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The Session week 17: Time is running out

Mara Silvers We're on day 86 of the 90-day session. This week, we're tracking the ongoing punishment of Representative Zooey Zephyr, how that Republican agenda has derailed other statehouse business, and everything you need to know about sine die. This is The Session, a look at the policy and politics inside the Montana statehouse. I'm Mara Silvers, your host this week and a reporter with Montana Free Press.

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

Amanda Eggert I'm Amanda Eggert with Montana's Free Press.

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

Mara Silvers We're going to start with the biggest headline here. Republicans have barred Representative Zooey Zephyr,, one of two transgender lawmakers in the Capitol from the House floor and from debating legislation for the rest of the session. Most people probably know by now that this started with comments Zephyr made against the bill to ban gender affirming care for trans minors. After that, Republicans stopped calling on her to speak on the House floor. Last Monday, her constituents and supporters packed the House gallery to protest her being silenced. And then on Wednesday, Republicans decided to discipline Zephyr for allegedly encouraging that protest by standing on the House floor with her microphone in the air. Right before that vote happened, Zephyr had one last chance to defend her actions to her colleagues.

Zooey Zephyr, When the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed. He's asking me to be complicit in this legislature's eradication of our community, and I refuse to do so. And I will always refuse to do so.

Mara Silvers The motion to restrict Zephyr from the floor and other areas around the House chamber ultimately passed on a party line vote. Shaylee, I'm wondering if you can help us understand the waves that this has created in the statehouse. What have you seen change because of this fallout?

Shaylee Ragar Yeah, Mara, I think you would agree with me in saying that things are certainly not back to normal at the Montana Capitol. We've seen an increase in the security presence. There's Highway Patrol around the House of Representatives. People have been more on edge. People are tired. There seems to be an emotional toll among lawmakers after this last week. The gallery of the House of Representatives is still closed to the public. They're being allowed to watch proceedings from a room on the first floor, but they're not allowed in the House gallery. Representative Zephyr is set up just outside of the House chambers on a public bench, and she's voting remotely, but she can't participate in debate. The House did not debate bills on the floor for two days, and there's still a crush of legislation they're trying to work through. And that's a point that Minority Leader Kim Abbott actually made when she spoke against the sanction that Representative Zephyr faced.

Kim Abbott There is an opportunity cost to choosing this path. We don't have a state budget. We don't have a plan for housing. We don't have a plan for child care. We don't have a plan for permanent property tax relief and a real plan for mental health. We don't have a plan for provider rates. And today, we're on this floor debating this motion, and hopefully we can get back to work. I sure hope so.

Shaylee Ragar Abbott says that House Speaker Matt Regier could have handled the situation differently and it could have de-escalated tensions earlier and maybe prevented the events that happened and the delay in work we're now seeing. But Speaker Regier and Republicans have said that they have no choice but to stand their ground on their rules.

Matt Regier As speaker, just protecting the dignity and safety and integrity of the House no matter what, no matter what happens in weeks. So we can't have that kind of behavior on the floor moving forward.

Shaylee Ragar Lawmakers were already behind schedule before all the events of last week, especially when it comes to the state budget, which is the most significant task they must complete before they leave Helena. And the budget is definitely not finished.

Mara Silvers Let's zoom in on that point. What exactly do lawmakers need to do to get the budget across the finish line?

Shaylee Ragar At this point, the $14 billion budget, which is contained in House Bill 2, has passed the House and the Senate, but they each made their own changes to the budget and those have to be reconciled. And it gets more complicated than that. There are a lot of bills still up in the air that contain spending outside of House Bill 2. So, for example, there's a bill that would have the state invest $300 million in mental health care that's moving through the process. And then there are bills that contain spending for infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, buildings. And one in particular has become pretty contentious as lawmakers try to make sure that their own communities are benefiting.

So now they have to square all of these bills before they can pass the budget, and that's going to take more work. In fact, if they passed all of the spending bills that are currently in place right now, they would not have a balanced budget. They'd be spending more than they're making. So they have to find a way to to make it all fit together in a puzzle.

And you've heard us talk before about the state's $2.5 billion surplus. Lawmakers are saying that having so much money has made this process more difficult. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick in particular, has been hammering this point home.

Republicans ban a trans lawmaker from the House floor, putting Montana in the national news spotlight. Meanwhile, much work remains on the budget as the end of the session approaches.

Steve Fitzpatrick This is really the session of gluttony. This is what we have this session. Everybody is mad that they're not getting their spending, and there's just this bitterness in the building because of it. So I think it's time that we stop. It's time to take out the pork.

Mara Silvers Amanda, I want to pull you into this. There is a pretty significant proposal still percolating about marijuana tax revenue and how that gets spent. What's going on with that?

Amanda Eggert Lawmakers have been haggling with the allocation of about $50 million of marijuana tax revenue for months now. But there was a bit of a curveball last week. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee significantly amended a generally revised marijuana laws bill to create a new tax distribution framework. The amended version of Senate Bill 538 divides the money between funds for habitat, addiction, the Justice. Department and veterans. But most of the money would go toward the state's general fund. The bill hit some stumbling blocks, but it's still alive. Democrats in the House and some Republicans don't like that Senate Bill 538 would have taken another popular bill out of the running.

Mara Silvers So what's in that competing bill, Senate Bill 442, and where does that stand?

Amanda Eggert Senate Bill 442 started out as a bill to put marijuana tax revenue toward county road maintenance. Later on, its sponsor, Mike Lang of Malta, worked with a broad set of interests to divvy up marijuana tax revenue between a variety of funding pots. Most of it would go towards county roads and the Habitat Legacy Fund. But there were also allocations for addiction treatment, veteran funds, state parks, trails and a non-game wildlife account.

Critics described Senate Bill 442 as a "Christmas tree" bill that garnered support by promising money to groups that might otherwise oppose it. Regardless, the approach thus far anyway, has worked. Senate Bill 442 passed both houses last month with pretty broad margins. It's awaiting a reconciliation vote in the Senate. There was a slight revision on the House side, so that's where the Senate will take it up and vote up or down on the House amendment to it.

The state’s roughly $14 billion budget has advanced out of the Senate with few amendments and will return to the House for consideration.

Mara Silvers So what happens next?

Amanda Eggert Ultimately, just one of these bills will pass the Legislature in its current form anyway. So I expect there will be lots of wheeling and dealing going on the next few days.

Mara Silvers Eric, turning to you now. One of the words I hear popping up in hallway conversations very often these days is 'housing,' both from the regulatory side of things to make it easier to build new homes and also using the state surplus to spend more on housing. So these have been priorities for both parties all session, but none of the spending measures have passed yet. Is there any chance that something could come together this week?

Eric Dietrich There is, Mara. We've seen several big housing spending proposals come up for debate, but none have really seemed to get a critical mass of lawmakers on board enough to move forward. The governor had a measure he was behind, for example, but it failed in the House. And then the top Democratic and Republican leaders in the House announced a proposal, their own as well. But a lot of people didn't like that one either, and it appears stalled now as well. However, last week, with only days to go in the session, we finally saw a big compromise measure emerge. It takes pieces of several different housing proposals and mixes them together. I think the hope is to get enough lawmakers on board to get it through the process.

Mara Silvers Okay, so what exactly is in this compromise proposal?

Eric Dietrich In essence, three big things. First, there's infrastructure investments like building streets and sewer lines to make new housing development cheaper. The bill also would expand a program that helps developers build rent-restricted apartments for very low income people. And thirdly, there's mortgage assistance for aspiring homebuyers.

Mara Silvers Okay, So like you mentioned, we have days left in the session. Where does that proposal go from here?

Eric Dietrich The compromise bill made it out of the Senate last week, but now it has to face votes in the House before it can go to the governor who's said he supports it. It has support from some legislative leaders, but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll pass. So I think the answer is, you know, stay tuned. It could be a rough ride for that one.

Mara Silvers Well, regardless of whatever happens with that policy and everything else we've talked about, legislative Day 90 is coming, whether anyone is ready for it or not. And with that comes sine die, which is the motion to end the session. Shaylee, what are the nuts and bolts of actually wrapping up the 68th legislative session?

Shaylee Ragar Lawmakers are going to want to pass their budget before they move for sine die. But after that happens, it's kind of anyone's game at that point. Anyone can make the motion to sine die and the motion has to be made in both chambers. They don't end in unison. They can, they can end at different times.

Oftentimes we see lawmakers kind of try to orchestrate who is going to make that motion, when it's going to come, when it's going to happen. And I will note, it's been interesting in the past, this has been used as a political tool before. One time in the Senate, we saw a senator make a motion to sine die right before the the body was going to take a vote on a controversial bill, and the body agreed to sine die. And so, and so that bill could not be voted on.

It's safe to say we don't have an exact idea of when this is going to happen this week. The journalists all have a pool going, trying to, trying to see who can guess when exactly sine die is going to happen. But right now, it's it's hard to say.

Mara Silvers And like you kind of alluded to there, Shaylee, every single policy that is still percolating in the session will die when the sine die motion is made unless it has cleared every single hurdle and made it to the governor's desk.

Okay. We're going to leave it there. Thank you guys, so much for joining us this week.

Amanda Eggert Thank you.

Shaylee Ragar Thanks.

Eric Dietrich Glad to be here.

Mara Silvers Before we go, we want to make sure that you're all invited to join us on May 10th at 7 p.m. for a live recording session where we try to debrief everything that's happened the last few months and answer your questions. Register now to join in, and ask your questions below. We hope to see you there!

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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