Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Budget bills await governor's signature; Lawmakers look to weaken the judiciary

The Governor celebrates a major win midway through the legislative session. Democrats hope to fend off attempts to weaken the judiciary. And speculation grows over who will challenge Jon Tester for his Senate seat.

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: Holly, It's the midpoint of the 2023 legislative session, and Governor Gianforte is already celebrating a major victory: passage of a slate of bills that spend over a billion dollars of the state surplus pretty much the way he wants the money to be spent.

Holly Michels: Yeah, that's right. You know, we've touched on these before, but what we have now on the governor's desk is what the Legislature's put their fingerprints on. And what the governor first proposed at the start of the session about, he wants to spend an estimated $2.5 billion surplus Montana has. So, lawmakers passed a $500 property tax credit for each of the next two years, and that's half of what the governor originally proposed. But they did OK his income tax rebates of up to $1,250 in each of the next two years. But again, they are seeking to put their fingerprints on things. And during transmittal, we had two Republican lawmakers announce an upcoming bill that would actually increase the amount going back to taxpayers by another $200 million. And that would be putting $100 million more toward income tax rebates and another $100 million to property tax rebates. We'll hear that bill when we come back from a short break.

Outside of those items, lawmakers also passed another reduction Gianforte proposed, the state's top income tax credit, building on what he did last session to increase the earned income tax credit. They also passed the governor's increase in business equipment tax exemptions and change to a capital gains tax that the governor wanted.

But there are a few things Gianforte asked for that he hasn't gotten. Lawmakers have voted down $100 million in a disaster resiliency fund that he wanted. And they also tabled a proposal for a permanent child tax credit, even after they amended it pretty significantly from what he initially pitched. I think it's fair to say both those bills could come back, and I wouldn't be shocked if we see them as a bargaining chip down the road. But for now, those are on the table.

Sally Mauk: Republican and Democratic lawmakers have predictably different reactions to all of this. And Republican Senator Greg Hertz chastised Democrats for voting against the bills.

Greg Hertz: We've just seen them vote down property tax rebates, which is the number one priority, I think, of all our constituents.

Sally Mauk: But Democrats like Senator Ryan Lynch think the bills are short term fixes.

Ryan Lynch: It's a nice headline to say we gave property tax relief. It's a one off. It actually doesn't do anything for the long term ongoing.

Sally Mauk: Republicans, Holly, easily won the argument.

Holly Michels: Yeah, they did. I mean, we saw these bills clear, Republicans have a supermajority, so, pretty large margins. And we have seen Republicans who said they wanted to move these bills through early, very quickly, get money back to voters. And something as early as last summer, we actually heard them calling for a special session to issue some of these rebates. So I don't think it's much of a surprise how they've handled this session.

But, like we heard there, you know, Democrats have been critical of the pace, saying that the state is divvying up this surplus way too quickly. And in the second 45 days of the session, there's still a lot of money bills that are coming. And we need to deliberate how to spend money to fund those priorities. And the Democrats have said, too, that their frustrations with this being one time only money, you know, the income tax and property tax rebates are just for each of the next two years. But Republicans are arguing that they're being paid for with money that was one time only. So they feel like that balances out.

Sally Mauk: Well, Rob, as we've discussed many times before, giving taxpayers money back is a sure bet to be a popular move no matter the amount people are getting back, but is still money in the pocket and no one is going to say 'no thanks, keep it. Spend it on something else.'

Rob Saldin: Right, that's exactly right, Sally. I know the way they've structured these, particularly on those one time income and property tax rebates, you know, most people who pay those are going to notice this. It's a big political win for Gianforte and the Republicans in the Legislature. They've delivered on one of their central promises. They also managed to get this done early in the session, which is notable because they've essentially, at this point, taken this issue off the table. Now they may come back for more, but at least what's been done so far by the Legislature, that's money that's effectively gone out the door. It's baked into the cake. So that means that it's not going to get tangled up in last minute negotiations where it could get pitted against various spending priorities, some of which might be very popular. And in that kind of a dynamic, there could very easily be pressure to find a compromise in which the tax cuts get reduced. So if your top priority is cutting taxes, as it is for many Republicans, it's really advantageous to get this package nailed down now rather than at the end of the session when it could get watered down.

Sally Mauk: Besides budget legislation, Holly, this session is considering a number of bills aimed at giving the Legislature more power and the judicial branch less. And this stems in large part because legislators don't like the courts striking down bills they've passed. And that's something that happened a lot after the last session and could very well happen again after this session. They even had an interim committee studying this, and now, Holly, they want to do something about it.

Holly Michels: Yeah, you know, the judiciary was a major issue for Republican lawmakers last session. In addition to everything you just ran through, they also had a pretty big conflict with the state Supreme Court over a poll the court administrator sent to judges over pending litigation and then later deleted email records of. So I think that, combined with everything you talked about, you know, laws being struck down, it's fair to say Republicans didn't love the judiciary before forming this committee. And that committee, they developed a lot of legislation over the interim that, some of it, we saw come this session, in addition to a slew of other bills that have also come aimed at the judiciary.

One of those is Senate Bill 313, and that will let people who file complaints against judges make those complaints public. That's cleared the Senate. And those complaints are something we actually saw a Republican political operative try to use in a 2022 state Supreme Court race.

We've also seen success for bills that would allow more partisan oversight of the courts. There's House Bill 326 from Representative Kerri Seekins-Crowe, Billings Republican, that will let the speaker of the house and the state attorney general appoint three of the members of the Judicial Standards Commission. That commission has been something that's been in the sights of Republican lawmakers for some time now.

We've also seen a resolution advance, though important to point out resolutions aren't the same as laws and are more a statement of what legislators would like to see. But this one says that it's legislators and not the judiciary who makes laws, and that, Sally, gets a,t when you talked about, when laws have been struck down or Republicans have frustrations with that. This is kind of speaking to that issue.

You know, we have seen some issues fail, though. You know, different parts of the Republican spectrum and Democrats opposing them. And that's been four proposals that would have either required or allowed for partisan judge elections. The supporters of those efforts have said voters often don't know who to vote for in judge races. Those are, you know, sometimes pretty low-information races, especially at the local level. And they say knowing a party might help someone who's just, you know, interested in voting straight party ticket or people who might have priorities that they can understand, better align with a specific party, that letter behind a judge's name. And they also pointed out that judges oftentimes might have a partisan past, so why pretend they don't. But we heard from opponents who raised concerns they'd be worried judges were making decisions based on pressure from political parties or other affiliated groups and not making decisions based on law, but because of those political leanings. So, those arguments clearly must have been effective at some level because all of those bills didn't make it past transmittal.

Sally Mauk: Rob, in a functioning democracy, the three branches of government are equal. But how that equality is defined and maintained seems to be in question more and more. And not just in Montana, but in the country at large.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, you are seeing this in a lot of different places. The theoretical level, you have these separate branches. They each have their own prerogatives and they each have their own separate spheres. And there's some overlap and oversight amongst the three. But they do need to, on some level, be able to defend themselves against the other branches within their spheres. And I think certainly, defenders of the court and many members of the court see what the Legislature is doing in Montana is overstepping its bounds in that area.

The other thing going on here, of course, just at the political level, is that for a lot of Democrats, they see the court as kind of their saving grace here. You know, as we've talked about a lot, we have these overwhelming Republican majorities, supermajorities in fact, in the Legislature. We obviously have a Republican governor. Montana has been turning a deeper and deeper shade of red. Well, the court is the one place the Democrats can look to as a place where they can prevail just on some of these policy issues. And a lot of that doesn't necessarily have to do with the members of the court. A big issue, and one we've also talked about at times, is the Constitution. And of course, a lot of Republicans have the Constitution in their sights as well. There's a lot of factors at play here. But I think for Republicans, you know, going after the courts, going after the Constitution. It works for them even if they don't prevail on some of these things.

Sally Mauk: Holly and Rob, members of the congressional delegation keep vying for headlines. Holly, Senator Daines has a series of new videos on social media going after the Biden administration over inflation.

Holly Michels: I think what we're seeing here is maybe Daines sort of, you know, getting ready a little bit for 2024, or Tester seeking re-election. I don't think it takes an election for Daines to be critical of Biden over inflation. And we heard him and other Republicans hammer on that issue and contrast it with how well they say the Montana economy is doing compared to a bleak image they're painting at the federal level, when they were all here to address the Legislature. You know, it's a common Republican point we've heard for some time now. But, you know, Daines isn't just a senator here. He's also the head of the committee that's tasked with flipping Senate seats red in 2024. And Tester's race, if it's not the most critical one, it definitely is one of the top ones. So, I think the more unpopular Daines can make the president in Montana, the better Republicans see their chances. And we've already seen groups that are going to spend big in that race against Tester. Tying Tester to what they say are failed Biden policies. So I think that's probably part of what's going on here.

Sally Mauk: Speaking of that Senate race, Rob, here's how Congressman Matt Rosendale responded to a question public radio's Ed O'Brien asked him about whether he plans to challenge Senator Tester next year.

Matt Rosendale: Here's what I will tell you. Jon Tester does not represent the people of Montana. The people of Montana do deserve someone who represents them. And I think that they will make that decision over the next 12 months, 18 months, to decide who they want to be up here in Washington representing them.

Sally Mauk: I hear this, Rob, as Mr. Rosendale saying he's not ready yet to announce he is running.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, not ready to announce his candidacy to Ed, but there's also nothing in that response to suggest that he's not gearing up for a Senate run.

Now, Ryan Zinke, on the other hand, made some comments to CNN this week that I found a bit curious. He said that a Senate run would be a distraction from the work he's doing in the House and to the promises that he's made to his constituents. Now, it's easy sometimes to read too much into off the cuff comments like this, but still, that sounds like a bit of hedging. He certainly didn't have to say that. It would be, I think, pretty out of character for Zinke to not run for the Senate. This is a guy who's never been lacking in self-regard, but his star has fallen a bit since his earlier stint in Congress.

One other factor in all of this is Steve Daines. As we've discussed, he's heading up the Republicans' Senate campaign committee this cycle. He's made it very clear that he's going to try to tip the scales in some of these primaries, to the extent he can, toward candidates that he deems to be electable. So in the context of our Senate seat, does Rosendale pass Daines' electability test? I'm not sure. There is some chatter out there that at least one other potential candidate who doesn't necessarily have the same profile as Rosendale or Zinke, but might kind of look the part, is out there testing the water. Now, the days of the old party bosses orchestrating things in smoke-filled rooms, that's long gone. So, if Rosendale or Zinke want to go for it, I don't think they're going to care all that much what Daines or the Whitefish car salesmen have to say about it. Nonetheless, Daines does have some money to throw around.

Sally Mauk: Lawmakers are taking a few days off and we'll be back next week. Rob and Holly, take some deep breaths. I'll talk to you then.

Holly Michels Thanks, Sally.

Rob Saldin Thanks, 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.

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'.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information