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A contentious legislative session ends. Will it mark a turning point in Montana politics?

Republican lawmakers say they delivered for Montanans. Democrats say they kept a lot of bad things off the books. The Regier family reigned over much of the action. And this session marked a political turning point — but in what direction?

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, the 2023 legislative session is history, and both Republicans and Democrats have begun their spin on how the session went. Here's how Republican House Speaker Matt Regier described the session.

"There were many times of sunlight, and there were also some times of shade. But overall, it's been an incredible ride over the last four months here for us all."

Sally Mauk Well, incredible is probably not the adjective everyone would use, Holly, to describe this session, but Republicans can celebrate achieving most of what they wanted, including tax cuts and tax relief, restrictions on abortion, anti-trans legislation, laws to promote charter schools, etc..

Holly Michels Yeah, I think as we heard the speaker say there, Republicans are leaving the session feeling like they accomplished a lot of what they set out to do. I think a fair amount of that includes building on things that they did in the 2021 session, which was the first time the Republican majority had a Republican governor at the finish line to be signing their bills, instead of six years of Democrats they'd had previously. And then this year we had a Republican supermajority, too, which made things even easier for them. Really early on in the session, they cleared bills that would reduce income tax rate paid by top earners in Montana. That's people earning more than $19,000 a year. They also raised the business equipment tax threshold and cut capital gains taxes. Those all advance similar changes from last session. And then they also passed also really early on $530 million in income tax rebates, $280 million in property tax refunds paid for with surplus money. And they followed that up on the last day of the session by passing another $135 million of those two types of rebates.

And then, like you said, Sally, we saw not just one, but two charter school bills actually passed. One gives a little more oversight to local school boards and the other one exists mostly outside that system. We heard the people say those can exist together and offer two different options for communities, but we also expect litigation on those bills.

Again, building on stuff that passed last session, we saw the Republicans advance a lot of limitations to abortion access in the state. That is including a ban on abortion after 24 weeks, a ban on the most commonly used procedure in the second trimester, and a bill similar to the "born alive" measure that failed on the ballot last fall.

You know, a lot of the legislation that passed in 2021 is still under litigation, and some of those bills are on hold. So it'll be interesting to see how these bills play out. We already saw a lawsuit filed and a temporary restraining order issued for the block on the 24 week ban, just a day after it was signed by Gianforte.

And then we also saw bills that change how transgender Montanans can live in the state. That includes bans on gender-affirming care for trans minors. It also includes a bill saying it's not unlawful to misgender or "deadname' kids in schools. There's also a bill that would define sex in state laws, male and female, based off reproductive organs. And Trans Montanans say that would erase them from state code.

So, Republicans in their end of the session speech, cited a lot of legislation as things they came here to do and I think they're feeling pretty good about the legislation they were able to get across as their priorities.

Lawmakers passed a $14 billion budget and considered the most bills in one session since 1973. Montana Public Radio’s reporters in the statehouse Shaylee Ragar and Ellis Juhlin spoke with Corin Cates-Carney to break down what passed, what didn’t and how politics influenced it all.

Sally Mauk Well Holly, Democrats, being vastly outnumbered, played mostly defense. And here's how House Minority Leader Kim Abbott summed up the session.

"I do know that every single day this group of people came into a difficult environment. We stood up for what we believ in. We stood up for our values. And I think that we accomplished a lot."

Sally Mauk An accomplishments for Democrats, Holly, include funding for Medicaid and blocking several proposed changes to the state Constitution.

Holly Michels Yeah, like you said, Democrats are in a super minority this session, so they didn't have a lot of room to work, but they did have a couple wins. They were able to work with Republicans on increasing the rates that are paid to Medicaid providers to near what a study done over the last seven years recommended they should be. That's something Democrats have advocated for for a really long time. And we've also heard providers come session after session asking for that money. And this go around Democrats were able to get enough Republicans on board to get that across the finish line.

They also passed a bill that makes changes parents and daycare providers say will improve the Best Beginnings child care program. And you know, although they were not able to knock down any abortion bills they oppose, they did pass a bill allowing for 12 months of birth control dispensing. They also got legislation across that has protections for people living in mobile homes, and a task force to look at issues of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

And then, like you said, we saw all the proposed constitutional amendments except one fail. And Democrats are chalking that up as a victory too. Those could have passed with just Republican support, but Democrats were able to get enough of the supermajority to peel away for those some of the ones they are most concerned about to fail. So I think overall, Democrats didn't sound super excited at the end of the session. They had a lot of frustrations with how things turned out, but did have some wins that they were able to point to.

Sally Mauk Rob, there may be a record number of lawsuits after this session challenging everything from the abortion restrictions to the anti-trans bills. And these court cases will be expensive and time consuming. But even if the laws eventually get struck down, Republicans still see their passage as a success.

Rob Saldin Yeah, that's right, Sally. And, you know, to a degree, it's entirely normal to have some new laws challenged in court. And you could even say it's a natural part of the system of checks and balances. But the number of challenges has been increasing and we could have a lot of them this session. As you say, it could be a record. Montana Free Press tracks legislation noting, among other things, which bills have a legal note, which is essentially a way of flagging which bills are potentially unconstitutional. And there are a number of those that made it through. And and there were, of course, those those bills you and Holly mentioned, restricting abortion that were passed. Certainly many of those will face court challenges on the grounds that they violate the state Constitution's right to privacy. The charter school laws are likely to be another high profile challenge, as you said, Holly, and so on. And all of this does, of course, increase legal costs. But to your point, Sally, and as we've discussed before on this show, I think Republicans passed these laws fully expecting the challenges and they're fine with fighting it out in the courts. If they win, the laws are on really solid ground. If they lose, they go down fighting on what they see as politically advantageous territory.

A Lewis and Clark County District Court judge has granted a temporary block on a 24 week abortion ban signed into law by the governor Wednesday.

Sally Mauk Holly, the last few days of the session had the additional drama of Representative Zooey Zephyr unsuccessfully suing to get back on to the floor of the House and then the odd theater of some Republican women occupying a public bench in the Capitol hallway to keep Zephyr from sitting there.

Holly Michels The day after the House Republicans voted to keep Zephyr off the floor, she posted up on a bench right outside the chamber and voted from there. And then the next morning, when she came in, it was full of groups of people who were sitting there to prevent her from using that space. So she stood up at the little lunch counter where you can order food, and voted from there. Then the next day other people who supported Zephyr came in and occupied those benches where she sat, there. So that was a really visual way to see that dispute playing out right outside the House chambers as we came up to the end of the session. And then, like you said, Zephyr and the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit asking a judge to overturn the Legislature's decision and allow Zephyr back into the House chambers. Judge dismissed that on the last day of the session. He said it wasn't the judiciary's place to step into operations of a separate branch of government.

Sally Mauk Rob, one of the bench occupiers was House Speaker Matt Regier's mother. And the Regier family has played an outsized role in this session. Senator Keith Regier chaired the important Senate Judiciary Committee. His daughter Amy chaired the House Judiciary Committee, and then, of course, his son Matt was House speaker. And although there have often been more than one member of a family serving at the same time in the Legislature, I can't recall members of one family simultaneously holding three powerful leadership positions. And not only that, but four of the 10 bills restricting abortion at the governor's signing were sponsored by Keith, Amy or Matt Regier. This family had a lot of influence on this legislative session.

Rob Saldin Yeah, that's right, Sally. They've got a legislative hat trick going here. Even moms getting in on the action this week, as Holly described. And the key point I think is right. It's not just that they've got three people in the Legislature, which is remarkable on its own terms. It's that they're in these positions of power.

Sally Mauk Senator Regier, Rob, in his politics has always been vocal about the part his Christian values play as his guiding light. And he does not see church as being separated from state.

Rob Saldin Right. And this has gotten a lot of attention in the national press. Actually, Sally, New York Times has had a couple pieces this week and then back in January. And a big part of the premise is that Montana's shift to the right is all wrapped up in Christian nationalism. I think that could be overplayed. Conservatism in Montana has traditionally been more grounded in a libertarian ethos than a religious one, and we still see that libertarian streak in the citizenry at least, in things like the enthusiasm voters have expressed for recreational marijuana and that fetus born-alive referendum last year and so forth. So I'm not altogether convinced that that's changed all that much. And my my sense is that some of these analysis play up the Christian part a bit too much and downplay the more secular cultural forces at work. You know, the perception, for instance, that elites entrenched in their privileged perches on the coasts or in Washington or Hollywood or college campuses or what have you look down on average Montanans with contempt, things like that.

Now, clearly, Christianity appears to be central to the Regier family. And we know that Gianforte is a man of faith and that that's central to his outlook. But in a more general sense, I tend to think that in Montana, the shift to the right owes more to the secular cultural factors than religion per se. And another thing that could be at work here, Sally, is that some conservatives who are identifying as Christian aren't necessarily connected to the practice of Christianity.

Two writers I follow closely on these topics Tim Alberta and Pete Wagner, both of whom have very deep roots in the evangelical church, have written and talked quite persuasively about this dynamic in recent years. And and for many, Christianity is becoming more of a marker of identity and a signal of loyalty to a political team than it is about dedication to the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Sally Mauk Holly, Rob, it's an understatement to say this was a memorable session, but I wonder what your main takeaway is. Mine is that it feels like a major turning point in Montana politics, either toward entrenching the political power of the Republican hard right or toward galvanizing a resurgence of Democrats to fight the shift. And who knows which way it will go. Holly, what is your main takeaway?

Holly Michels One of my main takeaways is we spent a lot of money this session. We had what was estimated the start of the session to be about a $2.6 billion surplus, and looks like we put that in a lot of different places. We had that billion dollars in stimulus and tax rebates, refunds we talked about earlier. And that's something I think lawmakers agree made the session actually pretty difficult. There are so many people who wanted a piece of that money to come back to their communities. So, that, to me, was just a pretty notable thing that set the tone of the session.

Sally Mauk And Rob.

Rob Saldin Well, for me, the thing that I think will be remembered about this session is the Zephyr affair from the last couple of weeks. That was a big story in Montana. It was a big story nationally. And the reason why it resonates so much and the reason why it grabbed those national headlines is because it captures something about America in 2023. And to your point, Sally, I agree that it's a turning point, but I think it's much more likely that the political power of the hard right will continue. For Democrats, it's quite possible that they pick up some seats in the next cycle due to redistricting, but that only takes you so far, and I don't see much reason to think a serious resurgence is coming for them. And part of the reason is that I'm just not entirely sure that Democrats have fully internalized how bad things are for them in Montana right now. You'd think the 2020 wipe out, followed by the Republican supermajority in this legislative session, would have been a wake up call. But it's not entirely clear that it has been. At some point in politics, you do have to meet your voters where they are, and I'm not sure that Democrats know quite how to do that.

Sally Mauk Well, the end of the session also means this is the last episode of Capitol Talk. And Holly and Rob, as always, I'm so grateful for your stamina and insights over these last four months and I sure hope you both have a great summer. Thank you both so much.

Rob Saldin Thank you, Sally.

Holly Michels Thanks Sally.

The 2023 legislative session has wrapped up. Over 90 days, lawmakers drafted and debated hundreds of bills and amendments on issues like health care, education, the environment, LGBTQ+ rights and, somehow, TikTok. What does it all mean for you?
The Montana Constitution says "The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations." How did that get included, and what does it mean for Montana? Learn more now on The Big Why

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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