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The Session Week 12: GOP controls the budget and lawmakers collaborate on elk management

Nadya Faulx: We're about two thirds of the way through the 68th legislative session. Lawmakers in the House have advanced a $14 billion budget.

Nadya Faulx: This week, we talk about what the Republican supermajority's spending plan means. Plus, a slate of bills could impact elk hunting in the state.

This is The Session, a look at the policy and politics inside the Montana State House. I'm your host this week, Nadya Faulx with Yellowstone Public Radio.

Eric Dietrich: I'm Eric Dietrich with Montana Free Press.

Ellis Juhlin: I'm Ellis Juhlin with Montana Public Radio.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit: And I'm Arren Kimbel-Sannit with Montana Free Press.

Nadya Faulx: Let's start with that two year spending plan headed to the Senate. Eric, you wrote about House Bill 2 for Montana Free Press, specifically the GOP support for it and Democrats critiques. What's been the major debate there?

Eric Dietrich: Sure. So for those who don't know, House Bill 2 is traditionally the big budget bill that passes through the legislature. And there's been a discussion all session long about how to spend the surplus, both in the moment and looking forward into the coming years. What we saw last week was House Bill 2 move across the House floor, was debated there, voted forward by Republicans, and now goes on to the Senate.

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.

Nadya Faulx: So I want to bring Ellis here, too, because you've been watching it as well. Can you guys talk about what things were like on the House floor last week?

Ellis Juhlin: Yeah. So we saw a lot of Democrats bringing amendments on the floor to advance policies that they would like to see included in the budget that didn't make it into the Republicans version of the bill. Things like making more school lunches free and available to students, affordable housing, things that the Democrats have been talking about all session. But those votes fell completely along party lines the majority of the time.

Eric Dietrich: I was watching for Republican votes all day, and I think that Dems brought more than a dozen amendments on the floor over the course of the day. And I think I saw one Republican vote out kind of fall outside the party line dichotomy there, like one Republican, one time on one amendment. The sense I got watching it was that most of the key decisions had been made on the House side had been made earlier in the process in the House Appropriations Committee. And Republicans are, of course, a super majority in this year's legislature. Pretty much had the budget they wanted to pass out of the House sewn up.

Nadya Faulx: Why did the Dems bring the amendments that they did? Was it to signal their priorities? Did they think they were going to pass?

Eric Dietrich: I think there was perhaps an element of political theater to it. Like there's an element of, you know, these would be things that were in the budget if there were more Democrats in the legislature, which of course, isn't the way voters went this year. They talked, I think, on the floor about how budgets are, in some ways a symbolic reflection of the legislature's values. And they were kind of saying, hey, our values are we would like to have more of these things in here, these things that we think are important to spend money on.

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?

Nadya Faulx: As you guys both mentioned, Democrats tried unsuccessfully to have more sway over the budget proposal. And as I understand, one part they pushed back on was funding to expand the state's contract with the private prison operator, Core Civic. Arren, you've been reporting on that effort. What would it do?

Arren Kimbel-Sannit: So this is language that was added during the House Appropriations Committee process that would authorize around $8 million for a contract with Core Civic, which is a major national private prison operator, to send around 120 prisoners, state inmates from the state of Montana down to Arizona, where, of course, Civic operates a handful of private prison facilities.

Nadya Faulx: Why do supporters say it's necessary to do that?

Arren Kimbel-Sannit: So this is something that they've been kind of wrestling with in the legislature and in the executive for a couple of sessions now. There's somewhere between 250 and 290 people with convictions who are not currently in state prison, because basically the state facilities are at capacity. And this is according to the amendment. Sponsor Rep. John Fitzpatrick from Anaconda. He's a Republican. This is basically an immediate way to address some of the capacity issues in the prison system without having to rely on infrastructure projects.

Nadya Faulx: So essentially, it would save money instead of building new prisons here to ship them out.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit: Well, so this is kind of part of the debate around this issue is there are a handful of proposals that would add bed space, several of which already have vehicles in current legislation or in the budget, but many of them would require construction. So that's, you know, one issue. I think another issue people have raised is that should the state increase its dependence on the private prison system when there are in-state options? There's already a contract with Core Civic for the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby. You know, some people said Core Civic is not able to staff in Shelby. It has kind of a spotty record. We should try to figure this out in house this language was introduced as one time only spending, meaning it's just for this biennium. It's supposed to be a stopgap measure. But the state's current contract with Core Civic in Shelby also began as sort of a short term measure decades ago now and has become a permanent fixture in the state's carceral landscape.

So critics, you know, especially Democrats, are concerned that Core Civc is coming in at a time when the state is sort of has a weakness in its system and is going to elbow its way into a payout to send Montanans to Arizona, where people pointed out they will have fewer contacts with their community and family. So it was a pretty controversial measure. And I think that's pretty clear in the fact that the corrections department didn't really come forth with this as an option. Director Brian Goodkin said in a subcommittee meeting earlier this session that we want to take care of this in house. We want to take care of this within state solutions.

Answers to your questions — big or small — about anything under the Big Sky.

Nadya Faulx: So moving from the budget now to another issue, getting a lot of attention in the legislature, and that's hunting. Ellis, you're watching fish and game committees in both chambers and in particular some bills about elk hunting. For someone like me who's unfamiliar. What's the status of elk hunting in Montana now? And what are these bills looking to do?

Ellis Juhlin: Policymakers and the state say that Montana has a big elk problem and there are a lot of elk in the state. The state is well over population targets, but hunters in many different regions are reporting low success rates, and that's due in part to elk congregating on private land where hunters really aren't able to access them the way that they can on public lands. Hunters are mad that they aren't bringing home as much meat as easily. Landowners are upset because elk come on to their properties and they eat forage for livestock and spread diseases potentially to cattle. But the hard part here is how do we resolve all of this in a way that can make all these different stakeholders with their competing interests ultimately happy? All these issues came to a head last session and tensions were really running high amongst these different groups. I talked with Senator Jeff Welborn from Dillon about this as I was diving into some of these Elk bills, and I think he summed it up pretty well.

Sen. Jeff Welborn: Last session was a fairly there were some pretty rough seas at the Capitol between landowners and sportsmen and outfitters. And you know how times were sold. And at the end of the session, I made an ask of everybody that, you know, we've just got to sit down and figure this out. I mean, we've got to try something new.

Ellis Juhlin: So in response to this, the state got together and formed the Citizens Elk Management Coalition to try to bring everybody together and come up with a plan for how to manage Montana's elk. That group has been a big part of bringing this package of six bills that are targeting different aspects of the problem. And those bills are all at different stages of the legislative process.

Nadya Faulx: With so many bills and in so many different stages, maybe just highlight one of them, like what's one that stands out to you?

Ellis Juhlin: Yeah, I can focus in on this one bill that has almost passed out of both houses. It's from Republican Senator Steve Hinebauch back from Wibaux, and it doubles the cap for a program called block management.

So block management is a program that incentivizes landowners to allow public access on private land. Essentially, the state pays private landowners to let hunters come in and hunt on their land. And this program has been around since the 1980s, but participation has been steadily decreasing over time. Landowners have their own concerns with allowing the public on their property. And the bill's sponsors say this isn't really a lot of bang for your buck if you're dealing with hunters coming in and routing out your roads, potentially leaving litter, maybe damaging fences.

And it's worth noting that landowners have another option with regards to hunting access, and that is leasing land to outfitters, which can oftentimes be a lot more lucrative for them. So Hinebauch's bill doubling the cap for block management to $50,000, can really make this a more appealing choice for landowners and potentially increase some of that access.

Nadya Faulx: Any next steps we can watch for in the coming weeks?

Ellis Juhlin: A lot of these bills were heard in committee last week, so I'm expecting them to move on to the Senate and House floors this week and I'll be keeping an eye on those.

Nadya Faulx: Well, thanks so much, Ellis. And as always, thank you all for your reporting. Keeping an eye on things in the state house. And thanks for joining us today.

Eric Dietrich: Glad to be here.

Ellis Juhlin: Thank you.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit: Thanks.

This has been The Session, a preview of the policy and politics inside the Montana State House. The Session is produced by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. Join us next week for a new episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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