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The latest Montana politics, elections and Legislature news.

Capitol Talk: Guns, Voting And An Executive Power-Up

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 and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Gov. Greg Gianforte wants to increase the power of Montana's executive branch. Meanwhile, U.S. Congressman Matt Rosendale loses a battle with the national Republican leadership. And state Legislature moves toward making it harder to vote and easier to carry concealed guns.

Listen now on Capitol Talk with Sally Mauk, Holly Michels and Rob Saldin.

Sally Mauk Holly, there are some bills in the hopper that would expand the power of the executive branch, and specifically, that would give Gov. Gianforte the power to appoint judges without going through the judicial nominating commission.

And another bill would give them the power not just to appoint directors of state agencies, but deputy directors as well. And these are pretty big changes if they were to go through.

Holly Michels Yeah, they are pretty darn big changes. The first one, it was under a bill requested by Sen. Jason Ellsworth who's a Republican from Hamilton. And this week, the governor's office said that Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras will speak in support of it when it has a hearing.

What it would do is get away with the commission that right now forwards names of judges to the governor when there's judicial vacancies, and the governor picks from that group of people to fill the spot.

In Montana, district court judges and state Supreme Court judges are elected. But when there's a vacancy outside of the election cycle, it falls to this commission to help the governor make those selections.

It's a process that came about from the 1973 Legislature under this power that had been given to them by the state constitutional convention the year prior. And there was a nod at the time by the Legislature to create this commission as a method to move away from some of the corruption that had been a part of the process before.

This is also a move away from how other states are trending in their appointment of judges. In our story, the governor's office didn't really say why they're having the lieutenant governor speak in support of this, but instead just pointed out that it's something they would have the authority to do if the Legislature changes this law.

And one thing that's important here is while judges are elected and appointed, judges who'd have to run again, the power of incumbency — especially when it comes through appointments — is a pretty big part of judges keeping their seat.

And then the other piece that you mentioned, with the governor's office having the ability to appoint deputy directors — this is a bill that came directly at the governor's office's request. Those are positions that are hired now and Gianforte himself has said that they play a pretty valuable role, especially when there's a transition between administrations.

These are people that are, you know, hired not appointed right now, just to be clear; They really know these departments really well and they serve as a good resource when you have a new director coming in who might really not know how things operate. I talked to one former director who said that it'd be pretty challenging if this is how the system was changed to be just because of how much directors really rely on those people.

Gianforte' office, their rationale for it is they said the Public Service Commission right now can appoint their deputy roles, and agency heads should have the same ability. Important point with this bill: It was written in a way that it doesn't come with any estimated cost attached to it, and that's by design because it would give appointment power only in the case of a vacancy.

Mauk Holly, the governor has also dropped a bunch of board appointments made by his predecessor so he can now appoint his own people to these various boards. Is that unusual or is that sort of par for the course when there's a new administration?

Michels It's a little bit of both. You know, we've had changes from one Democratic administration to another for the last 16 years. So there, you know, going from one party to another, there's not really a push to put in new people and we've just seen appointments approved.

Looking back to when Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer came in after Republican Gov. Judy Martz, Sweitzer did let most of Martz' appointments just go through without objection. So this is a little unusual, but it is very much allowed.

Some of these appointments, how it works is if someone is appointed in the interim after the Legislature adjourns, they're a full-fledged board member and they serve as such until Senate appointment. So some of these people have been in the jobs about two years and are now going to be replaced with other people.

Some of these boards are fairly low-profile, but there's also ... this is happening with things like the state Board of Regents, which has some pretty substantial power over the university system.

Mauk Rob, there was a lot of drama in Congress this week over Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green's fitness to hold office, and Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney's fitness to hold a Republican leadership position.

Green is a conspiracy theorist QAnon supporter, and Cheney was one of a handful of House Republicans to vote to impeach former President Trump, which many of her colleagues — including Montana's Congressman Matt Rosendale — were upset about.

Rosendale has long been a big supporter of Trump's, but he's only been a congressman for a few weeks. I was surprised, Rob, that he apparently led the fight to remove Liz Cheney from her leadership post — and I point out that that was a fight he lost and she won.

Rob Saldin Yeah, well, at least he was among the leaders. I don't know if he was the number one leader, that might have been Matt Gates of Florida. But in any event, he was right there at the front. And this was kind of Rosendale's big debut in Congress, and it was frankly an embarrassment.

I guess in one sense, it was pretty remarkable that right out of the gates, he came to be recognized as one of the leaders of this very high-profile effort to punish what they saw as a heretic. And Liz Cheney, despite her own long record of supporting Trump and being very conservative, probably more conservative than her dad.

But the whole purge attempt by Rosendale and the rest was ultimately revealed to be pretty amateurish. You know, ahead of the vote, Rosendale — along with many of his allies — were very confident that Cheney was going to be removed from that leadership post. Rosendale said that she brought this on herself, and that his crew had the votes to oust her.

Well, when those votes were finally tallied, it was clear that Rosendale had badly miscalculated: over two—thirds of the Republican caucus wanted Cheney to stay. And looking forward, Cheney is in fact going to stay in that leadership post for at least the next couple of years.

And, you know, I got to think that's not so great for Rosendale. If you're going to try to kill the king, you better not miss. Well, Rosendale and the rest of the hardcore Trump loyalists — they missed, and Cheney is no wallflower. She is, I suspect, quite unlikely to forget about this episode.

Mauk And she has the backing of the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, and some of the other top leaders in the party. And one would think that would not be to Rosendale's favor there.

Holly, there's more than one bill moving through the state Legislature that would make it harder to vote, and a bill sponsored by Florence Republican Sharon Greef would, for example, end same-day voter registration.

Michels Yeah, there's a handful of these bills that are moving through. This one — the Greef one that you mentioned — is a priority for the Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen.

Republicans have focused on this platform through this session of improving what they're calling "election integrity" — that's a phrase we're hearing a lot at the Capitol this week.

We did hear from some elections administrators who said that bumping back the deadline for when people could register to vote to the noon on Monday before would help them focus on running elections and not deal with people registering at the same time. And we have seen long lines in recent days.

But, like you said, it does make it harder to vote. There's people who are opposed to this measure, calling it voter suppression, saying it would create obstacles that don't exist right now.

We're also seeing a pretty interesting divide among Republicans in the House on this bill. It initially cut off registration on Friday before an election, and the bill was actually dead for a while before it was revived this week with a change that put that deadline at Monday before the vote.

Republicans are saying this was a compromise, but we did see a pretty interesting skirmish on the House floor with some Republicans asking why they would be compromising given that they won by pretty big margins in November.

Mauk Browning Democrat Marvin Weatherwax is among the many opponents to the bill. Here's what he had to say:

"I will call this what it is: voter suppression. I'm kind of upset that we would even think of doing something like this to our people, to any of our people — I'm not speaking for any specific group."

Mauk When he says to a people, he's talking about this being a suppression of the Native American vote.

Michels Yeah, we heard from a lot of people in Native communities around the state about how this would really, really hamper issues there. And, you know, they brought up sort of long-time issues that Natives have had with voting. For one, just not being allowed to vote to, you know, we had a big lawsuit in Montana over access to voting.

If you think about these communities, there are people that can live pretty far from the courthouse or place you'd need to go to register to vote. And even registering to vote by mail is pretty challenging because there's also just a lot of issues with getting mail on reservation communities.

So I talked to a couple people who are saying right now what we do is we'll help people vote by going out on Election Day, we'll be giving them rides. And when you can stop and both register and vote at the same time, that makes it possible. It really wouldn't work over a two-day process otherwise. So I do think this would result in, you know, a lot of people around Montana not being able to vote.

Greef was saying that that's not her intent, she doesn't think that that would be the result. But we heard from a lot of people who are doing this work in Native communities that said that it would pretty dramatically affect turnout.

Mauk Well a bill likely headed to the governor's desk, Rob, would allow people to carry a concealed weapon in government buildings and on college campuses. Hamilton Republican Theresa Manzella is carrying that bill, and here's what she had to say:

"Anywhere a criminal has the ability to carry, a law-abiding citizen should have the right to carry also."

Mauk But Big Timber Sen. John Esp is one of only two Republicans to vote against the bill:

"In my view, this bill goes too far. It doesn't resonate with my common sense."

Mauk Rob, a lot of people on campuses are very concerned about this bill.

Saldin Yeah, right Sally. Basic idea here is to drop the requirement for a permit if you want to carry a concealed weapon in places where a permit is currently required.

On college campuses, there was an amendment inserted this week that you'd still have to go through some sort of training to legally carry a gun. But still, many at universities are skeptical that more guns on campus is a good idea.

But for Manzella and other proponents of the measure, as we heard in that clip, basically they say the situation is one in which if you have more guns in the hands of the good guys, well, that limits the damage that can be done by gun-carrying bad guys. And that's basically the way they approach these things. And that's not just a Montana thing, that's something you're seeing across the country.

You know, one of the points Esp and other opponents make is that this bill would allow guns and presumably increase the number of them in establishments that serve alcohol. And for Esp and other opponents of this legislation, you know, he said he thought it went too far, and part of the reason for that is they argue that guns and alcohol aren't a great combination.

Mauk Safe to say this would likely head to court if it becomes law.

Saldin I wouldn't be surprised. I think we're going to be seeing a lot of things out of this legislative session headed to the courts.

Mauk Holly, another bill that would possibly head to court if it passes would allow Montana to resume executing prisoners who have been sentenced to death.

Executions in Montana were stopped about six years ago when a judge ruled a drug used in lethal injections in Montana was inhumane because it took too long to cause death. But here we are with a bill to reinstate executions.

Michels This bill saw support when it was heard in committee from new attorney general, Republican Austin Knudsen. He characterized it as saying, you know, Montana has the death penalty on the books, this is really about fixing a technical problem — [this] is how he characterized as — that's come up because of the ruling that you talked about.

We did hear a lot of debate in committee that sort of strayed into should Montana have the death penalty and some of the issues around that, so it will be interesting to see how this goes forward. But it is a bill that we've seen before, but we have a different governor now so it might meet a different end.

Mauk And Rob, Montana has previously debated abolishing the death penalty altogether, but it never passed.

Saldin Right. It occurs to me that at the national level, the death penalty was such a big issue back in the '80s and the '90s. It was a prominent issue in presidential campaigns in 1988 and '92 and 2000. But since then, I think it's really slipped off the national radar screen for one reason or another.

But in Montana, it's never really gone away. I think we see this issue come up every legislative session, and it's just kind of one of those perennial things that's always out there and here it is, back again this session.

Mauk As many issues are resurfacing this session certainly. Holly, Rob, have a good weekend, stay warm — I'll talk to you next week.

Saldin Thanks Sally.

Michels Thanks Sally.

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 and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune during the legislative session Fridays at 6:44 p.m., via podcast or listen online.

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