The Year In Montana’s Politics
It’s hard to imagine, given how invested I feel in a slate of consequential elections that are still almost a year away, that we began 2023 with an equally consequential legislative session.
A 90-ish day gauntlet in the dead of winter, this session saw a historic supermajority for the Republican Party, which, empowered by a Republican governor and attorney general, ushered through a slate of conservative legislation touching everything from income taxes to LGBTQ+ rights, expression and medical care.
This year also saw the launch of Capitolized, a regular newsletter (twice weekly during the session, once a week since) investigating the depths of Montana’s political machinery.
“We’re about to begin on a great adventure for the next four months,” Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, told his fellow Democrats at a press conference on the first day of the session. “I invite you all to look around for a second, look at your neighbors, and realize this is as healthy and happy as you’ll be for the next four months. It’s all downhill from here.”
Soon, the Legislature entered a protracted fight over operating rules — the savviest parliamentary operators use the rules to advance their favored policies, or stymie ones they oppose — and watched the resignation of a young moderate Republican who accused her GOP colleagues of creating a hostile environment when she deviated from the party line.
Republican lawmakers would also soon resume their attempts to reshape the judiciary in the aftermath of a recent separation-of-powers conflict with the state Supreme Court — and in light of the many GOP-backed laws of 2021 that failed constitutional muster before the justices. Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, an attorney and the Senate Majority Leader, shepherded through a law to make it harder for plaintiffs to obtain preliminary injunctions and temporary restraining orders — both legal maneuvers that can potentially stall the implementation of legislation.
The GOP’s cultural agenda surfaced as early as February with legislation targeting “obscene” materials in schools and libraries. Later bills generated heated debate about restricting medical care for transgender youth, drag performances, abortion, a statutory definition of sex and more. Those debates would reach an apogee near the end of the session, when Democratic Missoula Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s impassioned opposition — she told supporters of the Senate Bill 99, the ban on gender-affirming care for trans minors, they would have blood on their hands if it passed — generated backlash from the House Speaker, in turn leading to a protest at the Capitol where seven Zephyr supporters were arrested (the charges against them were eventually dropped). Zephyr was ultimately barred from the House floor for the final days of the session.
Republican lawmakers in charge of public safety spending also snuck in an almost $8 million appropriation to send 120 state inmates to a private prison in Arizona, despite a lack of apparent interest in the idea from the Montana Department of Corrections and stringent opposition from criminal justice reform advocates.
All told, Republican lawmakers were a dominant force in the session, even if the party caucus was limited by internal conflict and the difficulty of keeping more than 100 votes in line between the House and Senate. Republicans failed to refer any constitutional amendments to the ballot, despite having the votes to do so without Democratic support. They also held their fire on the most serious efforts to tangle with the judicial branch.
Post-sine die, my attention turned to the 2024 election between three-term incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and a yet-to-be-determined Republican challenger. Much of my time has been devoted to tracking the GOP Senate primary, where observers are anticipating that hardline Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale will enter the race to take on early entrant and GOP establishment pick Tim Sheehy.
Through it all, I’ve done a few solid pieces of accountability journalism, including a story about a Great Falls lawmaker trying to pass DUI expungement legislation that would help people with DUI convictions strikingly similar to his own. As recently as this month, I got a scoop on the resignation of Department of Commerce Director Scott Osterman after a state probe into his travel expenses.
But the stories I value most are the ones about the ways people interact with political systems in their own front yards. Those stories can tell us about larger political issues — like the takeover of the Ravalli County Republican Party by John Birch Society sympathizers — or about ourselves, like my personal favorite story of the year: “Trouble in the badlands,” an almost-8,000-word examination of how economic angst, ego, inexperience and petty scandal derailed the city government of the eastern Montana town of Glendive. The story was produced in collaboration with the Glendive Ranger-Review. I want to take this opportunity to thank the paper’s staff, and all the readers of MTFP and Capitolized who made my work this year possible.