The legislature that needs to ‘sine die’

GOP leaders misunderstood mandate – and became a statewide embarrassment

April 29, 2021 3:35 am

The Montana House of Representatives convenes its floor session on Jan. 29 in Helena, Montana. Lawmakers across the U.S. this year face the dilemma of having to tighten budgets for the covid-crippled economy while planning for an expected spike in demand for health services because of the pandemic. (Matt Volz/KHN)

One of my all-time favorite interviews was visiting with an older woman who reminded me, “Every generation thinks they invented sex.”

And just like that, every generation probably thinks their politicians are the worst. I can’t publish what I honestly thought Ronald Reagan’s first name was because of my grandfather’s regular rants about “The Gipper.”

For the past four months, the busier the Montana Legislature has gotten, the more it seemed like people were observing that it was the worst session in history, which is kind of like adding another basement to Hell.

Yet, as much as I’d like to add my “amen” to that sentiment, earning the sash, “Worst Legislature in History” is an award given by historians with the passage of time and a more measured perspective. Instead, I’d suggest that it has been one of the most consequential in the state’s history.

If it’s proven anything, it’s that nothing is more dangerous than a politician who believes they have a mandate — and that’s a word a lot of Republicans have used this session. Having covered politics for decades, I can say that elections are more about popularity contests than mandates, though. Mandates suggest a coordinated, unified set of beliefs by the voters, and that’s just too simple of an answer to encompass the disparate beliefs of so many individuals.

A mandate suggests that there was overwhelming anxiety about transgender athletes in our high schools, and yet not one person before or after the session I’ve interviewed could name one transgender high school athlete.

No one had suggested that environmental groups needed to be investigated with taxpayer money because of improper funding, and when Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, suggested such a measure, he couldn’t name any specific “environmental group” that had.

Residents didn’t seem to want the option to snare or trap animals, a practice that even most ethical hunters eschew because of an unfair and cruel approach to what should be a humane, fair hunt. They realize that such barbaric practices paint all hunters with the same unfair brush.

People didn’t demand that the state’s judiciary become more partisan because Montana courts have routinely been held up as both efficient and fair, with the state’s high court hearing most appeals in less than 90 days, becoming one of the most efficient in the nation.

While everyone in this state with extensive extractive resources history feels compassion and concern for our fellow Montanans in Colstrip who face an uncertain future, no one wanted to buy more coal at any price, while abdicating any oversight. No one said coal at any cost.

We have been excited by the prospect of gaining the once-lost Congressional seat and look forward to having more influence in national politics. Yet, no one suggested the Legislature needed to inject more partisanship into the process by adding redistricting to their handiwork, no matter how unconstitutional that legislative move may be. And certainly, finding a random map in the hallway and presenting that as evidence of a clandestine redistricting plan, without any verification or validation, is ham-handed and insulting. We should expect our lawmakers to use the same kind of fact-checking and source citation that we would of a seventh-grade book report.

There has been no outcry to take away the power local boards of health have used to keep residents safe, especially when inspecting restaurants and places that serve food. We trust restaurants to be clean and maintain code, with some oversight.

Finally, in what could convert Montana into an “anti-vaxxing” paradise, the state hasn’t just drawn the line at COVID-19 vaccine passports, it’s also moving to never require any of them and, in turn, make it so that vulnerable residents are unsafe.

Montanans have been the beneficiaries of years of vaccine and science — if you don’t believe me, take a trip through any one of the historic cemeteries of Montana. For example, in Butte, three children in the same family died within a week from a disease that was not specified. Thankfully, you don’t find entire families being wiped out in a week because of vaccines.

And, hey, I am not even going to bring up the dress code debacle in which Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, was flummoxed by the definition of “a suit-like dress.” Thankfully, his colleague, Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, put a stop to the questioning before any of the men had to model what they meant.

These aren’t just some liberal tears from a melting snowflake. And voters could have expected any number of reasonable conservative measures — some of which happened:

We expected sideboards on legalized marijuana.

We expected lowering taxes.

We expected reduction of business equipment taxes and regulations on reporting requirements.

We expected red-tape and rules to be reduced.

We expected the rollback of some of the emergency powers of the executive branch and local boards of health.

We expected some gun-friendly laws (not necessarily the ability to walk into the classroom or courtroom fully loaded and armed).

We expected more legislation aimed at abortion.

And, as much as I personally find some of those things odious or objectionable, those were certainly no surprise. Nor could I argue that those conservative ideas aren’t somehow reflective of Montana’s majority values. I get that, too.

However, the Legislature went far beyond just shifting the policy to a more conservative bent. This was a radical reshaping of politics and a power grab that is unprecedented. In at least two cases, with ballot collection and Election Day voter registration, those laws have been challenged and previously ruled unconstitutional.

Apparently, legal precedent is superseded by perceived mandates from voters, even though no one has been screaming about being able to vote or the “luxury” of making sure ballots are delivered to the polls. Talk about solutions in search of problems.

Maybe this Legislature’s most lasting legacy will be the unintentional economic stimulus and jobs package they inadvertently cobbled together. Now, as many of these conservative-backed bills have become a fait accompli with the governor, they are being rightfully challenged in court. The lawmakers didn’t do much to create new jobs in the state, but they established a cottage industry for lawyers who like challenging the constitutionality of all sorts of creative legislation.

So, unless you’re an unvaccinated lawyer who loves dress codes, clubbing wolves and burning coal, this session was a bust.

This Legislature needs to sine die. I am not sure we could survive it much longer.

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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.