Lawmakers clap for House Speaker Wylie Galt (seated) as he is sworn in. (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)
The Montana state House ended the session’s 44th (and technically also 45th) day with a recognition of one lawmaker’s status as an elite dancer (Jonathan Windy Boy of Box Elder is the Michael Jordan of pow wow and grass dance, by some accounts), a group rendition of the state anthem (“M-O-N-T-A-N-A!”), and a brief attempt to reignite an argument from Tuesday morning on one of the right wing’s top legislative priorities.
It was, in other words, a fitting way to mark the halfway point of the 67th Regular Session of the Montana Legislature.
Wednesday is the transmittal deadline, the point by which most bills have to clear their chamber of origin. This has created a mad dash to finish drafting legislation and pass or kill as many bills as possible, clogging committee schedules and leading to lengthy floor sessions. On Monday, the Senate worked for more than 15 hours straight in an effort to finish its business a day ahead of schedule
The House worked through Tuesday, setting out to debate almost 30 bills and take final votes on dozens more. On paper, the body squeezed two days into one, meeting this morning on the 44th day of session, adjourning, and returning after lunch for the 45th day, in which it took several votes and adjourned until next week.
It began the day — the 44th day, that is — with a debate on HB251, legislation that would establish a right-to-work policy in Montana. Union workers packed the halls and galleries to sway lawmakers against the bill, which would mark a fundamental change to private-sector labor law, banning contracts from requiring union membership as a condition of employment and preventing labor organizations from collecting fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining from workers who opt-out of union membership.
“Under right-to-work, nothing is stopping a worker from joining a union,” said Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade, whose brother and fellow lawmaker Caleb Hinkle proposed the bill. “If a union benefits workers, they should not need forced dues. I can guarantee you that if right to work passed today, none of these good folks in the balcony here would leave the union.”
Ultimately, the bill died 38-62, with several Republicans joining Democrats in voting against the proposal, which opponents warned would hamstring collective bargaining and hurt workers.
“I’m in the union so that I can have a voice at the table,” said Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, a corrections officer who’s a member of the Montana Federation of Public Employees. “I deserve to have a voice at the table. I deserve to have my voice heard. This bill is a step in the direction of killing unions. It’s not gonna kill them today, but it’s a step in that direction.”
Montana would have become the 28th right-to-work state, and the last state among its neighbors to adopt the policy — something that might be related to the state’s extensive union history, which Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte, emphasized during debate on the bill.
“I know my past, I know my town’s past,” Harvey said, relaying a series of stories from the Montana history: Strikes in Butte, protesting workers getting gunned down out on Anaconda Road.
“I have to put it back on the citizens and workers in the state,” Harvey said after the House adjourned Tuesday afternoon. “They got out there, they got messages to their legislators. There were phone calls through the switchboard daily, urging us not to vote for 251.”
During debate on the floor, Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said that Caleb Hinkle had received threats for running the bill, called him brave and appeared to admonish the union members in attendance, calling for decorum as he glared at the gallery. Even still, he voted against the bill.
Brad Murfitt, the House Sergeant at Arms, said Tuesday that nobody had forwarded to him any threats against Hinkle.
The vote on HB251 Tuesday was presaged by votes on other bills pertaining to collective bargaining in the
Senate the day before, with the upper chamber killing two bills, SB89 and SB228 that would have affected union membership and due collection.
Debate on the underlying idea outlasted the bill itself. As the House was making its closing announcements Tuesday, Jed Hinkle rose to make a personal comment, showing a framed attack ad against him from his last election and affirming his position that unions were forcing members to support speech they don’t agree with when they spend against Republican candidates.
“Representative, I believe we have fully debated this bill,” said Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, cutting Hinkle off.
By the time the House finally adjourned at 2:53, it had debated and voted on not just HB251 but dozens of other bills — admittedly, a smaller workload than Monday.
On several instances, factions or alignments of lawmakers within the GOP teamed up with Democrats to kill bills from their own party, voting down on narrow margins HB573, which would allow the Montana Public Service Commission to regulate tech companies; HB570, which would allow the Legislature to ignore federal orders or laws on constitutional ground and others.
The body, however, passed HB583, which allows incarcerated Montanans to reduce their sentences through education and work credits, on an 85-15 vote. Initially, it also passed HB577, Democratic legislation to regulate facial recognition technology, but the fate of that bill changed on third reading. Another Democratic bill to allow municipalities to operate broadband provider faced a similar end, passing on second reading last week but dying in a final vote today following a late lobbying effort by telecoms companies.
It also passed HB588, which expands personal staffing limits for executive offices, allowing for more political appointments.
In a statement to the press Tuesday afternoon, Republican House leadership lauded the “early accomplishments” of the first half of the session, noting that Gov. Greg Gianforte had already signed several priority priority bills, including HB102, allowing for permitless concealed carry of firearms, and SB65, a bill shielding private sector entities from COVID-19-related legal liability.
“Montana voters sent legislators to Helena with a conservative mandate, which we are fulfilling,” the statement reads.
The session’s halfway point means that most surviving bills will now be debated in the opposite chamber. In the flurry to pass hundreds of bills before the transmittal deadline, the House passed two key bills to rein in the power of the executive branch and of county health officials in times of crisis, regulatory rollbacks, a bill to ban gender-affirming surgery for minors and more.
Democrats say that “conservative mandate” is less about helping the state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and more about seeking victories on social policies that generally fell to vetoes by two consecutive Democratic governors, while the GOP has pointed to a $90-plus million income tax cut, an exemption on certain capital gains taxes and the liability shield as evidence that they can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, said on the floor Tuesday that he waited “day after day, week after week, month after month” for the majority to bring “jobs and infrastructure” bills.
“44 days, jobs and infrastructure? No. A lot of social engineering? Yes,” Keane said. “The comeback plan, which a lot of these people voted for, hasn’t been here. There hasn’t been jobs and infrastructure. The very first bill on the 44th day for jobs is to kill (jobs for union members).”
In the next half of the session, both parties will be focused on the budget. Spending bills operate on a different timeline than other policy proposals, and aren’t subject to the same transmittal deadline. Appropriations subcommittee sections are essentially finished with their review of state agency budgets and will come together next week to begin crafting a “conservative” spending plan for the state, GOP leadership said in a statement. The fate of many of the governor’s proposals will be decided through this process.
Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, who serves as House Minority Leader, pledged to be involved in the appropriations process and noted that Democrats have already fought against one proposed cut that’s since been reversed. Minority lawmakers are concerned, she said, about two tribal liaison positions that were cut in another budget subcommittee.
Implementing and funding the state’s new recreational marijuana program will be another major lift for appropriators, as will appropriating federal COVID aid — around $500 million that’s currently set aside for two draft bills that have yet to be publicly released.
“Our fingerprints will be all over that budget,” she said.
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