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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Capitol Talk: Mid-Session Recap

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.

Right-to-work legislation fails. "Culture war" bills are still alive. And the big budget fights loom as the Legislature marks its midpoint.

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

Sally Mauk Holly, one of the bills that did not make the deadline be transmitted to the other chamber was a so-called right to work bill, strongly and effectively opposed by Democrats and unions and a lot of Republicans who voted no.

Holly Michels Yeah, this was a pretty interesting debate we heard in the House on Tuesday. It was carried by a representative, Caleb Hinkle, who's a Republican from Belgrade. And the bill would have prohibited the requirement of belonging to a union as a condition of employment, and also stopped private-sector unions from requiring nonmembers who are covered by the bargaining agreements they negotiate to pay union dues. This bill, it was interesting watching in committee and only cleared it because enough Republicans there — and it wasn't all Republicans on the committee even — said, well, they maybe didn't agree with the proposal or they weren't quite sure they wanted the debate on the full House floor, so we did end up there and there was a lot of opposition to the bill in committee. And then even more when the full House heard the bill.

When I was driving in that morning, I was thinking I might park really close to the building since the Senate was out, it was just the House. It was the last day before transmittal. And even probably three blocks from the Capitol, it became clear there are a lot of cars and a lot of people in the building with tons of union workers. They filled the hallways with signs opposing right to work line the entrance to the house to make their presence known to lawmakers. We heard from just a very few Republicans on the floor who supported the bill. Lots of opposition from Democrats and some Republicans spoke against it as well.

Democrats were led by Representatives Jim Keene and Derek Harvey from Butte. Harvey went into the history of his town and unions, and Keene made a pretty direct appeal to people both filling the galleries — union members — and then fellow House members as well about the role union workers play in their communities.

You know, went back and looked, there was a leaked document that came out from the more conservative side of the GOP caucus in the House before the start of the session about their priorities, and "right to work" actually wasn't in there. There's 67 Republicans in the House. Twenty nine voted against this bill Tuesday. So a fair amount of opposition, but also a fair amount of support too from the Republican Party on this. I wouldn't be shocked if we do see it come back again, maybe in two years.

Sally Mauk Rob, these kinds of bills are intended to weaken the labor movement. And that's an effort that has worked actually in a lot of other red states.

Rob Saldin Yeah, it has Sally. This "right to work" project among Republicans and conservatives has definitely been on the march nationally and gaining ground. Just in the last 10 years we've seen six states that have enacted "right to work" policies. Maybe most notably including Wisconsin under Scott Walker, which was a huge national story. So at this point, there are 28 states that are considered "right to work." And then, of course, there was that 2018 Janus decision by the Supreme Court, a 5-4 decision that was a big victory for "right to work" proponents nationwide. That only pertained to public sector unions, although that's also increasingly becoming the real heart of organized labor. So it is quite interesting, I think, that Montana Republicans took a pass on this. There were some indications in the past months that Gianforte wasn't eager to jump into the fray on this one. And just looking at the number of Republicans who voted against it, it seems pretty clear that at the very least, Gianforte wasn't exerting much pressure on his fellow Republicans to get this one to his desk, which just on its own is pretty interesting. It may be that the people in the gallery that, Holly, you were talking about, I mean, maybe that played a role. Maybe Gianforte has other priorities and didn't want this to be a distraction from those. Or maybe this is a reflection of the changing contours of our politics and the GOP's increasing reliance on a white working class base.

Sally Mauk Holly, among the bills that did make the transmittal deadline are so-called culture war bills. And these are bills that limit abortion, limit transgender and gay rights, and expand gun rights. Many, if not all of these bills could be signed into law if they reach the governor's desk. And I'm not sure that's a very big if.

Holly Michels Yeah, this is something we've been talking with GOP leadership about, sort of the pace of this session and the heavy front loading of a lot of these social bills. You know, a lot of people pointed out these are bills that have been tried before. So they didn't really need to be drafted or created from scratch. And like you said, I think they've been waiting for a Republican in the governor's office, since a lot of these have been vetoed before and are far likely to meet a different fate, if they are to clear the Legislature. And there was a pretty big rush of them, they're pretty much policy bills, so they needed to move up against the transmittal deadline.

And what it's done is it's given Democrats a line of attack against Republicans. You know, they're saying you guys ran on jobs and the economy and we're seeing all these social bills that don't really deal with that. And we did. I mean, like you said, we took up a lot of social things as first half of the session legislation that would limit access to abortion. We had the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a lot of those that are targeting transgender people. It's fair to say Republicans, you know, Democrats say you ran on jobs, the economy, but a lot of them did run on issues like cutting access to abortion. Though I didn't, you know, see any campaigns about things like limiting medical procedures for transgender minors.

Republicans counter that they're still doing things like advancing Gianforte's tax policies, other bills that they say will create jobs. And then a lot of those can come the second half of the session because they weren't up against this transmittal deadline that we're just in. Even on those bills, though, Democrats are arguing they're focusing on the wrong populations. I think "right to work" bill that we talked about earlier is a pretty good example, too, of an easy target for Democrats. Just because these bills take up so much debate. It's pretty intense, and a lot of press coverage too.

The second half of the session we'll see where the focus lands. A lot of these bills are still going to be heard in the other chamber, but probably a lot more dominated by the budget. But there is some pretty big policy stuff out there dealing with recreational cannabis. So, be an interesting second half.

Sally Mauk Rob, if these so-called culture war bills do become law, Montana will present a very different face to the world.

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally. I mean, you could say it would start to look like a lot of other states that are controlled by Republicans. You know, what we're seeing in the Legislature is is pretty consistent with what we're seeing nationally in states that are controlled by Republicans. And, you know, one thing that strikes me is just that the whole nationalization of our politics really is one of the defining features of our age. You know, in some ways, this has been going on for a long time at the national level. But Montana has always been something of a holdout from this trend. And I think Sally and Holly that we talked about this a bit back during the campaign in the context of Montana having this tradition of split-ticket voting that was evident as recently as 2018, although it was nowhere to be found last year. Well, it does seem that that nationalization of politics in some ways kind of trickled down to the Legislature, too. I mean, obviously, there's always been some of that, but it does seem like much of what we're seeing is just similar to what's going on in these other Republican-controlled states.

One thing that that strikes me about the abortion bills, at least, is that they definitely move the needle in a way that pro-lifers can be proud of and excited about and that pro-choice groups have reason to be concerned about. But that said, they are somewhat more modest in scope than some of the stuff that we're seeing in other states. So you can kind of look at it as glass is half full or glass half empty, I think, on either side of that. But it does strike me that some of what we're seeing, at least in the abortion space, and we talked about the "right to work" business earlier, that that has maybe not been quite as extreme as certainly some progressives expected it to be with the united Republican control in Helena for the first time in a generation.

Sally Mauk Holly, Democrats are not happy with the logjam of bills that were pushed through right before the transmittal break. Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vinton basically said it couldn't be helped. Here's what she said.

"We have a new governor. We have new statewide officials. We have lots of new legislators, also legislative staff. They were working with a new drafting system. And then on top of all of that: COVID.

Sally Mauk Democratic Minority Leader Kim Abbott didn't approve of the rush.

"You know, our job is to vet legislation, consider it, give it due time and due diligence. And the schedule the majority created for us didn't allow for it."

Sally Mauk And some Democrats, Holly, also complained that Republicans are treating them with disrespect.

Holly Michels Yeah, we had a pretty sharp example of that the last couple of days leading up to transmittal. The House Energy Committee held up pretty hastily-called meeting Saturday morning. I tuned in because I'd watched that committee work until about 9 p.m. the night before, and it looked like they were done with everything on their plate. The chairman of that committee is Representative Derek Skees of Kalispell. He pretty hastily gathered lawmakers, got a quorum and they voted without allowing Democrats, who weren't there when Skees was taking roll, but did make their presence known before he was done with that process. There were [indecipherable] and Republicans were in the meeting. They ended up reviving a bill that the committee had killed earlier in the week. Democrats said that they were deliberately excluded from that process. And I think it's pretty common we see people come and go late to meetings a lot during the session. You might be presenting a bill in another committee or something. So that was something that I hadn't seen before.

And we heard Representative Vinton, who's the majority leader in the House, we heard from earlier, she got up on the House floor Monday and sort of addressed it. She said Republicans would redouble their efforts to conduct themselves in a manner befitting of the House. And Skees actually called that meeting back Monday after the House's first floor session and they actually undid their actions with Democratic participation. So it's a pretty sharp example we have seen in this crunch up to transmittal.

You know, we've heard Republicans say there's a lot of bills that move when you've got a new governor and you've got new people in the statewide elected offices. And there are a lot that has happened in the past. But I pulled numbers from the 2005 session and 2013, which was the last time we had that changeover. And if you look at the two days leading up to transmittal and what people heard in floor sessions, there was a lot more moving through this time around, which I think just led to long days, a lot of tension and frustrations from folks.

Sally Mauk Holly, the second half of the session, as you mentioned earlier, begins on Monday. And this is the part where the budget fights begin. And those can be some of the nastiest fights ever, no matter how much Sue Vinton says everyone's going to play nice now. We'll see how that unfolds.

Holly Michels Yeah, it's going to be an interesting one, especially with COVID and challenges to the budget. I mean, there there still is a lot of federal coronavirus aid that they need to look at how they might let agencies use.

You know, Democrats pointed to some wins. They were able to build back some money in the health department's budget. But there's some fights looming over tribal liaison positions. I think also interesting, some of Gianforte proposals. He had wanted to create this Heart Fund that would look at substance use disorder treatment in communities. That actually didn't get folded into the health department budget as proposed. They'll probably be a policy bill that will be heard. So that. I think there's some frustration about what pots of money it might be tapping. Gianforte. It also wanted to put additional judges into Gallatin and Flathead counties, and that didn't make it through the budget process. So they're going to keep pushing for that, saying that's a pretty big looming battle. I think, like I said earlier, too, recreational cannabis and where the revenues go from that and how that works into the budget picture is going to be a pretty interesting process too.

Sally Mauk Rob, what are you going to be watching for in the second half of the session?

Rob Saldin I think Holly nailed it there. You know, as she was talking about earlier, it's already kind of getting a little chippy between Democrats and Republicans. And it does seem like, you know, predictably, that a lot of the really difficult things always kind of get punted towards the end of the session. The really contentious things, you know, I see no reason to think that that's not going to happen again.

You know, one of the dynamics in the most recent sessions prior to this one is that you've had real tensions within the Republican caucuses. And it seems to me that there's maybe somewhat less of that this year. And some of that angst has been transferred out of the Republican caucus and is now more present in just our more, kind of, traditional Republican versus Democratic frustrations that Holly spoke to about some of the procedural stuff.

Sally Mauk Meanwhile, the sun is shining and the snow is melting and Rob and Holly. Thanks. 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 and Mansfield Center Fellow 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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