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Republicans own the budget — for better or worse; Arntzen gets an earful; Anti-trans bills advance

There aren't many Democratic fingerprints on the budget passed by the House. Montana's Legislature is just one of several targeting transgender issues. And state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen gets an earful on a statewide tour. Is she aiming for higher office?

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. Sitting in this week for Rob Saldin is Montana State University and Carroll College political science professor Dr. Jessi Bennion.

Sally Mauk: Holly, the House has passed House Bill 2, the main budget bill, with only 6 hours of debate. And I say "only" because that really is not much debate on a bill as all-encompassing and complex as this one. Democrats' efforts to amend the bill mostly failed. So it's fair to say, isn't it Holly, that this is a Republican budget?

Holly Michels: Yeah, we saw a really strong partisan divide on display during debate over House Bill 2. Like you said, Democrats attempted to bring 15 amendments to the budget and we didn't see any Republicans trying to make any changes on the floor. And I don't think, given the Republican supermajority that we have in the House and Senate this session, that the budget advancing on a party line vote was all that unexpected. But I do think it's interesting we didn't see any Republican amendments.

In a press conference before the debate, Speaker of the House Matt Regier said he talked with his caucus about respecting the work of the Republican-led budget subcommittees and the things that they already did to change the budget, as well as the Republican-chaired House Appropriations Committee.

So we did see, like you said, you know, Democratic amendment after Democratic amendment fail. That included things like efforts to cut money for transferring 120 prisoners to Arizona, adding money for more public defenders to the Office of Public Defense, putting $170 million into the state's emergency rental assistance program and $600,000 for cutting co-pays for reduced price school meals.

You know, we heard Republicans praise the budget, generally saying they thought the rate of increased spending at the House over the last budget was pretty reasonable given inflation. They also said they thought it struck a good balance in right-sizing government.

But Democrats, like we've heard through this session, said, you know, they feel like there's a few bipartisan highlights, but they're pretty frustrated to see a budget they point out has no direct investment in affordable housing. They say it doesn't go far enough on things like child care and also doesn't fully fund rates paid to Medicaid providers, as this study recommended.

Montana lawmakers spent about seven hours on the House Floor Wednesday debating the state’s two-year spending plan before passing a proposed budget along party lines. Here's a breakdown of where money is and isn’t going.

Sally Mauk: Well, there was one odd scene, Holly, after Republican Jennifer Carlson was the lone Republican to vote with Democrats on that effort you mentioned to prevent 120 state prison inmates being sent to a private prison out of state. That effort failed, but Carlson caught some flack for breaking ranks.

Holly Michels: Yeah, so this was the only vote in that six hour debate we saw where someone broke ranks with the party. And like you said, that came from Republican Jennifer Carlson on that prisoner transfer amendment. After the vote, House Majority Leader Sue Vinton of Billings spoke with Carlson off the House floor — and Carlson is a whip for Republicans, meaning it's part of her job to make sure people are voting together on some of these things — and after that discussion, Carlson and Vinton returned to the floor separately. Carlson had a couple of people come up from both parties to kind of comfort her after that. And one of our reporters talked to Carlson after the vote. And she said, you know, she understood the importance of voting as a block. It's something the party talked about beforehand. But she had a hard time backing something that she just didn't agree with.

So the next step for the budget, it's going to move to the Senate. It's going to go through a similar process there. It'll be amended, most likely. Then it'll go up to the House for final debate. That's the last thing that happens normally in the session. So, still a lot to go on the budget, but this is a pretty major step for it.

Sally Mauk: Jessi, the majority party in the Legislature has historically always held the upper hand, be they Republican or Democrat. But in the past there have been efforts to work across the aisle, at least to get some bipartisan support on bills. But this session, Republicans, certainly on the budget, seem fine, not worrying about that. What, if anything, is the potential problem with one party having that kind of dominance?

Across the country, parties are consolidating political power in states and squeezing out the moderate middle. In Montana, that squeeze is changing political representation and whose voice counts.

Jessi Bennion: Yes, in the past, Democrats have always had the ability to get some things, and they may have been hopeful at the beginning of this session, even. But right now I'm sure they're feeling very defeated. The drawbacks of one-party dominance, you're right, there's no need to come to consensus. There's really only consensus building between moderates and the far right that we're seeing. They don't have to debate as much. They don't even really need as much of a strategy to build that cooperation, the give and take that we see in government. So that means that some minority ideas and voices are drowned out. And I think that that can be very demotivating to Democratic voters. That can make them feel like their vote or their policy ideas don't matter and that they don't have a seat at that negotiating table. What we know in political science is that healthy democracies have robust debates. Republicans could push back, though, and say that this is what the voters wanted. They came into the session with a mandate, they have the supermajority. The governor has gotten his budget.

One other drawback, though, that I want to talk about is that when one party gets everything that they want, you now know who to blame for everything. And so when Republicans control everything, then Democrats now have a talking points when they are running for office. But, yes, I know it doesn't probably feel very good right now to be a Democrat in Montana.

Sally Mauk: Well, we'll continue to see how that sort of partisanship plays out in the Legislature.

And Holly, Senate Bill 99, which would criminalize gender affirming care for transgender minors, is well on its way to the governor's desk. And supporters like Representative Braxton Mitchell argue minors shouldn't have access to this care. Here's what he said.

Braxton Mitchell: This is adolescent children we're talking about. Can't buy alcohol, can't buy cigarettes, can't consent to sexual activities, can't live on their own.

Sally Mauk: But Democrat Zooey Zephyr, who is transgender, believes denying such care is cruel.

Zooey Zephyr: To delay them from the care that they need is to force them to go through a puberty that is, for many transpeople, tantamount to torture.

Sally Mauk: Zephyr lost the argument, Holly, but this bill, if it becomes law, is likely headed to court.

Holly Michels: We've heard on both sides, both House and Senate when this bill's been debated, from people giving testimony, that they anticipate this will be litigated if it passes as expected. So I think that's something we can be looking to after the session ends.

In addition to what you said of this bill blocking gender affirming care for trans minors, it would also penalize doctors who provide the care, with fines and license suspension. And it would also not allow state property or buildings to be used to promote or advocate social transitioning. It would also stop Medicaid from covering transition care. The bill was amended to still allow for those covered by Medicaid to get treatment at facilities that offer gender affirming care, but not for that gender affirming care. So that's if someone might be getting cancer treatment at a facility that also does gender affirming care that would still be allowed.

And like those bites you just played, you know, the House debate mirrored a lot of what we've already heard about this bill this session, it's a lot of intense and emotional debate. Like we heard from Representative Mitchell, Republicans are arguing minors are not mature enough to be making decisions about this type of care. But we've heard from opponents of the bill that include doctors who have made clear gender affirming surgery is not performed on minors and that other types of care, like treatment with hormones, doesn't happen until after extensive medical consultation and with the consent of both parents. We've also heard from national medical groups and testimony that all national medical groups have said gender affirming care is evidence-based best practice, and that surgery isn't even all that common among adults. From opponents, we have heard testimony similar to what we heard from Representative Zephyr there, that this type of care is life saving for some kids. We also heard on the floor, Democrats point out this bill would still allow the type of care it's banning for trans kids, for other kids. And they're asking why, if these procedures are dangerous for one population, why they are for another.

But like you said Sally, this bill is advancing. We saw three Republicans join with all Democrats in voting against the bill on a second reading. But given the Republican supermajority, that's nowhere near enough to block it from moving forward. Once this clears the House, it'll head back to the Senate for consideration of amendments. So there's still a few more steps before it reach the governor, but it is moving through the process.

Republican Senate Bill 99, which would criminalize gender-affirming care for transgender minors in Montana, has advanced along party lines in the House despite hours of opposition testimony.

Sally Mauk: Jessi, Montana is just one of several states on the verge of passing laws aimed at the transgender population. It's a very small group, have not been targeted like this until fairly recently. So my question to you is, why now? Why has it become such a dominant issue?

Jessi Bennion: You know, there's certainly a cultural conversation that we are having at the moment over gender identity. And as the media focuses more on it, people hear about it and then they possibly are talking to their legislators about it. So, Montana legislators could be hearing from their own constituents about this very thing, and I'm sure they are.

You know, after the Supreme Court case for marriage equality, many interest groups that were fighting for or against marriage equality kind of had to shift their political organizing to new fundraising, new ideas. And we can see that after marriage equality, the discussion moved really to the, sort of, bathroom bills and then now to this issue of gender identity. So the interest groups that work in these areas have to fundraise to be in existence, really. This is a nationally coordinated movement. Most likely part of a national political strategy that has been shown to be important for that fundraising, but also important to the electoral success of Republicans.

But at an even deeper, kind of, human behavioral level, those who research political psychology have observed some things. And there is a human tendency to not like change. But there's also another specific trait that is being open to new things, to change. And that has been shown to be a more liberal trait. So, when I think of voters and how they act behaviorally for conservatives, there is a very real fear of change or swiftly changing cultural norms, and that can be tapped into in the political world. And we're seeing that right here in Montana.

Sally Mauk: Holly, Montana State School Superintendent Elsie Arntzen has been holding forums around the state and she's been getting an earful from educators and parents on everything from teacher pay to charter schools.

Holly Michels: Yeah, we saw reporting by the Lewistown News-Argus about this. And like you said, she's been traveling the state, doing these types of forums and not all of them have gone very smoothly. One person in the crowd in Lewistown asked Arntzen how charter schools would work in the state, given teacher shortages we're facing at public schools. And the person also said they're worried how charter schools would work with limited financial resources for public schools, because charter schools would pull some money from that pot. There are two competing charter school bills working their way through this session now, and Arntzen has been a very vocal supporter of school choice in the past. At that meeting, Arntzen defended some of the criticism on charter schools by saying most other states allow for them. And she also referenced possible philanthropic support for charter schools, something one of the sponsors of the bill said would be necessary for them. A school administrator disputed charter schools would really represent choice. Saying that schools already approve transfers between public school districts all the time and that they felt public money should stay with public schools. The News Argus reported that others who attended this Lewistown meeting were pretty critical about teacher pay being too low. And Arntzen tried to say that that's a school board issue, that they set pay. But school officials point out the state funding formula is a pretty major factor in teacher pay.

Montana lawmakers are considering proposals allowing public charter school options and tax credits for parents who send special needs students to private schools.

Sally Mauk: Jessi, a lot of people are not convinced that the top public education official in the state, Superintendent Arntzen, actually believes in public education. And I'm not sure this tour has done anything to disprove that.

Jessi Bennion: Yeah, it's a fine line. Generally, it seems odd to me from a good governance perspective to have someone in a position like hers that doesn't take the mission of the office seriously, or in this case, take the duties of public education seriously. So I think that there's a very real tension that we're seeing.

I know that there are rumors that she is potentially going to run for the eastern congressional district for the House. And so this tour raises her profile. And I think about it through the mind of the voter. So for a segment of voters there has been a suspicion of, I guess you could say, indoctrination or curriculum issues that push agendas in schools. And these are very real concerns for Republican voters. And so as an elected Republican, she's certainly tapping into that, and again, has been electorally successful with that messaging. Vouchers, private schools, charter schools, these have all been part of Republican policy ideas for decades now. But I think what we're seeing is that the pandemic really pushed those discussions further. On the Republican side, there was disappointment with how schools dealt with the pandemic. So maybe she feels that she needs to speak to that disappointment. And again, Republican voters, they are more suspicious of public education. So, I think that that really is why she's acting this way on this tour and how she deals with that tension of representing that office.

Sally Mauk: Holly and Jessi, we're out of time. Thank you so much.

Holly Michels Thanks, Sally.

Jessi Bennion Thank you.

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. Sitting in this week for Rob Saldin is Montana State University and Carroll College political science professor Dr. Jessi Bennion.

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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