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The latest Montana politics, elections and Legislature news.

Native Voting Bill Killed, Restrictions On Transgender Athletes Could Be Costly

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.

The "beast bill" heads to the Senate. The attorney general sues over restrictions on the use of federal COVID relief money. Montana could lose millions in federal education money because of a bill banning transgender students from participating in women's sports. A bill to make it easier for Native Americans to vote is killed. And a progressive blogger ends his long run as an influential gadfly.

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

Sally Mauk Holly, the bill to spend $2 billion of federal COVID relief money, the so-called beast bill, has passed the House and is on its way to the Senate and it will surely undergo a lot of changes when it reaches that chamber.

Holly Michels It will. That was a pretty big part of the discussion on this bill, is it needed to clear the House by a transmittal deadline coming next week and that a lot of the work to be done on that would be picked up in the Senate. It did clear the House on a pretty significant bipartisan margin. It was 86 to 14, which when you look at the main state budget bill that cleared on a party line vote of 67 to 32, so a lot more support for this one.

In its form now, it does have some specifics on money to replace state funds for infrastructure projects like water and sewer work around the state. A lot of money to improve broadband access in Montana, also hundreds of millions for education and the state's K-12 schools. And then the bill appropriates nearly $380 million to the state health department, divided up among different programs and sets up a commission to give specifics on the spending within those programs, which creates a bunch of different commissions that will advise on spending. And in its current iteration, it sets up a grant matching program for local governments. So they would put a share of funding for infrastructure and other projects and then the state would match that money.

Sally Mauk One of the more controversial parts of the bill would cut aid by 20 percent to local governments that have stricter pandemic rules. And the state Kalispell Republican Matt Regier thinks that's only fair. Here's what he said.

"I find it ironic that there could be local governments that are imposing strict COVID protocol, which hurts the economy, which hurts the people, and now we want more tax money to bail that out. "

Sally Mauk But Democrats, Holly, like Representative Sharon Stewart Peregoy strongly object. Here's what she said.

"Cities and counties are being extorted to take take off their regulations. And the problem that I see with this is that we're not done yet and people can get infected.".

Sally Mauk She calls it extortion Holly.

Holly Michels This is a debate that's been simmering for some time. Representative Regier actually had a proposal on an earlier a bill that would have not let communities receive any money if they had more restrictive mandates in place. And he had that proposal again, that he tried to put on this 'beast bill.' But after some compromise, we saw this proposal emerge, which does cut the matching amount by 20 percent from the state. So what Regier is arguing is that public health measures, in his thinking, that are put in place to slow the spread of the virus also hamper business operations. Stewart Peregoy was saying that the

pandemic isn't over in Montana yet and that communities like hers, she's from Crow Agency and represents that part of the state, have been hit really hard and that local governments, tribal governments should still be able to put mandates in place. And we have seen variants of COVID-19 in Montana that are of concern. They're spreading rapidly through communities like Gallatin County. So, communities have argued, even as the state's lifted its mask mandate, that they should have the ability to put in measures. So Democrats on the House floor, led by Stewart Peregoy, did try to remove that provision of this bill, but failed to do that.

Democrats also tried to make some other changes on the floor, putting in a $1,000 relief payments for essential workers who make less than $30,000 a year. That also failed with GOP opposition. But I do think we're probably going to see more discussion on this in the Senate.

Sally Mauk Meanwhile Rob, Attorney General, Austin Knudsen, has joined yet another lawsuit, and that lawsuit is challenging a provision that says states cannot use the federal COVID relief money to offset any tax cuts.

Rob Saldin Right. Well, Sally the idea here was to provide relief for the effects of the pandemic, not to facilitate tax cuts. So one of the provisions in the law was that states can't get the relief money, which is significant, right, nearly $3 billion in our case, and then turn around and use it for tax cuts, which would inevitably be weighted toward people who have done just fine through the pandemic. So that would undermine the whole point of the relief package, is the idea. Now, Knudsen is arguing that that provision is unconstitutional. He's saying it's OK for the feds to give money to the states if they want to, but they don't get to determine how the states use it. That's the Legislature's call, and Knudsen is not alone on this. Twelve other Republican-controlled states are also part of the suit.

One point, though, just on the politics of it; it does seem to me that this lawsuit is perhaps less of a slam dunk win for Knudsen than the others have been, which we've talked about in previous weeks. You know, there's certainly the whole bit about how this is fiscally conservative and Knudsen and is making that point. But the thing that most people know about this relief package, as was the case with the earlier ones passed in the previous administration, is that most people got some money deposited into their bank accounts. And as it turns out, people like that. So to the extent that Knudsen is seen as an opponent of this in one way or another, that's not necessarily a great look for him, even among his base.

Sally Mauk Holly, a bill to ban transgender students from competing in women's sports may soon be headed to the governor's desk, but it was amended in the Senate so that the policy will be voided if the federal Education Department rules it is discriminatory. And that's something the amendment sponsor, Ronan Republican Dan Salomon, thinks is likely.

"Just this one little tidbit. President Biden issued an executive order the very first day he was in office that specifies that his official policy of his administration to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation."

Sally Mauk And the problem, Holly, is the feds could withhold millions of dollars in education funds if they find Montana's policy is discriminatory.

Holly Michels Yeah, that was Salomon's motivation for bringing this amendment. So this bill cleared the Senate on a 29-21 vote, with two Republicans, including Salomon joining with all Democrats in opposition. It will need to now head back to the House for approval of that amendment.

And like you said, that amendment, it would void the act if the U.S. Department of Education issues a letter saying it finds the law discriminatory and plans to take an enforcement action. And that does mean this amendment's pretty major because the Biden administration issued this executive order saying it will probably apply a Supreme Court ruling from last year that said LGBTQ people are protected from sex discrimination. The administration has said that the order means transgender children should be able to learn without facing discrimination, and that includes transgender women playing on women's sports teams.

Salomon is arguing that Montanans could be at risk for losing hundreds of millions in federal education funding if this bill is passed and the federal government brings action. Republican Senator Keith Regier, who carried the bill in the Senate, he argued that their appeals process is in place if the federal government were to raise concerns and that it would be at least a two year process. He also said there's not examples of states losing funding because of the passing of legislation like House Bill 112. But this is now a new administration at the federal level. We've seen similar bills in other states. Idaho passed legislation, but it's now not in effect because of a legal challenge there. Other states have recently passed similar bills. In North Dakota they had a similar proposal to Montana's that was actually switched to a study bill. South Dakota, their governor vetoed a similar piece of legislation, but then the next day issued an executive order accomplishing basically the same thing.

And other opponents of the bill have pointed out that there's other economic risks besides the loss of federal funding. They point to North Carolina in 2016. That state passed a bathroom bill that restricted what restrooms transgender people could use. After that, the NCAA said they would pull out big events from the state. There was a study that showed that that could have cost the state billions of dollars and the Legislature the next year there actually repealed that bill. So this bill still has a little ways to go. Still seeing quite a bit of significant opposition. And it'll be interesting to see what happens with that amendment when the House takes that under consideration.

Sally Mauk Rob, Republicans are also sending a bill to the governor's desk that would keep state and local law enforcement officials from enforcing any federal ban on firearms or ammunition. This is in anticipation of possible new federal gun control legislation.

Rob Saldin Well, that's right, Sally. Although we have seen this kind of legislation make it to the governor's desk in actually three of the last four legislative sessions, those bills were all vetoed by Governor Bullock. But of course, we've got a new governor in town now. Gianforte hasn't made his views on this bill clear yet, but one would assume that he'd be likely to sign it; although, there have been some indications that Gianforte hasn't been very enthusiastic about some of the legislative proposals that are coming from the more conservative wing of his party. And he certainly hasn't been out there urging the Legislature to get this one to his desk. But still, when it does hit his desk, I think he'd be hard pressed to do anything other than sign it, and then it would likely go through a process in the courts.

Sally Mauk Holly, the House has killed a bill that would have made it easier for Native Americans to vote. But that bill almost passed, it was reversed on third reading.

Holly Michels Yeah, on the initial second reading in the House, it did clear out of 53 to 47 vote margin. But then, like you said, that didn't hold. And the next day the bill went down 48 to 51. The legislation would have done is required counties to have satellite offices on reservations where they have a footprint starting a month out from Election Day. It also would have had counties consider adding drop boxes and it would have clarified tribal IDs used for voting don't need to have expiration dates or residential address to be considered valid.

The bill is actually significantly scaled down from its original form, and it almost died in a committee before it was resurrected and then was worked on for some time to ease some concerns counties had about cost of implementation. The changes to the bill. one tribal leader said that it led it to be a much more watered down version, but others said it was still a good start to improve the current landscape. One of the legislators who went from initially voting for the bill to being a no on the final vote was Representative Jonathan Windy Boy who's a Democrat from Box Elder. He said that in talking to tribal leadership in his district, that changed his mind and that those leaders had supported the original bill, but not the amended version.

And this bill is just one of many this session that aimed to change elections in Montana. This week we saw opposition from Native advocacy groups and others who rallied to oppose House Bill 176, which ends same-day voter registration in Montana. They're calling on the governor to veto that bill. So lots of legislation. This is one that didn't clear the finish line.

Sally Mauk Finally, Rob an influential progressive blog, The Montana Post is going dark. The blogger Don Pogebra cites stress and burnout as the reason. He definitely pushed a lot of buttons with his blog on both sides of the aisle.

Rob Saldin Yeah, he sure did, Sally. You know, Pogreba's been the point person at the Montana Post dating back to the late period, George W. Bush years. So he's been at it for a long time. And this has always been a side gig for him as a high school teacher in Helena as well.

You know, there was one thing that I always found a little frustrating about The Montana Post, and that was its title. You know, for people who weren't clued in, that sounds very much like a traditional newspaper, right? So an outlet that plays by the journalistic norms of objectivity and hearing from both sides and whatnot. And you'd see it, though, turn up in a lot of Democratic campaign ads where it would be cited as some kind of like neutral, authoritative voice that's above the fray in the way that you'd cite, say, a news story from Holly. But of course, that wasn't what the Montana Post was or ever aspired to be. What it aspired to be was a progressive blog that would inform the like minded and that would shape events. And, you know, obviously opinions are going to diverge on Pogreba's politics, but just on its own terms, the Montana Post was quite good. It had an impact. It was a must-read material for political junkies of all stripes for a lot of years.

Sally Mauk Lawmakers are on a brief Easter break before the final push. And I hope we all get some much needed fresh air and sunshine this weekend. Holly and Rob, 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 in during the legislative session Fridays at 6:44 p.m., via podcast or listen online.

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