Democratic bills aim to increase legislative transparency, Indigenous education for lawmakers

By: - February 14, 2023 4:15 pm

The Montana State Capitol building in subzero temperatures on Dec. 21, 2022 (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Two bills from Democratic senators heard in a Senate committee Tuesday seek respectively to increase transparency surrounding legal analyses of measures at the Montana Legislature and to better educate lawmakers on tribal history and affairs, their sponsors said.

The committee heard Senate Bill 233 from Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, which would require more materials and training be available to lawmakers to learn about state and federal Indian policy, law and issues related to Indigenous people and Montana’s 12 sovereign tribal nations.

Morigeau, a member of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, said earlier this session he would introduce such a measure after Kalispell Republican Sen. Keith Regier had a resolution drafted that called on Congress to investigate alternatives to reservations that used language Morigeau and several other Indigenous lawmakers objected to. Regier told the Daily Montanan after an initial story on the resolution that he would not be introducing it.

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, testifies on behalf of his Senate Bill 233 in the Senate Legislative Administration Committee on Feb. 14, 2023.
Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, testifies on behalf of his Senate Bill 233 in the Senate Legislative Administration Committee on Feb. 14, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Morigeau told the committee Tuesday he feels there is still a lot of misunderstanding among Montanans and legislators surrounding Indigenous communities and affairs. He said this year’s tribal training for lawmakers only lasted about 10 minutes.

“This would ensure it’s a priority … of providing that basic information, that critical information, because there’s just so much intersection and overlap with Montana tribes and the work we do in this body,” Morigeau said.

Both the Montana Constitution and Montana law recognize the cultural heritage of Indigenous people of Montana and an educational commitment to preserve their histories.

Proponents of the bill included representatives of the Blackfeet Nation, Western Native Voice and the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. They said it would help lawmakers better understand not only tribal history but how their measures and discussions affected Indigenous people in Montana. No one testified in opposition.

Former Democratic House member Jade Bahr, now with the Montana Budget and Policy Center, said when she was a lawmaker in 2019, she felt there was a lack of understanding about tribal relations that was sometimes “downright offensive.”

“I found myself bawling on the House floor because of some of the misconceptions that were being said,” she said. “I think that if we can work to curb some of these misunderstandings, I think we should.”

Ta’jin Perez, the deputy director of Western Native Voice, said people in the Indigenous community often feel that legislators are not invested in the lives of Indigenous people in Montana, partially because they are not educated enough.

“We believe that Senate Bill 233 is an important step to make sure that the individuals who are debating policy, setting rules, and setting laws are doing so from a place that is fairly educated on a very significant and unique part of the constituency,” he said.

The committee did not take action on the bill Tuesday.

Lawmaker wants to require legal review notes be public moving forward

Senate Bill 193, sponsored by Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, aims to put into statute a requirement that any legal review notes for bills be posted online for the public to see. It was also heard in the committee Tuesday.

The legal review notes are posted online this session under joint rules adopted by the House and Senate. They were not posted publicly in the 2019 and 2021 sessions unless the bill’s sponsor requested. Prior to that, the notes had been posted publicly in the 2013, 2015 and 2017 sessions.

Every bill requested for drafting by Montana lawmakers since 1973 has undergone a legal review by the Legislative Services Division’s Legal Service Office. Bill drafters review the requests for possible conformity issues with the Montana Constitution and Montana Code Annotated, which are sent to the office’s legal director if they exist.

The legal director, after consulting with legislative attorneys trained in the subject matter area, notifies the drafter and the sponsor of the bill if any issues exist based on the state constitution, state law and federal law. If a bill raises any potential issues, staff from Legal Services writes a legal review note and delivers it to the sponsor.

The legal review notes do not provide legal conclusions, nor do staff continue to re-analyze the bills as they move through the legislative process.

Legislative Branch Code Commissioner Todd Everts said there are typically a few dozen legal review notes that come out of the thousands of bills that are drafted and introduced each session.

Dunwell told the committee the bill brings consistency for future sessions and more transparency to bills for both lawmakers and the constituents they represent. No one testified in opposition Tuesday.

Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, testified in favor of the bill in the Senate Legislative Administration Committee and said she believed it was important for lawmakers to find out as much information as possible before they vote.

“I do think it will be, in the long run, cheaper, and I think that it makes us better legislators,” Olsen said. “…We also have an obligation to put in law things that protect the people and provide information, so I think this is a good bill.”

The Governor’s Office has requested more than $2 million to defend potential litigation over the next two years stemming from laws passed this session. Around two dozen laws passed in 2021 have been challenged in court.

Hal Harper, a former Democratic lawmaker and adviser to former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, said he believed the measure was “a great bipartisan move to make” and one that “can help roll back the curtains and let the sunshine in.”

The committee did not take immediate executive action on the bill Tuesday.

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.

Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.