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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Capitol Talk: COVID Windfall, 'Religious Freedom' And Fossil Fuels

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.

Montana Republican leaders think the COVID relief signed into law this week is a mistake. The Legislature now has to figure out how to spend the COVID windfall. Montana's attorney general joins a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security. It looks like Gov. Gianforte will sign a "religious freedom" bill if it reaches his desk. And Sen. Daines says the Interior Secretary nominee will harm Montana's "way of life" if she's confirmed.

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

Sally Mauk Rob, Montana's expected to get almost $3 billion from the COVID relief bill signed into law this week by President Biden — and that's almost half as much as the state's annual budget.

It's a tremendous windfall that absolutely no Republicans in Congress voted for.

Rob Saldin Yeah, exactly Sally. It's a lot of money and the partisan dynamics, though, were on full display.

As you say, every single Republican in Congress voted against this bill — including our Sen. Daines and our Rep. Matt Rosendale — and every single Democrat, with just one exception, voted for it. So this is a big win for the new Democratic administration.

Mauk Here's how Congressman Matt Rosendale described the COVID relief money:

"The people across the state of Montana did not send me up here to spend one $1.9 trillion so that they can get some breadcrumbs. This is not good for our children, our grandchildren; and it's just, long-term, not good for the state of Montana."

Mauk Nearly $3 billion he describes as bread crumbs, Rob.

Saldin Yeah. Yeah, you know, the bread crumb analogy I think misses the mark by a wide margin.

Montana could get as much as $2.7 billion out of this, as you noted Sally, and lots of people across the state are going to be receiving direct payments of $1,400.

So if it's bread crumbs, it's lots and lots of bread crumbs.

Mauk Well, here's Sen. Daines reaction to the COVID relief bill:

"There's going to be, certainly, a shot in the arm for the economy: There's so much cash coming in, we're going to be running up the debt, but in the short term, I think it may put inflationary pressures on the economy. It's a concern by many."

Rob, neither Daines nor Rosendale raised a peep about the federal debt when they voted for former President Trump's COVID relief bill, which also was over $1 trillion.

Saldin Right. You know, I think Daines' concern about running up the debt — it's not crazy on its own terms. That's a legitimate worry. But the thing is, you've got to balance that against the devastating economic impact that this pandemic has had.

I do think that's something that's easy for some people to not fully understand — just how bad this thing has been — because it's hit so unevenly.

Some people are doing just fine, better than ever in fact. The stock market is surging. But then you've got a lot of workers and small business owners who've really been hit hard. So this pandemic has caused serious economic problems, and that's the rationale for a big response.

It's also, I think Sally as you suggest, it's a little bit of an eye-roller to hear Daines concerned about the debt all of a sudden. And of course, he's certainly not the only one using that talking point. But we certainly didn't see any of that hand-wringing from Daines when he was voting for, not only the COVID relief legislation under the previous president, but also for the tax cuts under the previous president.

Mauk Holly, this COVID windfall throws the legislative budget action into some kind of chaos, really, because now they have to figure out how to spend all this money that they weren't necessarily planning on getting.

Holly Michels Yeah, it's going to be an interesting process. Normally, reporters like me right now are kind of celebrating the end of this really intense subcommittee work that goes on on the state budget — and it gets rolled up into House Appropriations, then moves to the full floor.

But what we heard this week is those subcommittees, which would normally be done with their work right now, are going to fire back up and come back to tackle that aid coming to Montana.

I've heard that it could be up to about $1.3 billion that the Legislature will be deciding how to spend — because, like you said, that $2.7 billion, some of it goes directly to local governments, some is in those stimulus payments for people — but a pretty big amount of money Montana will be dealing with.

One legislator said it could be, you know, more than just the state's general fund dollars in the normal budget. What they're looking at is something they're calling the "beast bill" right now, and that's going to be carried by Rep. Frank Garner.

And what they're saying is it's going to be dropped in what they're calling an "ugly format." So it'll just have some really bare bones suggestions of where the money should go so that they can have a bill, get it introduced and start to work on it.

And in those subcommittees, they'll go through — agency-by-agency in the state — ways that that money could be spent, figuring out how to coordinate this all with some of the infrastructure bills that are going through, and then the main state budget bill, which is House Bill 2.

We heard from Gov. Greg Gianforte's budget director saying that he really wants legislators to consider putting the COVID relief money toward things that don't create new programs, and he wants them to prioritize options that would have what he said are long-term benefits to the state — one-time-only spending really targeted on COVID relief, that sort of thing.

You know, this is something that Republicans were long frustrated with through 2020, when the state got its first $1.25 billion in the CARES Act, that they didn't have power, they weren't in session, and it was pretty much left to then-governor Steve Bullock to determine how that money was spent, with some input from a task force.

So the Legislature's wanted this opportunity to have the ability to dictate where funds are going. They have had some back-and-forth on COVID aid that's already gone through, that they've pulled back amounts a little bit and made some tweaks and something that they've long wanted their hands on and are about to have a pretty massive opportunity to do so.

Mauk Mm hmm. I think it's an important point to make that this is not an ongoing pool of money, that this is money they're going to get right now and may not get again in the future, so they have to plan for that.

Rob, State Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Gov. Gianforte last January, before Biden became president — in a move they did not publicize — signed an agreement to help the federal Department of Homeland Security enforce immigration laws.

And now AG Knudsen has had Montana join a lawsuit with Arizona against the Department of Homeland Security, saying they are violating the agreement they signed. It's not totally clear to me why Montana is involved in this.

Saldin It all stems, Sally, from the fact that not all of our elected offices change hands at the same time.

So Knudsen and Gianforte were sworn into their new offices several days before Joe Biden became president, and it was during that brief window that this agreement was hatched between the Trump administration — which was still in place at that time — and the new Gov. Gianforte new AG Knudsen.

And, you know, it seems to me that the legality of all of this seems pretty questionable — it's not at all clear that Knudsen's going to prevail on it — but just on the politics of the thing, this strikes me as a good issue for Knudsen.

He's framing it as a law-and-order thing, cracking down on drugs coming in from Mexico: that's a good look for him, and I think everyone assumes that Knudsen has his sights set on bigger things and that AG job has been a natural stepping stone into the governor's office.

Bullock was AG before becoming governor, so was Marc Racicot. And before Gianforte swooped back in from Washington, it looked like Tim Fox might follow that same path. So that attorney general job, it's an important position in state government on its own terms, arguably second only to the governor. But it's also one of these positions that gets a lot of media attention, which is an ideal situation for a young politician looking to raise his profile before running for higher office.

Mauk Holly, there was more testimony this week on "religious freedom" bills, and one in particular, as we've mentioned before, is Senate Bill 215, which opponents argue would allow businesses, etc., to deny services to LGBT people on the basis of religious belief.

And in the hearing this week, opponents argued in testimony that some gay Montanans will leave the state if this bill passes — and that comment drew some controversial reaction from a couple of legislators.

Michels Yeah. We've talked on this show before about these bills moving through the session that opponents say are targeted at the LGBTQ community, and this is one of them.

And during the hearing, and after, we saw on social media there were several tweets and posts that two legislators, Rep. Jedediah Hinkle and Rep. Bob Phalen who are both Republicans, let out what was described as a little cheer when a person testified that people had told them they would leave the state because it seems this bill is likely to pass the Legislature and they were concerned about what that would mean for them living in Montana.

Rep. Donavon Hawk, who's a Democrat from Butte, addressed the committee after that, saying he hoped that they wouldn't "snicker" when people gave public testimony. A reporter, Seaborn Larson, caught up with Hinkle after the hearing and Hinkle told Seaborn that he didn't cheer but did sort of lift up his hands and a shrug of disbelief that he was sharing with Phalen over the statement or idea that people would leave the state because of the legislation.

And it does seem now — we saw it in this hearing, too — that, you know, this bill narrowly passed the Senate in this transmittal crush of bills. But we also saw support yesterday from the Gianforte administration: Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras spoke in support of the bill. So I think that's a pretty clear indication that if this bill were to pass the House, it will be signed by Gianforte.

Mauk And he, prior to becoming governor, made his views on this, I think, pretty clear. He opposed, for example, the Bozeman local nondiscrimination ordinance.

Rob, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote next week on Deb Haaland's nomination to be secretary of the interior. And this week, Sen. Daines tried to delay the vote with a procedural maneuver, knowing it wasn't going to succeed.

We've talked before about his opposition to her nomination. In a speech on the Senate floor this week, he said Haaland wants to harm Montana's "way of life:"

"You kill the energy jobs, you kill all the pipelines, you kill our natural resources, Montana's left to be simply a playground for the rich and famous. We've got to stand up for hardworking Montanans and protect their way of life."

This phrase, "the Montana way of life," comes up a lot these days, Rob.

Saldin Yeah, it sure does, same with "Montana values." But, you know, Daines' opposition to to Haaland - I mean, part of it just seems a little ridiculous, you know, after all these years of the fawning, unmitigated enthusiasm for everything Trump does. Instead, you know, he now keeps saying how alarmed and troubled he is, you know, that Haaland and the Biden administration are violating the Montana way of life, and that Haaland in particular is hostile and divisive.

But if one can get past that, there are some substantive differences here on the policy. You know, Haaland and Daines are on opposite sides of some important issues: the Keystone Pipeline and fossil fuels.

But that said, you know Sally, as you note, it's been clear for some time that she is going to be confirmed and, more than that, that she's going to have at least a few Republican senators supporting her. So Daines' high-profile opposition to her, it's not something that was ever going to bring her down. It does carry the virtue for him, I think, of signaling very clearly though that he's a big supporter of the fossil fuel industry.

Mauk My way of life this weekend is to get out and get some sun. Holly, Rob, I hope you're able to as well. Thank you.

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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