Montana’s own ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

Lawmakers are undoing many good aspects of life in the Treasure State

February 25, 2021 7:12 am

A woman dressed like a character from “The Handmaid’s Tale” at a Boston march in 2019. (Photo by Kai Medina, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I apologize: Montana has become something out of “The Handmaid’s Tale” so quickly that we have hardly had time to mention it.

What with all the bills that seem to turn back the clock and embrace a shocking disregard for science or anyone who isn’t White and male.

The 67th Legislature is one that has a much different feel.

Some will argue that my feeling is just some whiny snowflake who is getting a dose of what it means to have Republicans running virtually every facet of government. However, I’d point out that my own journalism career has had me covering politics in places like North Dakota, Wyoming and Utah, not exactly hotbeds of liberalism.

This feels different, and it feels decidedly un-Montanan. I swear if we had just been a century earlier to this states game, we could have chased New Hampshire away from the motto “Live Free or Die.” It always seemed like it was our motto.

But the way we’re going with the lack of masks, trying to gut the power of public health officials and efforts to send kids to school unvaccinated, it looks like we’ve chosen the die path rather than living free.

It’s not just the topics of the bills that concern me, it’s the spirit of meanness that seems to permeate these bills and the session.

For example, by any reasonable estimate, there are less than a dozen transgender athletes in Montana – if that – and there aren’t any surgeons in the state who operate on youth for transition-related care. Yet, one of the legislature’s most notable issues is picking on people already struggling and vulnerable, and their doctors.

In my time covering state issues, not once has an average citizen told me their top issue is transgender restrictions. And I would challenge lawmakers to name a constituent where that’s true.

Yet the issue is of such paramount importance that lawmakers openly flouted rules that said a tabled bill can’t come back during the same session. Apparently the party that is in love with law and order decided laws, orders and rules don’t matter and gave the tabled transgender bill a second chance, even giving it the same title when a vote didn’t go their way the first time around.

This is a group of lawmakers that insisted a debate about fast-acting pentobarbital, the main drug used in lethal injection death penalty cases, must be on topic, and the conversation was not about the death penalty. House Judiciary Chairman Barry Usher, R-Billings, told the committee that lawmakers must stay on topic, which is to say, must debate the merits of the ultrafast-acting pentobarbital or other pharmaceutically permissible drugs, even though not one of the committee members had any medical training. The same committee took less than 90 minutes to table a bill by Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, who brought legislation that would convert the death penalty in Montana to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

If you believe that Jesus doesn’t like abortion, as many lawmakers do, I’m not sure how you’d intuit he’d love the death penalty. And, quite frankly, if there’s someone who knows something about the death penalty, it’s Jesus.

Maybe most disturbing is the lawmakers’ cavalier disregard for case law and the courts themselves. It used to be that if a legal note was attached to a bill, leaders would corral a bill’s sponsor to make it conform to current law. Not so today.

Legal services staff have been producing legal notes for all kinds of proposed legislation. The purpose is to help lawmakers pass laws that are, ahem, legal and will not be fodder for lawsuits.

Today, it seems like having a legal note attached to a bill has become a badge of honor, something of proof positive that Republicans are working hard at fighting a system that is broken or corrupt, even though Montana felt just fine to me.

Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, carried a bill on Tuesday about ballot collection that was nearly identical to similar legislation that passed and was later struck down by a Yellowstone County judge. Undeterred, Nolan quipped, “If a court makes a bad ruling, does that stop us from making a good law just because they did something wrong?”

He’s not alone.

Despite pages and pages of court opinions during the course of nearly 50 years, our judges have ruled that the Montana Board of Regents sets the policy for college and university campuses. When warned that a bill to make open concealed carry of weapons legal on campuses was likely unconstitutional because it overstepped the Board’s authority, the bill’s sponsor wore a facemask with an assault rifle on it to the bill signing.

So much for law and order.

In fact, those very judges have come under attack as bald-face partisan efforts to reform the judiciary threaten to transform the bench into a chorus of partisan acolytes by making judicial races partisan, handing appointment power to the governor, and moving to elect judges to the Supreme Court by district, even though the highest court in Montana rules for the entire state, not just by district.

Keep in mind: There have been good bills out there. For example, efforts to lower drug costs or allow direct medical providers have been examples of helpful, meaningful legislation that has been overshadowed by a retrograde agenda that makes Montana look backward and cruel. One online commentator called it “hillbilly vaudeville.”

The full effect of any measures that pass won’t be evident until after the session concludes. I predict folks will be surprised and even want to do something about it, only to wait another two years. It will prove that elections have consequences, and not just federal races, but especially local ones.

Given the legislation that’s likely to pass, it would take Montana years to undo some of the deleterious decisions that are being reached. In other words, it takes a lot longer to clean up the milk than it does to knock the glass over.

It’s proof positive that there’s nothing more dangerous than a politician who truly believes in the word “mandate.”

Blessed be.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.