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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Legislature Acts On First Amendment Bill, Marijuana Legalization And Colstrip Guarantees

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. Gianforte is one of Montana's new cases of COVID. The marijuana bills are now in the Senate's lap. The House votes to abide by the First Amendment. The Republican PSC opposes a Republican Colstrip bill. And the Republican renaissance in Montana owes a lot to the legacy of former Governor Stan Stephens.

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

Sally Mauk Rob, new cases of coronavirus and are creeping up and Governor Gianforte and his wife Susan are among those new cases. The governor tested positive just a few days after receiving his first vaccine before the shot had time to go into effect. And the governor has advocated wearing a mask and getting the vaccine. But Rob, he has not been consistent about the mask wearing.

Rob Saldin Well, right, Sally. I mean, for starters, based on what his communications team has put out, it sounds like he's doing OK and only experiencing relatively mild symptoms. His wife, as you note, has also tested positive, but is apparently asymptomatic so far.

You know, obviously, because everything about the pandemic is so politically polarized, lots of people are going to see Gianforte testing positive through that lens. And I think it's reasonable, as you note, Sally, to suggest that there's been some mixed messages here. Like a lot of Republicans, Gianforte has adopted this language of personal responsibility. Yet that whole rhetorical framework has always seemed a bit lacking because of the concept of personal responsibility just seems to make more sense when you're the one who's at risk if you behave irresponsibly. But in the case of, say, masks, that's not really applicable, because masking-up is at least as much about protecting those around you as it is about protecting yourself.

Now, that said, Gianforte has had to navigate the politics on this just the same as everyone else. And he can see which way the wind's blowing from the perspective of his base. And given that, it seems as though he's taken the pandemic somewhat more seriously than many others in similar situations. And, you know, at times his comments have been quite responsible. I recall in particular some of the things he said at the State of the State address back in January.

Sally Mauk Holly, the House has passed three bills designed to implement the legalization of recreational marijuana, and now the Senate gets its turn to tweak those bills. The biggest decisions have to do with how to spend the millions of dollars of new revenue the sale of pot will bring to the state.

Holly Michels Yeah, that is something that the House, up against a procedural deadline, really advanced these bills on to the Senate, acknowledging that a lot of that's going to get hashed out on that side.

There's three proposals, the largest one just in terms of how many pages it is and probably it was the most anticipated, is from Republican Representative Mike Hopkins of Missoula. And then there's two other bills, one from fellow Missouri Republican Representative Brad Tschida, the other from Kalispell, Republican Representative Derek Skees. And they all do take pretty different approaches, both to the kind of program they create for recreational marijuana, but also, like you said, exactly where those revenues from the sale of recreational marijuana will go.

I think three GOP bills show how much of a challenge implementing a legal marijuana program is going to be in terms of finding consensus with the majority party. And by no means, I think, is the GOP in lockstep on these bills. And we actually saw earlier in committee votes that Democrats were able to join with some Republicans to initially defeat some of these implementation bills in committee before legislators did reverse course and then advanced all these bills onto the House and then through to the Senate. There is just a lot of Republican heartburn about where revenues going to go, also over about the idea of creating more government programs and adding jobs to the state's payroll to implement those programs. And then, of course, you have some who just flat out don't support recreational marijuana.

And I think one thing that's interesting to me is after a few flare ups initially at the start of the session, we have seen a Republican House caucus that at least is keeping internal disputes a little bit more out of the public eye than we've seen in the past. But before these House votes on the bills this week, [Majority] Leader Sue Vinton, the Republican from Billings, really did do a lot of wrangling of the caucus in a meeting before these votes to make clear party leadership wanted all three to advance to the Senate.

Democrats who are in the minority have found they have a little bit more power on this legislation than maybe other bills in the session, which was apparent when they defeated some of this early on. What Democrats have told their caucus members is that they want to move the final vehicle much closer to what was in initiative 90, which is what voters passed by a pretty substantial margin last fall. That means most of the money would go toward outdoor access, conservation programs, also veterans services and substance use disorder treatments. And we did see Democrats tried to push Hopkins' bill more toward that direction in the House, but generally weren't successful.

So really briefly, just getting into the bills: Hopkins' bill, it puts recreational and medical marijuana under Department of Revenue, taxes it at about 20 percent. His bill would put most of the revenue from that go towards the state general fund, which is kind of the state's main checking account. Also puts six million toward Governor Gianforte's new Heart Fund proposal, which does community substance use disorder treatment. And then there is some money, but a pretty small amount, that would go toward state parks, trails and non-game wildlife programs. Another controversial piece of Hopkins' bill is it actually would have counties have to opt-in to allow recreational marijuana.

For Tschida's bill, it focuses really on wholesale operations with a 20 percent tax there. He's really concerned about black market dealers and thinks focusing on wholesalers would help alleviate issues. He puts 20 percent of revenues to the state general fund and the rest would go to the Department of Revenue to actually implement the program.

And then Skees' bill has just a 15 percent tax on recreational marijuana, but then increases the tax on medical from four to five percent. And in terms of revenue, it would put two thirds of the money of funding toward the state employee pension system. The rest would go to what Skees is calling economic and social costs of legalization.

So we can expect all this to get hashed out in the Senate. The plan is generally whichever proposals get the most support, wrap it up into one bill and that's what we'll advance. But a lot more work to be done there.

Sally Mauk Rob, the House killed the bill that would have dictated how media report on court cases and how they publish mug shots, et cetera. And this bill was clearly a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of a free press, but it only failed by four votes. That was a lot closer than one would expect.

Rob Saldin Right. So you had 19 Republicans voting against it, but 48 supported it. Yeah, it fell short just by four votes. I mean, in one sense, it's surprising. For one thing, this was an effort to regulate in a pretty heavy-handed way how the press operates. But it's typically the Republican Party that presents itself as a force for deregulation.

Additionally, as you note, Sally, I mean, this bill appeared to be a rather blatant violation of the First Amendment protections for the press. So that's a pretty serious problem to the extent one cares about passing a law that's going to stick around and not get struck down through the courts.

But those issues notwithstanding, in another way this does make some sense. There has been on the American right, a longstanding critique of the mainstream media as being biased towards liberals and hostile to conservatives. And that perception isn't entirely without merit, even if it has become cartoonishly exaggerated in recent years. To the extent that the mainstream press is now widely seen by Republicans and Trump type conservatives as the enemy, you know, the purveyors of fake news and whatnot, why here's a chance to stick it to your enemies.

Sally Mauk Holly, the Senate has passed a controversial bill that would have ratepayers pay off Colstrip power plant debt even if the plant is shut down. And it's likely Colstrip will be shut down within the next five to 10 years, or certainly possible. Here's the bill's sponsors, Steve Fitzpatrick.

"What we're doing is we are providing here an incentive to purchase low value, undervalued assets or enter into these power purchase agreements, which should hopefully bring down rates for customers."

Sally Mauk And it's important to note, Holly, that Steve Fitzpatrick is the son of NorthWestern Energy's former spokesman John Fitzpatrick.

Holly Michels Yep, that is an important detail here. This bill cleared the Senate on a fairly close vote, 27 to 21. It's now headed to the House.

Like you said, the bill could genuinely burden consumers with NorthWestern's costs associated with the Colstrip coal-fired power plant in southeastern Montana. We do hear Fitzpatrick arguing that it's undervalued, that NorthWestern increasing its share could mean lower power costs for consumers.

What the bill is saying is that customers of the utility are obligated to pay off what's called the book value of any part of the plant that NorthWestern might buy, regardless of what the value really is or even if that plant keeps running. What that really means is NorthWestern is protected from the risks of buying more of the plant, which seems to be an option as other owners are looking to exit.

A lobbyist for NorthWestern told legislators when he was testifying in support of the bill that the legislation gives NorthWestern what he calls an acceptable business plan to move forward, and without that in place that units three and four would likely close within four years.

We've already seen Puget Sound Energy try to sell a share of its plant, and the Billings Gazette reported recently that Avista, another Washington utility, filed documents indicating it would be in its best interest to exit the plant as soon as possible. Like you said, Sally, there's real challenges to the future of Colstrip, which has already shut down two of its four units.

We did hear Republican Senator Duane Ankney, who represents Colstrip and has really long been a very vocal supporter of the plant, he's arguing NorthWestern would just keep operating Colstrip. He's also dismissing the increased use of other fuel sources like natural gas. But with several of Colstrip's other owners under mandates no longer have coal fired power on their books and in addition to other challenges just posed by the economics of our new coal fired power plant, there are those real questions about Colstrip future.

Sally Mauk Even the Republican Public Service Commission opposes this bill Holly

Holly Michels Yep they do. So we heard from PSC in opposition, we heard from Democrats. There's also one Republican senator, Brad Molnar, of Laurel who used to serve on the PSC commission, which is the state's utility regulator, all in opposition. They're making these arguments ratepayers will be on the hook for NorthWestern Energy regardless of even if they're still getting power from the plant. The PSC had a memo from mid-March that estimates the legislation could cost consumers roughly $721 for every year in stranded costs under just one scenario if this bill were to pass.

So now this is going to the House. I think we're going to see a lot more debate there. And this is definitely something that'll be a big part of the last bit of the session here.

Sally Mauk Finally, Rob former governor Stan Stephens has died at the age of 91. Stephens was a one-term governor deciding not to run for reelection in 1992. I remember him as a kind of classic cut taxes and boost the economy Republican with a sort of gentlemanly air about him.

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally. You know, I think his term as governor had its ups and downs. But as far as I can tell, you know, what you mentioned there at the end was what everyone says, that he was widely regarded as someone with a lot of integrity and just basic decency.

But I'd say two things stand out. One, as you know, he chose not to run for reelection, which is virtually unheard of. So on on that front, at least, he's kind of like the James K. Polk of Montana politics. Now, he did have some health issues at the time. It's a little unclear exactly how serious those issues were, but that was at least the stated reason behind his decision to not seek reelection.

The other thing that stands out, I think, is his role as a party builder. And Holly I thought your colleague, Seaborn Larson, had a lovely piece in the papers this week that really highlighted his role in that space. Stephens was a key force in leading the Republican Party into something of a golden era in Montana. Former Congressman Denny Rehberg is the guy who's most linked to Stephens. But it wasn't just Rehberg. It was also Stephens who kind of paved the way for that whole next generation of GOP figures Rick Hill, Mark Racicot, Judy Martz. And so that's certainly, I think, a big part of the Stephens' legacy.

Sally Mauk He was also an old radio guy and is a member of the Montana Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

Holly and Rob. Thanks. We'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.

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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