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A breakdown of the latest action we’re watching in the Statehouse, produced by Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Free Press. Find new episodes every Monday when the 2023 legislative session kicks off in January.

The Session Week 1: 'The House is ready for business'

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Montana lawmakers take their oaths of office and begin their work in the state capitol. Host Nadya Faulx and reporters Shaylee Ragar, Ellis Juhlin, and Arren Kimbel-Sannit discuss a rules debate that's dividing the GOP, how moderate Republicans are working with Democrats, a new Montana Freedom Caucus, and the beginnings of the state budget.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Nadya Faulx The 68th Legislature is in session.

[House Speaker] The House is ready for business.

Nadya Faulx Montana lawmakers were sworn in last week and got to work establishing party dynamics and setting the rules that will govern the next five months at the Capitol.

[Audio from the House floor] Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade: These rules are being used to manipulate this system.

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton: The rules of the political game ought to be fair.

Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Majority Leader:  We must remain steadfast.

Nadya Faulx This is The Session, a preview of the policy and politics inside the Montana State House. I'm your host, Nadya Faulx, and the news director at Yellowstone Public Radio.

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

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 Now, normally we'd be looking at what bills are in play and there'll be plenty to track as the session moves ahead. But week one was more about setting the tone for the next few months and determining really how those dozens of bills that have already been introduced could work their way into law. Arren it sounds like one of the first things the Legislature did was debate a new set of rules. How did that play out last week?

Arren Kimbel-Sannit Yeah, so this was a drama that basically occurred in the State House at the beginning of every session, really. There is some kind of protracted fight about rules, and it's an opportunity for different factions in the Legislature to position themselves and their legislative priorities better during the session. And as per usual, it was a fight basically between more conservative Republican hardliners and more moderate bipartisan-oriented Republicans in the House.

To kind of understand what exactly they're fighting over, maybe it's helpful to talk a little bit about how bills become law. You know, they get introduced, they go through committee, and then they get passed out of committee or they get tabled or killed in committee. And then they go to the floor where they then receive a floor vote. Now, certain committees, as some lawmakers in this debate pointed out, can be used by leadership to kill bills that certain factions or the speaker don't want to come to the floor.

Now, one mechanism against this is what's called a blast motion, and it basically is just a way that allows the body as a whole to vote, to bring a bill out of committee that otherwise would have languished there and debate it on the floor of the House. Every session, they tinker with the margins required to, "blast a bill to the floor." This year, coming into the session, it sat at 60 votes out of 100. But there was a proposal from a moderate Republican representative named Ed Buttrey from Great Falls to lower that threshold down to 55, and that would effectively allow moderates and minority party Democrats to more easily join together to blast big ticket legislation out of committee onto the floor. And this devolved into a really ugly fight that eventually resulted in the new rules getting passed. The blast motion threshold will now be down to 55. And we saw how serious the stakes are here for Republican unity, just given some of the rhetoric. You know, Majority Leader Sue Vinton, who opposed the rules, you know, said on the floor that basically whatever happens here, we need to make sure that we can continue to operate as a single caucus moving forward.

Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Majority Leader To the members of the Republican caucus, we must remain steadfast in working together to achieve the conservative mandate that our voters and Montanans have sent us here to accomplish.

Nadya Faulx So how likely is it that moderate Republicans and Democrats are actually going to work together to take advantage of this lowered threshold and blast bills out of committee?

Arren Kimbel-Sannit Talking to Rep. Buttrey and others, they were hesitant to say whether there was a specific piece of legislation that they had in mind. But if you look historically, in the 2015 session this was a big thing, blast motions were used to help a coalition of Republicans and Democrats pass Medicaid expansion, as well as the CSKT Water Compact. Big legislation like that has a lot of moving parts and it's very easy for members to hold it up in committee. You know, if there's legislation like that this session, that could attract a broad base of support from both Democrats and some Republicans, but might run afoul of leadership, it's very likely that we could see this mechanism used.

Nadya Faulx And we also saw the creation of a new select committee. Was that a part of this fight?

Arren Kimbel-Sannit A certain faction of Republicans have been agitating for a select committee to investigate election integrity. These Republicans are people who have trafficked in conspiracies of election fraud, and a lot of moderates were really worried about what that could mean for the legislative agenda of the session. So there was an effort made that this new select committee in the rules has to refer whatever bills adheres to what they call standing committees, and those are like the regular committees, and it was kind of an interesting part of the rules fight because in some they give a pretty significant tactical advantage to these moderates and the Democrats. And one kind of hardliner, Rep. Jed Hinkle of Belgrade, pointed out that there's also kind of a contradiction here in that on one hand, the moderates and the Democrats want to make it easier to pull bills out of standing committees that have died and bring them to the floor. On the other hand, they want to make it harder to bring bills from the Select Committee on Election Integrity, which presumably they won't favor onto the floor.

Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade Every single one of you know exactly what's going on right now. These rules are being used to manipulate this system and empower a small group of people by using the minority party for the votes.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit Rep. David Bedey from Hamilton, a Republican, he's one of the proponents of the new rules package. He said that the select committee in the blast motions, you know, it's apples and oranges, they're different things, and that, you know, it's good for a select committee to refer bills to a committee where there is more expertise.

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton I look forward to working with my colleagues to craft conservative solutions to the needs of the state of Montana. But Montanans have other expectations of us as well. And one of those is that the rules of the political game ought to be fair.

Nadya Faulx So it sounds like even though Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers, there are definitely some splits within the party. Ellis, can you explain some of the dynamics that we're seeing happen within the GOP?

Ellis Juhlin Yeah, definitely. This week, a group of hardline conservatives announced the formation of the Freedom Caucus, which is chaired by Senator Theresa Manzella from Hamilton. And I sat down with Manzella to discuss the caucus and in talking with her, he learned that this was all really started by Congressman Matt Rosendale reaching out to her.

Sen. Theresa Manzella People are given the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to share their membership and their participation in the Freedom Caucus or not. And that's a personal decision that each of us make.

Nadya Faulx Will this caucus be similar to the U.S. House Freedom Caucus?

Ellis Juhlin Montana's Freedom Caucus hasn't formally announced the issues that they're going to be focusing on just yet, although they don't have their platform out, Manzella told me they hope to have it out soon. And in a couple of weeks, Congressman Rosendale is actually going to be coming to the Capitol to meet with the caucus. And she said they're hoping to announce some of their platform then. But given what we know about some of the members and the House Freedom Caucus and the way that it operates, since Matt Rosendale is a prominent member of that caucus, we can expect some far right priorities. And the House Freedom Caucus has been making some headlines recently as its members have stood in opposition to electing Kevin McCarthy as the Speaker of the House, so it'll be interesting to see what Montana's Freedom Caucus gets into. And Wyoming and Idaho actually also announced their own Freedom Caucus this week, so we'll be watching to see how all of this plays out.

Nadya Faulx So regardless of all the politicking, lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget by the end of the session. And this year they have a $2 billion budget surplus to contend with. To talk more about that, I'm bringing in Shaylee Ragar. Shaylee, you've been tracking Gov. Greg Gianforte's proposed budget. What's in his pitch?

Shaylee Ragar Right. So before each legislative session, the governor gets a first pass at the budget, which outlines state spending and taxes over the next two years. So Gov. Gianforte released his proposal in November, and he says it's a budget that will work for Montana families. So he's pushing for a permanent income tax cut, which builds on an income tax cut passed last session, a one time only property tax relief, a child tax credit, and an expansion of the earned income tax credit, which goes to lower income Montanans. He's also proposing investing $300 million in behavioral health with the lion's share of that going to the Montana State Hospital. It's important to remember that the state of Montana has received a $2 billion windfall from the federal government in the form of COVID 19 relief funds, and while having a surplus sounds like all sunshine and rainbows, it actually leaves a lot of room to fight over where those dollars go.

Nadya Faulx I wouldn't mind $2 billion myself. How does it set up a fight, though?

Shaylee Ragar Now that lawmakers are in town, they get to start building their own budget from scratch. There are six different subcommittees that will focus on different sections of the budget they meet, they start crafting it. Now with Republicans holding both the governor's office and supermajorities in the state House, it's likely that they will really be working together on budget building, and there will be overlap. Democrats are saying that they want to spend a lot more money than what Gianforte is proposing. So Rep. Mary Caferro is a Democrat who has long advocated for robust funding of social services, and she says the governor's budget is a step in the right direction, she supports a lot of his proposals, but that it ultimately falls short when it comes to funding for housing, child care, further tax relief and mental health services.

Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena Frankly, his budget doesn't go far enough.

Shaylee Ragar Democrats are in the super minority this session, so they're not going to have a ton of sway when it comes to budget building. But they do have some Republican counterparts who agree that they might need to invest more and spend more than what Gov. Gianforte is proposing. So Representative Llew Jones, who's a Republican from Conrad and seen as a real moderate Republican, chairs the House Appropriations Committee that oversees the building of the budget. And he says lawmakers will likely have to spend money that's not in the governor's budget right now.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad There was some concern that potentially the governor's budget may not truly reflect the inflationary pressures.

Nadya Faulx What are some of the areas that he wants to spend more money in?

Shaylee Ragar Jones identified the section of Gianforte's budget where he proposes increases for Medicaid provider rates, which is what the state reimburses providers who give care to Medicaid patients. And a study during the interim found that Montana underpays those providers by tens of millions of dollars. And it's been identified as an issue that lawmakers want to work on this session. Gianforte's budget recommends filling up about a third of that gap that was identified in the study, plus an additional $25 million that would be one time only funding. So Democrats and Republicans are saying that they might want to fill that more than what Gianforte has proposed. But even though Jones and other lawmakers are saying that they might need to increase spending on provider rates, he's also saying that they're worried about economic forecasting that shows a recession could be on the horizon, that the state needs to be resilient for, so that looks like having really strong savings accounts and having a strong ending fund balance and being conservative with spending to make sure the state is ready for a recession. So it's kind of a tightrope walk as they start building this budget and we're still super early in the budget process. I asked one lawmaker earlier this week just his general thoughts on where we were with budgeting and he told me I asked him 70 days too early, so it's something we'll definitely be watching. It'll be ongoing throughout the rest of the session and it will be a big issue.

Nadya Faulx Well, thanks so much, Shaylee, and everyone who joined this week. Looking forward to more of your reporting. So the state budget is taking small steps forward. Other legislation to keep an eye on this week: so far, an uncontroversial state employee pay plan that would raise wages by 4% and the governor's slate of red tape relief bills are working their way through committees.

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 or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.