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Montana 2021 Legislature

A Senatorial Spat, Rocky Rollout Of COVID Orders And A Familiar Gun Debate

'Capitol Talk': MTPR's Weekly Legislative Analysis Program
'Capitol Talk': MTPR's Weekly Legislative Analysis Program

Montana's congressman votes as expected against impeachment, and Montana's two senators are having a very public spat. Gov. Gianforte has a rocky rollout of new orders lifting some pandemic restrictions. Attorney General Knudsen gets into a legal fight with a county attorney over local COVID-19 regulations. And university administrators keep a wary eye on a bill headed to the State Senate that would allow guns on campus.

Listen now on Capitol Talk with Sally Mauk, Holly Michels and Rob Saldin.

Sally MaukRob, Montana's Congressman Matt Rosendale went against the majority, including 10 fellow Republicans who voted to impeach President Trump for a second time. And Rosendale voted no, and he had this to say about that:

"This is all theater, this is all about fundraising, and quite frankly, it's all disappointing."

MaukAnd his vote is no surprise, Rob.

Rob SaldinYeah, no Sally. He did go against the majority, but he definitely stuck with the majority of the Republican caucus. It was bipartisan this time, although, as you noted, there were only 10 Republicans that joined with the Democrats.

I think Rosendale's response reflects that a lot of his supporters see it the way he does. It's consistent with a lot of what we've heard over the last five years from loyal Trump supporters. You know, that people get too bent out of shape about his tweets or what have you.

And, you know, in this case, he's saying, well, nothing to see here. This is just silly political theater.

But it does strike me — you know, those old talking points can get pretty detached from reality. You know, it almost sounds as though Rosendale isn't aware that there was this coup attempt last week, left people dead, humiliated the country, our democracy is in crisis.

And, of course, these people were coming after the vice president, the speaker, members of Congress. The more we learn about what happened last week, the more it seems like a miracle that it wasn't much, much worse than it was. The president played a big role in it. So, you know, I'd say there's a bit more going on here than just political theater.

MaukThe Senate trial is not happening right away, Rob, so it may be premature to guess how Sen. Daines — another Trump ally — will vote, given that, you know, there could be more damning information come out between now and that trial about the president.

But for now, Daines is saying that he finds the discussion over impeachment divisive, and he's calling for unity.

SaldinYeah. I mean, I guess I would be shocked even if there is more that comes out, if Daines voted to convict the president. I mean, I suppose that's possible, but he's made it very clear where he stands over the last five years. And he's only doubled down on that, it seems to me, here in the final weeks.

MaukMeanwhile, Rob, Sen. Tester and Sen. Daines are having a very public spat after Tester wrote an op ed sharply criticizing the 13 senators, including Daines, who challenged the election results. And he said they must be held accountable.

Daines wrote a sharp response accusing Tester of using dangerous rhetoric himself to score political points. But this seems like a serious breach between Montana's two senators, Rob, that I have not seen before.

SaldinYeah, it sure does look that way. You know, my understanding, Sally, is that that's been a strained relationship from fairly early on once Daines made the jump over to the Senate. But yeah, I mean, here in the last week, things certainly escalated a lot.

You know, Tester didn't name Rosendale, he didn't name Daines specifically. But clearly he was suggesting that they, along with the other Republicans who were opposed to certifying the Electoral College vote, bear some of the responsibility for last week's events, and that their actions were those of traitors.

So that's definitely something I've never seen from Tester before, but of course, the events of last week are also something we haven't seen before.

And Tester is accurate in pointing out that Daines and Rosendale have failed to accept any responsibility for promoting some of the lies that helped spark all of this. But as you say, Sally, you know, Daines is now calling Tester a hypocrite. You know, bottom line, these guys aren't buddies.

MaukHolly, Gov. Gianforte this week sought to lift some of the restrictions his predecessor, Gov. Bullock, had put in place to respond to the pandemic. And here's what the new governor had to say about why he wants to do this:

"The whole concept here is we're going to move more to personal responsibility, and away from specific mandates, because we trust Montanans with their health and the health of their loved ones."

MaukBut there was a lot of confusion at first, Holly, about Gov. Gianforte's new orders.

Holly MichelsGianforte, what he announced this week, is he was lifting the restrictions on the hours bars, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, casinos can be open, as well as capacity limits. They did have limitations where they had to close at 10 p.m. and were limited to half capacity. And what Gianforte did was lift those restrictions.

He campaigned this summer on wanting to address the economic fallout from the pandemic, so I don't think that these changes were much of a surprise.

But there were some issues with the rollout of this directive. It was a little bumpy. Gianforte in his announcement emphasized that his new directive was clear, it was simple, it was only three pages. The ones from Bullock were pretty long, and often had really long appendixes on them.

But this did cause confusion almost immediately over some past directives from former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock still stood. Some of the things people were most concerned about were directives that allowed for increased access to tele-health, faster licensing for doctors coming to Montana from out of state or out of retirement to help with health care shortages during the pandemic.

The confusion came because Gianforte rescinded two executive orders from Bullock from March of 2020, and pretty much all of Bullock's directives were tied to those executive orders. So if those executive orders went away, his directives would end too.

Gianforte's camp initially said that the Bullock measures still stood, but later Thursday — the day after their initial directive — they issued a second directive clarifying that just to make really clear for people who were raising questions about it.

So probably less smooth of a rollout than they would have hoped for, but those directives are in place. Now we have no more limitations on hours and capacity at bars and restaurants.

MaukExcept, of course, Holly, in those counties that have their own restrictions, which they are still allowed to have.

Meanwhile, the new state attorney general, Austin Knudsen, Holly, has gotten into a fight with the Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert over enforcement of local health regulations regarding the pandemic.

MichelsYeah, what we're seeing in Gallatin County is a conflict between Attorney General Austin Knudsen and the county attorney, Marty Lambert.

What Knudsen is using is the segment of state law that gives him supervisory power over local county attorneys, and it's not used very often. Knudsen issued this statement, that this 10 p.m. closing time for this bar in Bozeman, the Rockin R Bar, they had violated it and got in trouble in the courts there.

Knudsen called that closing time an overreach, and said local governments were being overzealous in going after this bar for their violations of health mandates. He told the Gallatin County attorney to drop this case against this Bozeman bar right away, or by noon Friday at the latest. But Marty Lambert, a Republican who's the county attorney there, isn't going to do that.

He issued a statement on Thursday telling Knudsen that since the state of Montana isn't a party to the case, he's not going to listen to what Knudsen's telling him to do, but that the Gallatin City County health officer, who is a party to the case, asked him not to dismiss it.

Like you just said, Gallatin County is one of those places that still has, you know, local mandates in place to close bars at 10 p.m. So I think it'll be interesting to see where this goes with this standoff between Knudsen and Lambert. I don't think it's done. I think it will ... we'll see some more things come out of it next week.

MaukRob, all of this is as much about politics as it is about health. And that seems to me not to be a very good equation when one would hope everyone in government would be doing what they can to keep people safe.

SaldinWell, yeah, I suppose we would hope that Sally, but it feels like that hasn't been the case for a long time. You know, all of this got politicized relatively early on, probably on some level it was inevitable that we'd have a bit of that at least. But I think we could imagine things having gone a different direction.

But, you know, just on the politics of it, you know, I think it was a case for Bullock. It's a case for Gianforte that there are political risks whichever way you go. But it does seem to me that Gianforte's in a little bit of a better position than Bullock was. And, at the same time, that he's more constrained than Bullock was.

He's in a better position because we do have vaccines now, and so there's a realistic end in sight to all of this. So, you know, even if we've got months to go yet, the unknowns are just greatly reduced. So that all is good and maybe lowers the potential risks with making changes.

But Gianforte also just has less room to maneuver than Bullock did, because the politics, as you say, have changed. I mean, at this point, masks and all this stuff has become politicized in a way they weren't, at least way back at the beginning. And the political reality here is that as a Republican, and with where his base of support is, Gianforte really doesn't have much of a choice as a political matter about needing to relax things, at least a little.

MaukWell, lastly, Holly, the House on a party line vote has passed a bill that's now headed to the Senate, and this bill vastly expands where guns are allowed, including on college campuses. And that has some college administrators quite worried.

MichelsYeah, this is one of these bills that's kind of a perennial one we have seen most every other past session. It's from Republican Seth Berglee of Columbus, and like you said, it would really expand where you can carry concealed firearms, especially college campuses has become the real point of debate in this bill.

Republicans have argued that this bill would keep people safe along the lines of 'a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun' argument. And they're saying that, you know, people who they're calling criminals would just bring guns onto campuses regardless of if the rules that we have now are in place.

People who are opposing this bill, which includes college administrators and the Board of Regents, are really worried introducing more guns onto campus would create dangerous situations. They pointed out that guns and alcohol really don't mix well, and alcohol is pretty present on college campuses, both on- and off-campus consumption. And then also that more access to guns could increase the risk of suicides on college campuses.

And I think the debates are a little more pointed this session because with a Republican Gov. Gianforte in office now, there's not that guarantee of a veto from a Democrat if it clears the session.

MaukOne representative, Holly, Butte Democrat Jim Keane, wanted to tell his own story about being shot, but Kalispell Republican Derek Skees, who was chairing the session that day, wouldn't let him tell the story.

MichelsYeah, this was a pretty interesting moment on the House floor. Rep. Keane, he asked Berglee, who's carrying the bill, if he had ever been shot. And Skees, Kalispell Republican like you said, he shut Keane down, saying his statements were off topic. Skees is one of those lawmakers who's really well versed in the rules process, so he maneuvers through these types of situations very well.

Democrat Minority Leader Kim Abbott from Helena stood up in objection to Skees shutting down, you know, these statements from Jim Keane, and they ended up having a really quick meeting of the House Rules Committee. And that's not a super common thing to happen on the House floor.

The issue of upholding Skees' ruling that shutdown Keane actually went to a vote of the full House, and they ended up upholding Skees' ruling on a 56-41 vote, which I think is interesting to note because it's not a party line vote. The breakdown in the House is 67 Republicans, 33 Democrats.

So Keane got to continue talking, but not tell his story about being shot, which I think is what a lot of people really wanted to hear. It started out with him Christmas tree hunting in the 1950s with guns. So I'm sure it's an interesting story, but not one he could tell on the House floor.

MaukCount me as one who wants to hear that story.

Finally Rob, this legislation will be some of many that Democrats oppose and that, in the past, a Democratic governor vetoed. Democrats don't have that backstop anymore.

SaldinNo. It's a new day in Helena and Democrats better get used to it. This is something that Republicans have been pining for for years and years and years. You know, they've had these big majorities in the House and the Senate, but they haven't had the governor's office. Well, now they do, so they're going to be able to move a lot of this stuff, and I suspect this gun bill is just the beginning.

MaukWell, what a busy week, both in Helena and D.C. And I suspect next week is going to top this week by a lot. Rob and Holly we will reconvene then. Thank you so much.

SaldinThanks Sally.

MichelsThanks Sally.

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. Tune during the legislative session Fridays at 6:44 p.m., via podcast, or listen online.

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.