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Capitol Talk: Beasts, Budgets And Voting Rights

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 makes headlines after trapping a Yellowstone wolf — while bills targeting wolves head toward passage. Republican lawmakers want to eliminate same-day voter registration. And the so-called "beast bill" — directing how billions in federal COVID relief money will be spent — crawls forward.

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

Sally Mauk Rob, of all the things I imagined Gov. Gianforte might do in his first two months in office, trapping and killing a collared Yellowstone wolf, I have to say, was not on my list.

The state fish and game department gave him a warning for not taking a required trapping certification class, and the governor has apologized for not strictly following the rules.

Rob Saldin Yeah, right Sally. You know, trapping wolves outside of the park is legal so long as you follow the rules, so the problem is that Gianforte didn't follow one of those rules. It requires taking this training course if you're going to be trapping. And as you say, he got issued a warning and he's subsequently taken the course and apologized.

But it does look a bit like he's playing kind of fast and loose on this with the rules, or that he got sloppy, particularly because this isn't the first time something like this has happened. He did have another infraction — now, it was two decades ago — but nonetheless, he did have another infraction over hunting elk.

I guess the thing that I find most surprising about all of this is that the governor made time for trapping in the middle of the legislative session. It sounds like this trap was set up about two and a half hours from Helena.

Mauk Well as you said, the governor has since taken this certification class, but he says it didn't make him second guess his decision to kill this collared wolf.

"I made a mistake. I'm glad I was able to check the box last night. It was a good refresher for me, but in hindsight, I wouldn't have done anything differently."

No regrets there, Rob.

Saldin Clearly not. There is kind of an ethic out there among hunters and trappers that you're supposed to do it the right way, and so, you know, all of this isn't a great look on that front. But, you know, I guess I'm still a little doubtful that this is really going to hurt him much in the long run, at least here in Montana.

Mauk As you say, the governor won't likely suffer any political damage from his base over this, but there could be some national fallout, couldn't there, Rob, as this story got a lot of national attention?

Nate Hegyi of the Mountain West News Bureau first broke this story, and here's what Amanda Wright of the U.S. Humane Society told him about the governor's harvesting of this wolf:

"He might have received a slap on the wrist in the form of a written warning, but this is really a slap in the face to the millions of people that come to his state to see these wolves."

And she's right about that, Rob, that Yellowstone wolves have become iconic and are a big draw to the park. He didn't kill just any old wolf here.

Saldin Right. And this story has been picked up by The New York Times and The Washington Post and whatnot, so he is getting that negative national attention.

And, you know, quite apart from the training issue, there is this larger backdrop of wolves and trapping, both of which are controversial. Reintroducing wolves was controversial — you know, some people obviously love it, but particularly among ranchers who sometimes have their livestock killed by wolves, it was very unpopular and remains so.

And then trapping, be it of wolves or other animals is seen by many — and we heard that in that clip you just played Sally — that trapping's just a different sort of activity than hunting with a rifle or with a bow. You know, they view it as cruel and inhumane because the animal suffers sometimes for a couple of days, you know, even if you're following the rules.

And of course Sally, as you point out, I mean this particular animal wasn't just any animal. It was a Yellowstone wolf, and that really means something to a lot of people.

Mauk Holly, there are at least four bills in this session that would make it easier to kill more wolves in Montana, and some are already headed to the governor's desk. It seems likely he will sign those bills — and I say that even before this incident came to light.

Holly Michels Yeah, you're right. There are a lot of pretty major hunting and trapping bills this session that deal with wolves.

The first one is a bill from Republican Rep. Paul Fielder of Thompson Falls. He's bringing a fair amount of bills related to hunting this session, and this one would allow for the snaring of wolves and it gets into some of the issues that Rob just talked about with people who have concerns about trapping.

So right now, Montana trappers can use foothold traps to capture wolves — and snares are allowed for some other species, but not wolves right now. Snares are metal wire loops that tighten around an animal's neck and asphyxiate it.

In support of his bill, Fielder talked about wolf populations, saying they're large enough that there's this need for more tools to manage them, including adding snares. Someone who actually testified in support of that bill was Matt Lumley, who's the trapper that Gianforte worked with while he was trapping his wolf.

Opponents raised some of the things that Rob was talking about, questioning if snares are humane. They capture animals that aren't the target of the trap, like dogs. Also questions about if this is the right way to manage the wolf population right now in Montana.

And then there's another bill from Fielder that would extend wolf trapping seasons by both two weeks earlier and two weeks later.

And then another Thompson Falls Republican, Sen. Bob Brown, also has two bills. One of them would allow for reimbursement of fees related to the hunting and trapping of wolves, and another would give the state Fish and Wildlife Commission authority to allow unlimited kills by licensed hunters, but also allow baiting and then the use of night vision or spotlighting equipment to hunt wolves at night.

And like you said, Sally, Gianforte hasn't specifically weighed-in on these bills, but in a press conference this week he was talking about saying that he thought that trapping was an effective management tool. He called it part of the state's heritage. And it does look, again, like you said, like these bills are advancing.

They're not fully on party-line but mostly on party-line votes, with Republican support, and in a Republican-dominated Legislature it looks like they will reach Gianforte's desk.

Mauk Holly, there are also bills moving through that will make it harder to vote in Montana, including one that ends same-day voter registration. Republican Sen. Mike Cuffe thinks it's [same-day registration] not necessary:

"Elections, you know, they don't just pop out out of the blue. They don't come along and surprise us. We know they're coming. The dates are there. We need to register ahead of time."

But opponents, Holly, say eliminating same-day voter registration will make it harder for some, like Native Americans and some others, to vote.

Michels A lot of the arguments we've heard [in] support really fall along what we just heard from Cuffe there, that election deadlines are set in advance and people should be able to plan for that.

But like you said, people who oppose this bill; they're saying that there's situations where same-day voter registration is critical to someone who might not have good access to mail to be able to register that way, who probably gets a ride to their polling place on Election Day. That might be their only opportunity to be able to register.

We heard from reservation communities, people who live there, that businesses there might close on Election Day to give people time to go vote, but that that doesn't happen on other days to allow for registration.

So this, again, is a bill — it's passing along mostly party lines. It's also supported by Republican Secretary of State Kristi Jacobson. Right now, it's cleared the Senate, it previously passed the House, but it's been sent back there to just await confirmation on amendments, and then would be on the way to Gov. Gianforte.

Mauk Rob, this effort to make it harder to vote isn't unique to Montana, it's happening in many other states. Republican supporters argue it's to eliminate voter fraud, and Democratic opponents say the real motive is to depress turnout of people, like minorities, who typically vote Democrat.

Saldin Absolutely Sally. This is a national effort on the part of Republicans. In fact, we saw Georgia prominently make a move on this just this week.

And you're right, Republicans have been talking about voter fraud for many years and Democrats have long suggested that the real motive behind that is voter suppression.

But for a long time there was at least a plausibility, I think, to Republican's claims to be concerned about voter integrity. And they'd say things like, 'Well, our elections are important and it's reasonable to take some, you know, pretty basic and unobtrusive steps to ensure that they're conducted fairly,' — you know, this kind of thing.

And even when it became apparent that there wasn't any real evidence of widespread fraud, it wasn't crazy to imagine that it could happen, and that a reasonable person might want to shore up the system.

But at this point, it's just very hard to think about this issue outside of the context of what went down leading up to the insurrection at the Capitol in January. There was a big lie, an audacious lie on the part of Trump and his acolytes, that the election was stolen.

And now there's been this kind of pivot, at least at the national level, to people pointing to their constituents and saying, 'Oh, well, my constituents are very concerned about the integrity of our elections, so we need to do something to deal with that.'

Well, that reasoning just begs the question, well, why do you think people are concerned about the integrity of the elections when there's no evidence of that? You know, perhaps it had something to do with the lies that they were fed.

And then the other new development here is that some Republicans — again at the national level anyway — don't even pretend anymore that their real motivation is to ensure free and fair elections. Some have been quite direct in saying that more people voting is bad because it makes it very hard for us to win elections.

So I do worry for the GOP, that being the party linked to more or less blatant voter suppression, to making it harder to vote, to being scared of allowing some eligible voters to cast ballots, that that's not a good long term strategy. For what it's worth, I also think it's totally unnecessary. I think Republicans obviously can compete on an even playing field and be successful, certainly here in Montana.

Mauk Holly, the $12 billion state budget is moving along with Democrats powerless to stop cuts they oppose, and a lot of questions are out there yet about how the federal COVID relief money is going to be spent. There's still so much work to be done to get all that money stuff figured out.

Michels There is. So the main COVID relief bill — it's being called the "beast bill" — is still actually working to get out of its first committee. The House Appropriations Committee this week has been hearing about proposed amendments that will actually finally give some real shape to the bill and actually put more realistic numbers in terms of appropriations and where those might be going.

For some segments of state government right now there is some fairly clear framework, and especially that's arround infrastructure projects, just because at the federal level right now, that's where the guidance is actually most clear on how this money can be spent.

And one thing that's really helping me just wrap my head around how massive the size of this funding is, is the state bonding bill, which pays for really major infrastructure projects, is actually no longer a bonding bill because the money in this federal aid can actually pay for all those projects — and that's just a huge issue.

We've seen more-than-a-decade stalemates over bonding to pay for infrastructure. There's only a deal brokered just last session on how to deal with it, and now just because of this federal aid, it's something we can just do without really much heartburn or debate at all.

Mauk We will be there for that discussion. Rob and Holly, I'll talk to you again next week. Thanks.

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 in during the legislative session Fridays at 6:44 p.m., via podcast or listen online.

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