Capitol holding signs, you know, much more calm. And Republicans are saying this is kind of how, if you have disputes, this is the way to bring them.

But none of the statements from Republicans that we saw really addressed the cause of this insurrection in D.C., these false claims that the election was somehow stolen. We talked to Democratic leadership and they were having much more strong denouncements of those false claims, in addition to denouncing the violence, but saying that the claims from Trump and other Republicans that enabled and fired up this mob in D.C. needed to stop.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, similarly categorically denounced the violence. And on Thursday, he did say that he thinks Trump's message on Wednesday to people who were occupying the Capitol — to stop, to go home — wasn't strong enough in that moment.

Sally Mauk Like you said, there was a peaceful demonstration in Helena by Trump supporters. But at some state capitols there were some less than peaceful demonstrations. Is there any increased security at the Montana Capitol that you've noticed?

Holly Michels So there is not. There's no changes to the staffing level of security here. We do have more security during the legislative session. So we're seeing that in the building. But otherwise it's pretty much business as usual, as much as that's possible in a pandemic this year.

Sally Mauk Rob, many Democrats and some Republicans are blaming not just the president for fostering the assault in the Capitol, but they're also blaming those Republican members of Congress, including Montana's Sen. Daines and Rep. Rosendale, who supported Trump's unfounded allegations of election fraud. Senator Daines, before the riot, was going to vote against certifying the electors, and then after the riot changed his mind.

Rob Saldin Yeah, exactly Sally. You know, I think what we saw this week was an attempted coup. It was a pretty clumsy one, but that's what it was nonetheless. And Daines and Rosendale do bear some responsibility for helping to foster the environment that led to it. They, as you note, they enthusiastically spread the president's lies that the election was stolen. They lent their support to serious efforts to overturn a free and fair election. And this comes, particularly in Daines' case, after four years of this kind of thing. Four years of lending his unqualified support to a dangerous demagogue. He certainly knows better, and now we are where we are. People have died. The country is disgraced. Our democracy is in crisis.

Sally Mauk Here's what Congressman Matt Rosendale in an interview with the radio show Montana Talks had to say about why he was going to vote against certifying the Biden electors.

"We've got numerous, extensive, credible allegations of fraud that have taken place in many states. And for those states to certify those elections without addressing those allegations properly, I do not feel comfortable in certifying the electors coming from those states."

Sally Mauk And unlike Senator Daines, Rosendale did not change his mind after the assault on the Capitol.

I guess my question, Rob, is will there, do you think, be any lasting backlash against either Daines or Rosendale over this?

Rob Saldin The reality is that a very large minority of our fellow citizens, particularly here in Montana, support Trump and they want Daines and Rosendale to show unquestioning allegiance to him. And I suspect that a significant number of our fellow citizens look at Wednesday's events and, you know, to one degree or another view them as justifiable. But, you know, on that Rosendale clip, you know, it just strikes me, the cynicism in that is just so deep.

Sally Mauk Holly, back at the State Capitol in Helena, Gov. Gianforte released his budget this week. And to no one's surprise, it has less spending than his predecessor, Gov. Bullock proposed. But it's also not really a radical change, not a radical budget on the whole.

Holly Michels Yeah, no, this budget, the assistant budget director characterized it as really just flat. And people I talk to are saying that from what they've seen so far digging into it, it's preserving essential services that they're concerned about. So not as radical as I think some people were anticipating.

It does have a lot of what we see Gianforte campaigned on. It's about $50 million in tax cuts from a couple of different proposals. Gianforte wants to cut the top income tax bracket rate. He says it'll save Montanans about $30 million in taxes each year. There are some people arguing that most of the tax cuts for people who make over half a million dollars a year, they'll save about $1,300. But it's more like $14 a year for people who make around $40,000 to $60,000 a year. There's also proposals he has to eliminate the business equipment tax for about 4,000 businesses in the state by raising the exemption for that tax. There's also an exemption that is pretty interesting to me. It would exempt businesses in Montana that come and create long term jobs from capital gains taxes on the sale of employee owned stock. If that scenario sounds familiar, it's pretty much what Gianforte did moving to Montana starting a tech company. He ended up selling for $1.8 Billion.

There's a lot else in this budget. I think one of the things that's most interesting to me is it uses some of the revenues from legalization of cannabis, leverages that with some money from a tobacco settlement and federal funds to create $23.5 million towards substance abuse treatment programs. And then one other little nugget I just think is interesting is Gianforte won't be using the state plane. Because of that sale of his company that we talked about he's got vast personal wealth, so he'll be paying his own travel bill. And that money will go to an effort by the lieutenant governor to look at bringing on some staff to help her find places to maybe cut spending in state government. So those are some of the high line observations in that budget we saw this week.

Sally Mauk Rob, the new governor has also picked most of his new cabinet, and it has both some familiar and very unfamiliar faces.

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally. You know, as you kind of suggest there, there are a few biggies left to go. But my own sense is the cabinet picks have been relatively well received. You know, obviously, these aren't the people who would be in a Cooney administration if he had won. These are folks, for the most part, who have long ties to the Republican Party and conservatives. And, you know, that's entirely appropriate and to be expected under a Republican governor, even if it is a shift after 16 years of Democratic administrations. But my own sense of these people, and just in talking to people around the state is that, you know, these people in general don't qualify as kind of controversial, lightning-rod picks. You know, on the whole, my sense is that these are well regarded, well qualified people with appropriate experience. There has been some criticism that a number of them are from out of state, and that's certainly something that Montanans can get a little prickly about. But, you know, I guess the thing that's probably most important for a new governor is to just find people that you're comfortable with, people that you trust, and people who have experience and competence to run these agencies smoothly and without a whole lot of drama that's going to distract from your other priorities.

Sally Mauk Holly, the Legislature has set its own rules for how to deal with the COVID pandemic, and it's a mishmash of following CDC guidelines and not following the guidelines. How is that working out? I mean, this week one lawmaker tested positive, and no one's surprised.

Holly Michels Yeah, I mean, I think what you just said, that we've already had a legislator test positive on the fourth day of the session shows how it's working out. It's Representative Dave Bedey, a Republican from Hamilton. And I did see him in the building all week. He was one of the Republicans — most Republicans are not wearing masks, but Bedey has been through the session so far. But it's just, honestly, really weird at the Capitol. In some ways things are pretty different. There's some committee rooms that have Plexiglas barriers, and people are told that they have to be masked. But then you can be sitting on the Republican side of the House floor and look out and, you know, it looks pretty darn close to how it would look in a normal session. You've got people sitting close together. You can go out in the hallways, people are still jam packed outside meeting rooms or outside the House or Senate floor. You know, there's temperature checks. There were manned stations the first couple of days. But now it's just a little thing that looks like an iPad that you can stand in front of. And when I came in the door this morning I was the only one that stopped, out of a group of five, to get my temperature checked. So it's all just pretty strange.

And I think one thing to clarify, to just help people understand, is that legislators have control over their own chambers. They can write the rules, like you said. So they're not subject to the mask mandate that the rest of the state is under right now while they're in their own chambers conducting legislative business. What's getting tricky, and what we're really digging into right now is what that means for the rest of the Capitol. It's a public building. You have public members coming in into these meeting rooms. It's not entirely clear, legally, what the rules are for those places, if they would be under the same rules the rest of Lewis and Clark County is under.

Sally Mauk Here's what the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Billings Republican Barry Usher, said about why he's not requiring masks.

"If they want to wear one, that's fine. Social distancing, I'm going to ask members, if they feel comfortable. Because, you know, if somebody's already had it, they don't have to worry about it. So I'm gonna, I'm gonna leave that up to the personal responsibility of everybody."

Sally Mauk And Holly, if personal responsibility actually worked we wouldn't be having a pandemic that has now lasted almost a year and is getting worse.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think we heard a lot of some of the frustrations from Democrats and a lot of the public, too, in this first meeting of the COVID-19 panel that legislators have formed to address COVID in the Capitol. And, you know, a lot of people pointed out that the first COVID case happened before this panel even met, and raised the point of that, you know, you can say to wear masks and all of that, but COVID's already here, It's in the Capitol. So it'll be interesting, I think, to see how it plays out. I thought, you know, Shaylee Ragar with Montana Public Radio had a really good report this week talking about Usher's committee room and how it was much more, looks like it would in a normal session. Then you go across the hall to represent Llew Jones running the appropriation committee and it looks entirely different. There's a lot more protocols in place. You've got that Plexiglas, masking, and all that. So it is just, you know, really, really different. There's not a lot of uniformity right now. I'm not sure if we're going to see that or not as this COVID panel tries to come up with some recommendations. There was even some pretty strong disagreement in there today, just about the language, about encouraging versus requiring wearing masks around legislative staff. So it'll be pretty interesting to see how things shake out.

Sally Mauk One thing's for sure, this is a session like no other and we will continue to track it. Rob and Holly. It's good to be back with you, and I'll talk to you next week.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin. Tune during the legislative session Fridays at 6:44 p.m.,via podcast, or listen online.

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.
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