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The Session Week 15: Housing policy, school choice and a historic number of bills

Nadya Faulx: It's day 75 of what could likely be a full 90 day legislative session, thanks to a near record number of bills. Some housing proposals are advancing, but there's debate over how to put state dollars into affordability and charter school bills are gaining traction.

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

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

Alex Sakariassen: I'm Alex Sakariassen with Montana Free Press.

Shaylee Ragar: I'm Shaylee Ragar with Montana Public Radio.

Nadya Faulx: Eric, let's start with those housing bills. It's been a major focus this session. Governor Greg Gianforte created a housing task force last year to come up with some recommendations. Where do things stand?

Eric Dietrich: We've really seen two major forks of housing policy this session. There are a bunch of bills that try to boost housing supply by making construction easier and then also bills that would take a chunk of the state's budget surplus and put it towards housing affordability efforts.

Nadya Faulx: Let's talk about those pro-construction bills first. Those would try to bring down housing costs by making more homes available, so basically a supply and demand theory, right?

Eric Dietrich: Yeah, we're looking at two main zoning reform bills this session, one for larger Montana cities to allow apartment style housing in most districts they currently have set aside for commercial use. And then the other would let property owners add a second housing unit or build a duplex on any home lot in other cities. So that overrides current zoning rules that in a lot of cases set aside areas for only single family homes. And there's actually a third bill that's worth mentioning here, too, and that's one that's broader. It overhauls a big chunk of the state's land use planning statutes, so pretty complex, but does have an intersection with housing. One of the things it does is it requires larger cities to do proactive planning. So that means they will have to identify how many housing units they think they'll need to accommodate growth for the next five to ten years and then to develop a plan for how they'll set aside land for that. So that's a new thing that's also on its way to the governor.

Nadya Faulx: Okay. So that's the work the legislature is doing on housing on the regulatory side of things. What about spending?

Eric Dietrich: This is perhaps inevitable with a Republican controlled legislature, but bills that would spend money on housing are having a harder time this year, even though there is a lot of money available for spending. We've seen a lot of big ideas proposed, but there are really only two and a half bills left alive there that spend money on housing.

Nadya Faulx: Okay. And what do you mean by two and a half?

Eric Dietrich: Well, so the half is the main proposal that we had coming from the governor, it's what he's been calling his HOMES Act. And that would have put $200 million into a fund that would be available to help build infrastructure like sewer lines, to basically support house construction that needs that stuff, it's expensive. That would be money to kind of try to bring down the cost of housing projects by putting public money into helping build that piece of it. The government has been championing that, but it was voted down pretty decisively by the House earlier this month. The governor insists that might come back to life before the end of the session, hence the half a bill there.

Nadya Faulx: Okay, and what about the other two?

Eric Dietrich: There's also a proposal that's gotten bipartisan support in the House, and that would take $115 million from the surplus and stash it away in the state's coal trust. That money would be put there and basically available to offer loans that would help finance construction projects for apartments that are available and affordable to lower income renters. That bill was sponsored both by the Republican Speaker of the House, Matt Regier, and then the Democratic minority leader, Kim Abbott, they're advancing that. It's unclear, though, actually, if the governor will sign that if it gets to his desk. There's some rhetoric there that's made it sound like he's a little skeptical of that proposal, so we'll see. And then the other proposal is a bill that would take $50 million and use it to set up a program that's aimed at middle income people looking to buy homes. That's been coming out of a coalition of industry groups that are worried about workforce housing for the people they would like to be able to employ. That program would the way it would work is it would cover a portion of buyers mortgage costs and then in exchange there would be some deed restrictions, so the program would be paid back if buyers sell after the home values have increased.

Nadya Faulx: I want to turn now to another issue that maybe hasn't gotten as much attention outside the Legislature, but would have widespread implications, and that's education reform. Alex, you've been watching this year's debate over school choice. What's going on there?

Alex Sakariassen: Yeah, Nadya, Republican leaders have been talking about this well ahead of the session. Gov. Greg Gianforte and State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen are big advocates of giving parents and students more choice in the type of education that they receive outside the traditional school system. That includes private schools and charter schools. And with the party's supermajority this session, Democratic lawmakers and public education advocates really recognize that this issue is going to potentially make some big advancements in 2023. So they've taken a more active role in actually trying to shape what that looks like.

Nadya Faulx: What are the specific bills lawmakers are looking at?

Alex Sakariassen: Well, let's start with H.B. 542, which is similar to proposals we've seen pop up in Montana in the past. It's sponsored by Representative Sue Vinton, the majority leader out of Billings, and would give parents the ability to petition for a charter school in their community. Approval would come from a new statewide commission, and the charter board would eventually be elected strictly by parents and employees at that school. Her charter system also wouldn't be governed by any of the current public schools standards applied to public schools in the state, which is a big sticking point for critics. This is the policy that might be most familiar to anyone who's been watching the charter school debate in the past, and it would be a very big change from the current approach to public education.

Nadya Faulx: What's the other bill?

Alex Sakariassen: H.B. 549 also starts with parents, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. The sponsor, Republican Fred Anderson out of Great Falls, wants approval of the charter schools to fall to existing school boards or to state officials, and those charters would be subject to all the curriculum standards and teacher certification requirements that are applied to public schools currently.

Nadya Faulx: So less of a change than Vinton's bill. How is this debate different from past sessions?

Alex Sakariassen: One of the biggest differences we're seeing this session is the presence of national lobbying groups on behalf of charter systems who are supporting Vinton's bill. Another big difference is that in the past, charter school proposals haven't really made it out of committee and this time they've made it to the floor and beyond. And the third big difference is that we've got public education associations buying into Anderson's bill, and we've got bipartisan support behind that. And the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents public school teachers across the state, has not taken a stand on that bill. They've decided not to oppose it or support it.

Nadya Faulx: Yeah, what concerns are these bills creating outside of the capital for educators and for parents?

Alex Sakariassen: Yeah, I spoke with several teachers and parents on both sides about this recently. On the educators side, there's a real concern about a lack of regulation and oversight of Vinton's charter schools, which she's calling community choice schools. They see those regulations as a critical quality control aspect in education, and they aren't fans of per student taxpayer funding going to schools with little state oversight. Parents are concerned about having a voice in their children's education. We've heard this a lot on other issues with the parental rights movement. I spoke with a home school parent in Belgrade who told me that homeschooling is becoming more financially challenging for people given the high cost of living and, you know, the reality of existing on one income stream while another parent teaches at home just isn't as viable. And they really want to focus on the basics, on math and reading and science and the option to have more control in what their school does. And with home schooling less of an option, charter schools are kind of being looked at as another solution.

Nadya Faulx: So as we mentioned the top, there's really not much time left in the session and there's still quite a few education bills in play. What's the path forward for them?

Alex Sakariassen: So both of the charter school bills are now over in the Senate awaiting a committee hearing. Meanwhile, there's a big bipartisan push to reform the public education system that's coming from Republicans, Democrats and state associations. Anderson's charter school bill is actually part of a bigger package that includes bills on early childhood literacy, a statewide health insurance trust for teachers, enhancing career and technical education opportunities for K-12 students. There's just a lot happening in education at the legislature right now.

Nadya Faulx: Yeah, I want to bring in Shaylee now to kind of talk more about that, just the volume of bills. Shaylee it sounds like it's not just our imagination, we are seeing a ton of bills this session, right?

Shaylee Ragar: Right, Nadya. Yeah, every session feels busy, but I do feel a lot of validation knowing that this session has been record setting. There have been more than 1,600 bills introduced and that's the most since 1973 and 1973 carries a caveat, which is that it was the year after the Montana Constitution was adopted. So the legislature was building the states code from ground up. This analysis was put together by the Legislative Services Division, which crafts all the legislation that lawmakers request and provide staff for each committee to do research and write amendments.

Nadya Faulx: How are staff keeping up with all these bills?

Shaylee Ragar: Yeah, so far they've worked around 3,600 hours of overtime, according to the Legislative Services Division. And I will note the division is requesting funding for more staff in the State's budget this year. And so they're trying to show lawmakers that they're being stretched pretty thin with this workload.

Nadya Faulx: Yeah, I'm sure reporters are feeling pretty much the same way. The big question I have is why are we seeing so many bills?

Shaylee Ragar: Yeah, and there are a few different theories. I've talked to different lawmakers, different staff. One theory is that it's because we have a biennial session, so lawmakers have limited time to get stuff done, they only meet every other year for 90 days. We're also seeing a nearly $3 billion budget surplus this year, and so that's a lot of money to play with, and lawmakers have a lot of ideas about how to use that money. And then we're also seeing Republican super majorities in both the House of Representatives and the State Senate and with Republicans also holding the governor's office, that's the most power one party has had in nearly a century. So lawmakers want to strike while the iron is hot. They have the power and they can get these bills across the finish line.

Nadya Faulx: And what kind of impact does this huge volume have on the whole process?

Shaylee Ragar: Yeah, as we talked about with staff, there's a lot of strain. People are feeling stretched thin. And I think there's also some public access concerns here. The scheduling of bills and votes and floor debates has been pretty chaotic. It can be hard to track when a bill is going to be up for hearing, when you're going to be able to provide public comment on that bill or when lawmakers are going to vote to advance or kill a bill. People like to talk to their lawmakers before that happens, tell them why they like or dislike a bill, and it's been it's been hard to track this session. We've also heard from Gov. Greg Gianforte at time and again that he wants to de-clutter Montana code. He wants fewer regulations that he says are burdensome. And in fact, we've seen more than 170 bills from Gianforte's so-called Red Tape Relief task force, which is focused on reducing state regulation. And so those 170 bills add to some of the volume that we've been seeing, but other bills will also add to code and add more regulation. During a press conference last week, Gov. Gianforte said that his goal of reducing regulation will factor into whether he signs or veto some of these bills.

[Gov. Gianforte] "This red tape lens that we look at everything from does influence our decisions on which ones we'll sign into law."

Shaylee Ragar: The last piece I'll note is that lawmakers do have to finish their work within 90 days, and they voted to amend their calendar so that they have a little more time the first week of May to finish their work. They know that this is a ton of bills to get through, and I think we're seeing some anxiety about making sure they can get through all of this work.

Nadya Faulx: Well, thank you, Shaylee, and thanks to Eric and Alex for joining us this week.

Shaylee Ragar: Happy to be here. Yeah.

Alex Sakariassen: Thanks.

Nadya Faulx :This has been The Session, a look at the policy and politics inside the Montana State House. We'll see you next week.

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.

For decades, housing affordability has been a hot-button issue in Bozeman politics, a clear community pain point where the city’s elected leaders haven’t managed to deliver significant relief. As insider and outsider candidates campaigned for city offices in 2021, housing policy became the election’s key issue.

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