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Daines does the expected; Educators argue over 'equity'; Family planning funds get a new home

Senator Daines is a firm "no" on Biden's Supreme Court nominee. Federal funding for family planning takes an interesting detour in Montana. Abortion is a campaign issue — again. The state Board of Public Education takes issue with adding the word "equity" to an ethics code. And the Democratic congressional candidates try to distinguish themselves before the primary.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

Sally Mauk Rob, Senator Steve Daines this week complained the White House canceled a meeting he was to have with Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. But the White House disputed that, saying Daines had agreed to reschedule the meeting. Implicit in Daines' complaint is that such a meeting could influence his vote on Jackson's confirmation. Rob, I'm not buying what he's selling. He's a firm no on Jackson, and he has been all along.

Rob Saldin Well, exactly, Sally. I mean, the whole tenor of Daines' statement was that he was genuinely undecided and struggling with this decision, that after, notably, some 20 hours of hearings, he just needed a little bit more information, and he could have gotten that information if only he'd been allowed to have the chance to sit down with Jackson one-on-one and earnestly dive into the issues. But darn it, because of the White House's inexcusable behavior, the senator is reluctantly forced to vote no. And that's just entirely not believable. The reality, of course, Sally, is, as you mentioned, is that once Jackson was nominated, nearly all the senators knew how they'd be voting. Most of them probably knew how they'd be voting even before a nominee was announced. Susan Collins, at this point, is the only Republican to say she'll be voting to confirm. And it was just never plausible to think that Steve Daines, of all people, might be the one to join Collins and all the Democrats to vote for Jackson. It would have been much more straightforward and believable for Daines to simply say that he'll be voting no because he disagrees with her judicial philosophy, which is a perfectly understandable reason to oppose a nominee and also has the hidden virtue of being true.

A podcast about our current political moment and the complex people and beliefs that shape Montana.

Sally Mauk Holly, this week, a Montana nonprofit based in Bozeman called Bridgercare, has been awarded $2 million in federal family planning money. This is a grant that normally goes to the state health department for distribution. And the change in allocation of this Title 10 funding has, in part, to do with a law passed by the last Montana Legislature.

Holly Michels Yeah, this is pretty interesting. And like you said, Sally, this normally goes to the state health department. It has for the last 50 years. So, it's a pretty significant change here.

Like you said, there was legislation — now law — that spurred Bridgercare to apply for this funding. What happened is during the 2021 Legislature, Republican State Representative Amy Regier passed a bill that changed how the state health department could have distributed this Title 10 funding. The new law would have not allowed funding to go to clinics like Planned Parenthood that provide abortion services. And it also had to prioritize funding for clinics that focus on primary care, not places like Bridgercare. While Bridgercare doesn't provide abortion services, they do focus on family planning and reproductive care. So that new law spurred Bridgercare to go out and apply for the Title. 10 money, because while the law can dictate things for how the state health department could distribute money, it can't say how Bridgercare distributes that money around the state.

So with this money, Bridgercare, they're going to start with eight providers at 16 locations around the state that provide services like contraceptive services for men and women. The clinics that get this funding also do things like pregnancy testing, cancer screenings and make referrals for other types of care. This is fewer providers than are currently doing that. That's because when the state applied, some of the existing providers, especially clinics in rural areas, were part of the state's applications. So now Bridgercare is reaching out to them to bring them under their network.

Another interesting thing to note here is, Planned Parenthood a Montana's actually been out of the Title 10 funding since 2019. That's when the Trump administration issued a gag rule that required such an extensive separation of abortion services that Planned Parenthood just didn't participate. The Biden administration reversed that last year, and now, with this change, Planned Parenthood will be back under as a provider for Title 10 funding.

Sally Mauk Rob, abortion is always an issue every election cycle, but especially this year with speculation that the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down or severely weaken Roe vs. Wade, the court decision that initially legalized abortion.

Rob Saldin Yeah, right Sally. And that ruling is going to be coming very soon, likely in June. Of course, we don't know what the court will decide. It seems pretty clear that the justices will allow states to pass further restrictions on abortion, but it's far from certain that they'll overthrow Roe altogether and permit states to outlaw abortion outright. But if they do go that far, or even if the scope of restrictions is greatly expanded, I do think abortion could be a real wild card in this campaign cycle.

You know, since Roe, you know, just on the raw politics of it, abortion has benefited the pro-lifers. And I think that's because there was a strong feeling among abortion opponents that there was just something deeply unfair about how abortion came to be legalized, that it was premised on this made up right to privacy that doesn't really exist in the Constitution, that pro-choicers ran to the court, thereby effectively doing an end run around the legitimate policy process because they knew that was the only way they could get what they wanted. And in the decades since, the abortion issue in that sense that pro-lifers felt cheated, has been just a really powerful rallying force for the conservative movement for the Republican Party. Well, now there's a very plausible scenario in which those roles get reversed. That pro-choicers could feel as though they've had something unjustly taken away from them, and that can be very powerful politically. And just among the red states where we would be likely to see new restrictions put in place, or at least fear of new restrictions being put into place, it's possible, I think, that that kind of sense could run a lot deeper in Montana than it does in, say, Mississippi, because we do have that kind of stronger undercurrent of libertarian sentiment in our state. So again, this ruling, I just think, could be a potential wild card that could possibly shake things up in this cycle.

Holly Michels Yeah, this is pretty interesting. This goes back to early February. This subcommittee, like you said, of the Board of Public Education, voted to update the code of ethics for educators. This process happens every five years and normally gets almost no attention. But because, like you said, the inclusion of the word 'equity' this time, it got a lot of attention. For educators who crafted the code, the word equity means encouraging teachers to help every student do their best, giving those students the resources they need. To really simplify it, equality means giving each kid the same kind of help, while equity acknowledges kids come into classrooms starting out at different places. Kindergartners, some come in with a little bit of reading under their belt. Some might not, so they might need different resources to succeed.

Sally Mauk Holly, as reported in the Daily Montanan, the state Board of Public Education this month went against over 30 years of precedent when it voted not to accept a code of ethics for educators proposed by one of its advisory councils. The board is upset that the new code was revised to include equity as a value, and Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras led the objection.

We saw a lot of really intense meetings. People opposed to this challenge lining up out the door to testify against it. They saw this change include the word equity as a sort of a doorway to teaching this college level legal concept known as critical race theory. We heard several times this called Marxism. We heard from some people saying that was actually discriminatory because of the differences between equality and equity.

So back in this February vote, Gianforte came out, said he believed this council acted outside of its authority by revising a policy which they don't have the power to do. The council said that the code of ethics is a non-binding document, they're saying it isn't a policy. But what we saw was Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras issue a memo to the Board of Public Education saying that she thought that this was a time where the board or the council went beyond their authority, that they did change a policy and that what should happen is the full Board of Public Education should be the one to make this decision about updating the code.

I think important to point out, when the Gianforte administration first took office, they made a move to replace some Board of Public Education appointees that had been left by the outgoing administration and not yet confirmed by the Senate with their own appointees. And that's something that they did have the authority to do, but broke with past practices. So when we saw this split vote, this was a vote that was taken, it was swayed by the Gianforte appointees on the board.

You know, another thing to point out here is that the board actually took this vote against the advice of its legal counsel, because this agenda item was originally just supposed to be discussion and didn't have any sort of action associated with it. So, be interesting to see where this goes, but it's just continuing something that's been a pretty hot-button issue for several months now.

Sally Mauk Rob, the Democratic candidates for Montana's new Western Congressional District got to make their pitches to a friendly audience at the party's recent Mansfield Metcalf dinner. And those attending, I think, got a glimpse at how these candidates are trying to differentiate themselves for the primary.

Rob Saldin Yeah. You know, Neumann took an indirect swipe at Tranel for having been a Republican years ago. And Tranel took an indirect swipe at Neumann for having spent a lot of time living out of the state.

And I think you're right, Sally. I mean, part of what's going on here is that it's sometimes just really hard for candidates in a primary to distinguish themselves from one another. And that might be especially the case here because the two leading candidates are both women, they're both, you know, roughly the same age, they have kind of similar professional backgrounds, at least in the sense it's not like one is a rancher and one is an astronaut or something like that. And it's also just not totally clear on what policy disagreements they have, if any. And so these are some ways to draw some distinctions. And I guess one thing that does occur to me is that Tranel's former affiliation with the Republicans could cut in both directions. You know, some Democrats, as Neumann no doubt hopes, will likely find that to be off-putting or even suspicious. But others might look at that as attractive, with the thinking that Tranel might be better able to appeal to independents or even soft Republicans in a general election.

Sally Mauk Well, it's a fact that Neumann, though raised in Bozeman, did leave the state for a long time. And it's a fact that Tranel was an active Republican before she became a Democrat. And I guess, Rob, how those facts are interpreted is going to be up to the voters.

Rob Saldin Yeah, for sure. And I think one other thing, you know, this did all go down at Mansfield Metcalf, that's an insider group there. It's not at all clear how much those messages are getting out there to the broader public.

Sally Mauk Holly, they will get out there to the broader public in some upcoming debates that are scheduled for all of the congressional candidates in both districts. And these are debates coming up later this month and in May, sponsored by several Ag groups.

Holly Michels Yeah, those will be pretty interesting. I think it's always a fun glimpse to see, you know, the candidates all together. You've had some commit to this. I don't think we've seen everybody commit yet, but those sometimes get locked down a little bit closer. But you know, these are good forums, like Rob was saying, it's often pretty hard for voters when they're just looking at candidates to kind of discern in the primary what makes them different. So sometimes we see some policy things come out of those. Sometimes we see some of those spats, like what happened at Mansfield Metcalf, kind of spill out into a larger audience there, and then reporters like me write about them, so they get a little more traction. So there's also some other, kind of, I've seen scheduled, you know, community-based forums in different towns around the state that I think could be fun to just get to know candidates a little better and hopefully help voters make choices about who's best to represent them.

Sally Mauk Well, we'll look forward to those debates, which will be televised on ABC Fox. And Rob and Holly, thank you, I'll talk to you next week.

A podcast about our current political moment and the complex people and beliefs that shape Montana.

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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.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.