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Lawmakers spar over Columbus; balloons bring bipartisan agreement

There's rare bipartisan agreement over what to do about wayward balloons. Abortion remains a dominant legislative issue. Montana's former secretary of state wants to now be a country singer. And lawmakers argue over whether Columbus was a good guy or bad guy.

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 Well, Rob, the shooting-down of the Chinese spy balloon and three other so-far unidentified objects is still the talk of the town and of Montana's congressional delegation, who all have been on national television critiquing the Biden administration's response. And it's not just Republicans. Here's what Democratic Senator Jon Tester said in a press conference this week with Montana reporters about the administration's tardy response to the Chinese spy balloon.

"If it had been up to me, I would have shot the thing down over the Aleutians. Now, there were some reasons it didn't get shot over the Aleutians, recovery being the main one, and they weren't sure where it was going to go at that moment in time. You know, in retrospect, it could have went straight over, you know, and out, but it was in our airspace, and I think it was big enough where it merited that."

Sally Mauk And we've since learned, Rob, that thanks to reporting from the Billings Gazette, that the U.S. apparently flirted with shooting the balloon down when it was flying over Montana's Beartooth Mountains. [Editor's note: The Gazette has changed their headline and story to say the Pentagon "could have" shot the balloon down, not that they attempted to, as first reported. See the Pentagon briefing here.]

Rob Saldin Right Sally. And yeah, as you kind of allude to, one thing that stands out is that there is quite a bit of agreement within the delegation on this one. I do think that it's Tester who's really been out front on this and most prominent among the members of the delegation, and for good reason. There is a Montana connection here, right? The first balloon, it was initially spotted over the Billings area and reports of it from the Billings Gazette are apparently what forced the White House to publicly acknowledge it. Now, it seems as though that might have just randomly been where it was first seen. So it's not clear that there's any ongoing Montana connection, although we do have Malmstrom and all those missiles buried all over the place. So it is possible that that was what China was interested in. It's it's hard to know. But in any event, there is at the very least that first impression of a Montana connection. Then you've got Tester's committee assignments and policy expertise which placed this issue within his wheelhouse. So it makes sense on that front.

And and then there's the politics of it. Tester's seat is up next year. It'll be on the ballot. Now, he hasn't announced whether he's going to run for reelection, but he and his staff sure seem to be doing everything that you'd do if you were running. So just in that context, you know, this is a good issue for him as a Democrat in a red state. It's helpful to find issues that don't clearly map on to our partisan fissures. And this is not a partisan issue, at least not yet. Maybe it will be over time if it remains a prominent issue. But for now at least, this is one of those things that isn't well defined by partisanship. It doesn't trigger immediate tribal instincts in the sense of, you know, my partisan team has this position and and the bad guys on the other side have that position. So it works well for him on the politics, too.

Sally Mauk Holly, back at the Legislature, Democratic Representative Laurie Bishop has a bill that would codify the right to an abortion. And to say her House Bill 432 is a long shot is an understatement.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think you're right, Sally. Looking at the makeup of the House Judiciary Committee, which heard the bill, and how they voted on past abortion legislation, I think we can expect that this bill would face a pretty steep path even to get out of committee. And then we've seen how we have a supermajority of Republicans. We've seen them before, you know, pass bills that would limit access to abortion and vote down bills that would expand it. So, that being said, this is still a pretty important bill for Democrats this session in a package of legislation they have aimed at reproductive health care. What this bill would do is codify the existing abortion landscape in Montana, which at the top level is the right to access an abortion under a 1999 state Supreme Court ruling called Armstrong. And that found that Montana's state Constitution has the right to privacy and that Constitution protects access to an abortion. To understand why Democrats want to pass a bill like Bishop's, just look at the Dobbs decision last summer that overturned Roe v Wade at the U.S. Supreme Court at the federal level. And the concern is the same could happen here in Montana. The bill's sponsor, you said, Representative Laurie Bishop, is a Democrat from Livingston, and she told the committee that the bill is just simply codifying what's already practiced here in Montana, that it's not doing anything that's not already the status quo. And the language of the bill, in addition to codification of Armstrong, would strike out parts of state law that are either permanently enjoined by the courts or under temporary injunctions related to abortion. And that includes things like three laws passed last session, including one that would not allow abortions after 20 weeks and would require women to be informed of the opportunity to view an ultrasound for an abortion. Those are temporarily blocked right now as a lawsuit against them plays out.

Bishop would also have, her bill would strike another part of law that's been on hold an injunction for more than a decade now that would require parental consent for minors seeking abortions. And supporters of this bill just say it's good practice to clean up state code. And they also argue that abortion is essential health care. And we heard from people sharing pretty tragic pregnancy outcomes that could have been much worse if, they said, they were not able to get the care that they were able to access. But opponents argue that they don't think these late-term pregnancy tragedies would be affected by changes to abortion access that we have seen that happen in other states following the fall of Roe. Another thing that opponents argue is that some of these laws haven't been fully decided yet. And we also heard from opponents that they want these laws to remain on the books so that Armstrong were to fall in Montana, which is something they think will occur in the future, these laws would trigger back into place.

Republican lawmakers in Montana wield a supermajority that gives them the power to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would break the link between abortion rights and the right to privacy in the state’s Constitution.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, much was made this week about Nikki Haley's entrance into the presidential race challenging Donald Trump. But she's not the only Republican in the race besides Trump. Montana's former secretary of state and aspiring country singer Corey Stapleton is also running for president, but no national reporters have rushed in to interview him Rob.

Rob Saldin No, no, they haven't. You know, Sally, there are lots of reasons why people run for president. One, obviously, is because they want to be president. But of course, since 1972, which is when our current system of nominating presidential candidates via the primary process was established, we've had lots of candidates in the mix and up there on the debate stage who have zero chance of actually winning. Well, there are other reasons to launch a presidential campaign. You know, some effectively are running to be vice president or to be considered for a cabinet post. Other candidates do it to draw attention to a particular issue that they care about. Others do it to draw attention to themselves in hopes of leveraging their fame into a cable TV show or something like that. So I don't feel like I'm going too far out on a limb and saying that Stapleton's chances of being president are hovering down there around that 0% area. And one presumes that he recognizes that. There's little indication that he's doing any of the things that one would typically associate with an active campaign. There is a website and it has a professional video and you can buy a shirt or a hat. But his campaign, to the extent we can call it, that, has only garnered a small handful of donors. It has less than $4,000 in the bank. So it's definitely more robust than your average campaign for junior high class president, but not by much. So maybe this is just fun and maybe it does add a little spice and color, a little intrigue, you know, when he goes on the road playing gigs. But I certainly doubt that Trump or DeSantis or Haley are very concerned.

Corey Stapleton, a Republican from Billings, has served as a state senator and ran unsuccessfully for governor and the U.S. House. He released his first country music album earlier this month.

Sally Mauk Well Holly, Missoula Democratic Senator Shane Morigeau's Senate Bill 141 to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day was tabled in committee this week, but not without some rancorous debate and an attempt to blast it out of committee. Ronan Republican Senator Dan Solomon blamed Morigeau for the bill's failure because Morigeau dared to accurately point out atrocities Columbus and his men committed against Indigenous people. Morigeau said this in support of his bill.

"To talk about the wrongs in our history. To write our next chapter together. To reject selective history and recognize the good, the bad and the ugly so that we can learn and do better as a society."

Sally Mauk But the blast motion still failed, Holly.

Holly Michels It did. And we've seen bills like this fail in the past several sessions too, and that appears to be what's happening so far. This legislation would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, and even though more than 35 people testified in support of the bill before the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee and nobody spoke against it, the bill did go down in that committee, like you said. And we heard from Senator Morigeau, a Democrat from Missoula there, say when there is an attempt to revive this on the floor in the Senate, that it's important people not be picking and choosing when they talk about history, but to include the full scope of what happened. And that's what we heard echoed by a lot of the supporters of the bill, too.

And what happened here, it's called a blast motion. It was brought by Senator Susan Webber, a Democrat from Browning. And that's when a senator can take something that's been killed off in committee and try to bring it back, revive it for the full Senate to debate. We heard from Senator Dan Solomon, who's a Republican from Ronan, about why he voted against the bill. And he chairs the committee that Morigeau presented this bill to and voted it down. Solomon was saying that Morigeau, in his take on this, killed his own bill when he advocated for it by starting off, like you said, Sally, in describing accurately what Columbus did historically, you know, his crew. There were rapes, beheadings, you know, historical documents show the enslaving of natives and just really horrific things that were done.

We heard from Senator John Fuller, a Republican from Kalispell, who did not support the bill. He said in the context of history, he felt Columbus was, "one of the most important individuals in Western civilization." And Morigeau countered that, he said he was frustrated with the outcome and said he didn't understand how just talking about history accurately, as historical documents show, would make people so upset. And he asked if people were uneasy about Columbus's actions, why they would want to celebrate him with a holiday.

A bill that would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day failed to move forward in the Montana state Senate.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, the nasty comments about this bill reflect what, do you think? A reaction against, "wokeness" or garden variety racism?

Rob Saldin Well, certainly there has been a reaction across the country to the excesses of so-called wokeism. So absolutely there is that there in the background. In terms of the racism charge, I saw last year's Democratic nominee for the eastern congressional seat, Penny Ronning, attributed it directly to racism. And plenty of that from other folks on social media, too. It seems to me that some Democrats have a way of reflexively lurching to that kind of an explanation any time someone doesn't agree with them. And I'm sure there are cases in which that's true, but it's sometimes a pretty simplistic way of viewing things that can come off as having a rather off-putting kind of puritanical zeal and smugness to it. And in a more practical sense, it's awfully hard to win converts when you casually denounce people who disagree with you as racists.

And, you know, there are some other explanations here. You know, for one, just on the politics of it, Morigeau has long been seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. He's already run for statewide office once, and there's some speculation that he might be interested in running for that western congressional seat next year. So Republicans, just on the politics of it, might not be real eager to give him a win on one of his signature issues.

There's also a bit of a tension in terms of what this is really about. Is this about establishing a holiday to recognize Indigenous peoples or is it about getting rid of Columbus Day? Now, maybe for the bill's strongest supporters, the answer is both. But the reality is that, you know, not everyone is marinated in Howard Zinn's take on American history. So when you pair the two together, you're inevitably going to run up against a lot of folks who are surprised and hesitant at the idea of scrapping Columbus Day, a holiday that, for better or worse, has been around for a long time. It may well be the case that it's worth having a discussion about whether that's something we want to continue. But just in terms of establishing an Indigenous Peoples' Day, you know, decoupling it from Columbus Day would probably give you a better shot at getting the thing passed.

Sally Mauk Well, for now, Columbus Day is still going to be celebrated in Montana, it appears. Holly and Rob, we're out of time. I'll talk to you next week. Thanks.

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.

This week, lawmakers are starting to piece together the biggest part of the state budget, and worldviews about LGBTQ rights are colliding over rules for public schools. Listen now on The Session.

Updated: February 18, 2023 at 10:49 AM MST
Editor's note: The Billings Gazette has changed their headline and story to say the Pentagon "could have" shot the balloon down, not that they attempted to, as first reported. See the Pentagon briefing here.
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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