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Capitol Talk: Balloons, billions and changing the Constitution

Montana political leaders want some answers about a Chinese spy balloon floating in the Big Sky. Sen. Steve Daines is moving up the party leadership ladder. The Republican plan for allocating a billion dollars is headed to the Senate. And prominent Montanans lead a rally to support the state Constitution.

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.

Sally Mauk Rob, A Chinese spy balloon has been floating over Montana this week, and Montana's congressional delegation wants some answers. One of them, Ryan Zinke, wants the U.S. to "shoot it down."

Rob Saldin Right. Zinke is really leaning into that shoot first, ask questions later mentality, which I guess is consistent with his brand. It's not clear that that's the best policy for the United States government, but it works for him on Twitter.

The other prominent politicians in the state put out statements as well. Daines put out a statement and a tweet, which basically seemed like just an attack on Biden. Again, that's that's consistent for Daines, so much of what he puts out seem to be just assertions of Biden being a failure. The topics and issues change, but the common denominator is Daines saying Biden has failed. So, we got that here again with the balloon.

Rosendale, by contrast to the Daines statement, you know, Rosendale kind of couched his mention of Biden in terms of urging the president to take a particular action. So it's kind of a subtle distinction, but it does seem like there is a difference between just saying Biden is a failure yet again and urging him to take this or that step.

Gianforte's communication, I thought, stood out. That was to me the most sober and serious, simply saying that he's been briefed on the situation and that he's concerned, but really not much more than that. And that may just be a function of the governor being potentially in a different position on something like that than the folks back in Washington.

China's foreign ministry described the balloon as "a civilian airship" for meteorological research that had blown far off course by winds. The Pentagon suspects it's collecting sensitive information.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly, there is a bill in the state Legislature that has to do with the Chinese buying up land in Montana. And this episode will certainly spotlight that bill, maybe more than it would have been otherwise.

Holly Michels Yeah, that's Senate Bill 203 from Kenneth Bogner, a Republican from Miles City. And what it would do is ban foreign adversaries from buying or leasing critical infrastructure and agricultural land in Montana. In a press release this week, Bogner talked about this spy balloon and said this is an example of how serious the situation is. And he feels like this is a legislation that would get Montana a little bit ahead of the curve, even from where the federal government is. This bill has had a hearing in committee, but the committee has not yet voted to advance it out or not. So, we should be looking for that coming up soon.

Sally Mauk Well, we'll keep following that.

Sen. Steve Daines is getting more attention than usual these days, Rob, and that's in part because he's taken on a new role as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That's an influential position going into the 2024 election.

Rob Saldin Right, Sally. Yeah, he's basically the point person for all the Republican Senate campaigns in this cycle. That puts him into the party leadership in the Senate. So he'll be a part of Mitch McConnell's leadership team for these two years and he'll have a new staff that's separate from that in his personal office.

You know, it also strikes me, you know, for someone like Daines, a kind of mid-career senator, there are a couple of ways you can go when you think about how you want to leave your mark. You know, you can go into policy direction and identify a specific policy area or two that you want to become a real expert on and move the needle in one way or another. So that's one way you could go. But another way he could go is to work your way into your party's leadership. Lots of people do just run this campaign arm, as Daines is doing right now, they do it for a cycle and then they move on. But if that leadership route is of interest to Daines, this would be a natural first step. And Mitch McConnell isn't going to be around forever and so there's probably going to be some movement there. You know, one other thing that strikes me as really appealing about this particular job at this particular time for Daines is that he's just teed up to be successful in this one. This cycle couldn't be shaping up any better for Republicans. Democrats are going to be defending 23 of their Senate seats, while Republicans are only defending 11. And the closest thing you've got to a real Democratic pickup opportunity might be Florida, which is a real reach. Meanwhile, Republicans have some real GOP-friendly turf to be working on that Democrats currently control. You look at states like West Virginia, Ohio and our own Montana.

Sally Mauk Because Senator Tester, of course, is up for reelection in 2024, and the new position that Daines has will probably target that race quite a bit.

Rob Saldin Well, for sure. And that's the thing that's maybe really remarkable about this. This is Tester's cycle. So it means Daines is going to have a key role in trying to take out a sitting senator from his own state. And of course, there was never any question that Daines would support the Republican nominee against Tester. But it's quite unusual for the head of a party campaign committee to be contesting a seat like this in their own state. And part of that's just a function of the fact that there are very few split delegations anymore with one Republican, one Democrat. You know, that used to be much more common, but there are only six of them now. But the other piece of it is that it just kind of cuts against the norms of the Senate, that kind of gentlemanly, courteous mentality of being deferential and accommodating to your colleagues. Well, so much for that. That is a bit awkward here. These guys do have to work together at least a little bit. But there have been tensions in that relationship for years. So one wonders if that's maybe part of the appeal here for Daines rather than an unfortunate coincidence.

Roughly $1 billion dollars in spending passed an initial vote in the Montana House of Representatives Wednesday, largely along party lines. The Republican package would provide for tax rebates, pay down the state’s debt and outline cash for infrastructure projects.

Sally Mauk Holly, back at the Legislature, the Republican plan for spending $1 billion of the state surplus has passed the House and is on its way to the Senate and would give some money back to taxpayers, up to $1,000 in property tax rebates and $1,250 dollars in income tax rebates. And Republican Bill Mercer thinks this is the right thing to do. Here's what he said.

"Given the inflation that our taxpayers have faced, this is a very responsible thing to do. They paid in the money. They deserve to get the money back."

Sally Mauk And rebates, Holly, aren't all that are in the Republican plan.

Holly Michels Yeah, this is a package of six bills, so like you said, is now going to move through the Senate after clearing the House. Republicans, a certain faction of them in Montana, have wanted to give rebates to taxpayers using the surplus money going as far back as last summer where there was actually call for a special session to do that. But there were not enough Republicans' support to actually do that. But it's something we've heard for a long time now.

The biggest bill in this, just dollar wise, is that income tax rebate. You mentioned it would be $480 million toward those rebates that you discussed.

And then there's the property tax rebate as well, that's $500 over each of the next two years. That is half of what the governor originally proposed, but something that they're still supporting.

And then there's also two other bills that are one-time-only proposals for that stimulus money. One of those would put $125 million into an account to pay down the state's general obligation bonds, and then another to put $100 million into a fund that the state can use to match federal highway grant dollars. And it's estimated that would help the state draw down about $750 million in federal money. And that's the only bill that got unanimous support in the House. So that's four of those bills with the one-time-only changes.

And then there's two other bills that would do more permanent, ongoing things. The first bill would cut capital gains taxes that people pay, and that's for things like taxes on selling real estate, stocks, art, that sort of stuff.

And then there's another change to the business equipment tax. This year, legislators, Republican legislators, want to raise that exemption to $1 million. That builds off what they did last session, which was upping that to $300,000.

Sitting on a $2.5 billion surplus, Montana Republicans this week advanced a first round of their plan for tax cuts. That included part of the governor’s agenda, which he says was built for Montana families. Montana Public Radio’s Shaylee Ragar spoke with one Montana family about how the policies could impact their lives.

Sally Mauk Democrats, Holly, like Minority Leader Kim Abbot, think the surplus should be handled quite differently.

"This is too fast, it's irresponsible and this is this is reckless spending. This whole package that we've tied together is reckless spending."

Sally Mauk Reckless or not, Holly, Democrats aren't going to have much sway over how this surplus is handled.

Holly Michels Yeah, we heard that opposition from Democrats to all but one of the bills, and like Abbott was saying, their main concern is the speed at which they're going through the session. You know, Democrats were arguing that given the problems facing the state right now, everything from housing being unaffordable to a lack of child care, they want those issues to get a lot of robust discussion before the Legislature decides where this large of a chunk of money will go. And we did see motions from Democrats, although they were unsuccessful, to untie the fates of these bills, which we heard Abbott reference in a committee before reaching the House floor. These bills were all amended to tie them together. So, if one goes down, they would all fall down. So that's in case one becomes less palatable to Republicans. You can't really vote one down and not lose the whole package. But like you said, Sally, you know, there's a very large margin. We have a supermajority of Republicans in this session. And looking at the votes on these bills, you know, they came out with pretty large margins clearing the house. So, it's not really clear if any of these Democratic concerns are going to gain much traction.

Sally Mauk Rob, supporters of the Montana Constitution, including luminaries like former Republican Governor Mark Racicot and former Democratic legislator Dorothy Bradley, rallied in the Capitol Rotunda this week, and they're opposed to a number of proposed changes to the state Constitution that may or may not come out of this Legislature to end up on the 2024 ballot. Their argument is why fix what ain't broke.

Rob Saldin Right. And I think there certainly are reasons for supporters of the Constitution to be concerned. Some Republicans have definitely expressed their dissatisfaction with it and with their new supermajority, they do now have the numbers to initiate the amendment process or even call for a new constitutional convention to draft an entirely new document.

Now, that said, it's still a pretty high bar to hit the two-thirds threshold that they need. Republicans have to be nearly entirely unified. Right? They can only have a couple of defections. So, that's tough because there is some diversity among Republicans. And I think clearly there are some Republicans who would not be enthusiastic about some of the proposed changes. But, you know, can you drag all of them along to get to the next stage of this process? Well, I guess we'll see. But just because the Republicans have two-thirds of the seats doesn't mean they've automatically got two-thirds of the votes. And then, even if they do get there, any of these amendments would have to be approved by the voters before they go into effect. And there again, that's no slam dunk. Just look what happened with LR-131, the abortion measure that was on the ballot last November. But for supporters of the Constitution, this is their way of trying to draw some public awareness to the issue and do what they see as a service in educating the public about some of the rights that are in that Constitution that people might not even be aware of.

Several hundred people gathered in the state Capitol Wednesday to rally against widespread changes to the state’s Bill of Rights.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly, a lot of doctors and other medical people have been traveling to Helena to testify for and against bills that would affect how they do their jobs. House Bill 303, sponsored by Republican and nurse Amy Regier, would allow health care workers to abstain from providing care in cases they morally object to. Here's what Regier said.

"The freedom to live and work consistent with one's conscience is critical."

Sally Mauk But Holly, a lot of medical organizations object to this bill. And E.R. doctor Nathan Allen says the bill could hurt care, especially in rural parts of Montana.

"This will disproportionately impact the most rural Montanans. Patient protections are absent from HB 303."

Sally Mauk And, Holly, the need for the bill was also questioned.

Holly Michels Yeah, this bill had a pretty intense hearing before a committee and then it was voted out of that committee and it's on its way to the House now. And what Regier said in support of the bill is that she wants people in health care to be able to follow their conscience. She said people might not want to engage in things like physician assisted suicide, prescribing marijuana, prescribing opioids and more. And the bill also, pretty specifically, there's a section on it about abortion.

And those opposed to the bill also have concerns about gender affirming care for transgender Montanans. Like we heard from the E.R. doctor there, the concern is in a lot of parts of the state, there might just be one physician who provides care. So if that doctor isn't willing to give that care, what does that look like for the person in that community?

You know, we heard from supporters of the bill that they pretty often haven't been forced to provide the care they don't agree with, but they worry that that's a scenario that could happen one day.

Your point, Sally, about the need for this bill, there's already protections in place for health care workers. That same E.R. doctor is also an ethicist at his hospital. And he was saying there's ethics panels at hospitals to review when cases like this come up. And there is also already a state law that says people who have objections to abortions don't have to provide them.

A bill introduced in the Montana Legislature would allow employees for health care facilities and insurance companies to abstain from participating in cases they morally object to. Opponents worry it will lead to discrimination.

Sally Mauk It was another busy week. Holly and Rob, thank you. I'll talk to you again soon.

Rob Saldin Thanks Sally.

Holly Michels Thank you 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 online Friday afternoons and on-air Saturdays at 9:44 a.m. Subscribewherever you get your podcasts.

Bills to reform Montana tax policy, support missing persons search efforts and overhaul Child Protective Services move through the Legislature as schisms between and within the parties are starting to form.

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'.
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