Montana House cancels Tuesday floor session as leadership considers response to Zephyr protests

Rep. Knudsen says GOP leaders looking at Constitution, rules in considering next steps

By: and - April 25, 2023 5:52 pm
House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, speaks to the press a day after seven people were arrested in the House gallery protesting his not recognizing Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, on the House floor. Speaker Pro Tem Rhonda Knudsen and Majority Leader Sue Vinton joined him at the news conference.

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, speaks to the press a day after seven people were arrested in the House gallery protesting his not recognizing Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, on the House floor. Speaker Pro Tem Rhonda Knudsen and Majority Leader Sue Vinton joined him at the news conference. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

The Montana House canceled its floor session on Tuesday as Republican leadership determines its next steps following Monday’s protest in the chamber that led to the arrests of seven people.

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, held a brief news conference Tuesday morning in which he said Monday was “a dark day” for the state and admonished members of the Montana press for how it characterized his handling of Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, on the House floor during the past week. He said “the entire story was not told.”

“Headlines that have happened over the last week stating that the Montana House leadership or GOP has silenced anyone is false,” Regier said. “Currently, all representatives are free to participate in House debate while following the House rules. The choice not to follow House rules is one that Representative Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr.”

He said that the House “will not be bullied” and that he will continue to treat all members of the chamber “the same,” then walked back into his office without taking questions.

A spokesperson for House Republicans came out minutes later to say the House floor session had been canceled, which the House sergeant-at-arms had already confirmed.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, gestures to members of the public in the gallery who were being removed for being disruptive, and chanting, “Let her speak” in the Montana House on April 24, 2023 (Photo by Blair Miller for the Daily Montanan).

The protests came in the wake of the lack of recognition on the floor for Zephyr, which Regier last week said was happening because she had broken House decorum rules by telling Republicans they should be ashamed of themselves for voting in favor of Senate Bill 99. The bill would ban gender-affirming care for minors in Montana if signed by the governor.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, had earlier on Tuesday told reporters there was not likely to be a floor session – though neither party leader said exactly why. Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, said it was so leadership could decide the next steps in the saga and whether to pursue further action against Zephyr, such as censuring her.

Abbott said most of her discussions with Regier had been “administrative in nature” and that both had tried to keep one another apprised of their next steps.

But she said she was disappointed in the statement Regier, Speaker Pro Tem Rhonda Knudsen and Majority Leader Sue Vinton released Monday evening in which they called what transpired Monday a “riot by far-left agitators” which they said “endangered legislators and staff.”

“We all watched that together and it wasn’t a violent protest. It was disruptive, it was chanting, but it was not violent. There was no need for a SWAT team,” Abbott said. “I was disappointed in the way the protest was framed given the extreme actions to silence a sitting member. They should expect a public protest; I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

Abbott said as a former organizer for the Montana Human Rights Network, she was not surprised at the protest. Law enforcement booked and released seven demonstrators Monday on misdemeanor trespassing charges.

“This is the people’s House. They came in, made their statement. I think that’s absolutely part of democracy and civil society, and that’s what we saw yesterday,” she said. “Sometimes extreme measures have a response like this.”

The House and Senate on Monday passed calendar changes that pushed a Wednesday deadline for appropriations and revenue bills to pass with amendments to Friday, which Abbott said would still allow the House to get its work done.

How Regier’s nonrecognition of Zephyr affects the session in its final week-and-a-half remains to be seen. Lawmakers are expected to meet this Saturday after Monday’s calendar change, which would put the final Day 90 of the session on next Friday, May 5.

Regier said during a Senate Finance and Claims hearing Tuesday morning for his coal trust fund housing expansion bill, House Bill 927, which Abbott has testified in favor of in committee and on the House floor, that he was unsure of the bill’s prospects after Monday’s protests.

“Moving forward, and I’ll just be candid with all of you, I don’t know with recent events that have happened over in the House, I don’t know the fate of this bill. I don’t know where exactly it belongs in the conversation,” he told the committee.

Democrats have tried to get numerous affordable housing bills through the legislature this session but since Republicans have a supermajority, have had to work with their counterparts to try to pass any such legislation.

When asked how Democrats will proceed with trying to push some of their priorities over the finish line in the final days of the session, Abbott told reporters Tuesday she believes both parties need to regroup and have some conversations together. Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, said the Senate was trying to move forward the work it has to do while recognizing “challenges” on the House side.

“It’s important to address someone who represents 10,000 people and is duly elected not being able to participate in the way they should be able to,” Flowers said. “It’s a balancing act and I think our caucus will do our best.”

Law enforcement officers in riot gear push people out of the gallery after they protest in support of allowing Rep. Zephyr to speak. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Abbott told the press following a meeting in Regier’s office that Republican leadership is looking at different avenues for how to move forward in regard to potential disciplinary action. She said her caucus believes the actions from the Speaker are severe, disenfranchising Zephyr’s constituents, and that the focus should be on the legislation that is harming the transgender, non-binary and two-spirit community. 

“I think this is the most extreme action that I’ve seen a speaker take against a member in the 20 years I’ve been in this building,” Abbott said. 

Abbott said there’s a “ripple effect” from Monday, which she attributed to the vote on the Senate amendment to House Bill 359. The House voted Monday with Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, to reject the amendment that the Senate carrier said “gutted” the bill that bans drag performances on public property in the state. 

“I expected a different vote on that,” Abbott said. 

Knudsen told the press waiting outside Regier’s office that he has been advising leadership on different avenues they could potentially take as the Constitution, the joint and House rules and Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure allow. 

“There certainly hasn’t been any decisions made yet,” Knudsen said. 

There are nine legislative days left, and Knudsen said the short timeline is also impacting deliberations, especially as the legislature scrambles to finish business and get bills on Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. 

When asked if he thought legislation or amendments would be introduced to address Monday’s events would be put forward, Knudsen said it was a possibility, but he hadn’t heard anything about that specifically. 

Knudsen was one of three Republicans to vote with Democrats against Regier’s decision against recognizing Zephyr on the floor on Monday. He said his opinion has changed a little bit since the “shit show” on the floor.

Regier ultimately did not address the press following the conference, avoiding the gaggle in the anteroom as he left. 

Zephyr, who briefly appeared in the anteroom to Regier’s office where the press was waiting, did not comment on if she had heard details regarding potential disciplinary action against her. 

“When there’s floor, we’ll know what’s going to happen,” Zephyr said. 

Knudsen said the House leadership response would  likely come on Wednesday. 

“I would probably plan on being here tomorrow, that’s my feeling right now,” he said.


Montana Constitution, Legislative rules in play as leadership considers next steps

The House adopted rules earlier this session that outline how a censure could work, which is what the right-wing Montana Freedom Caucus called for after Zephyr last week told Republicans they would have “blood on (their) hands” if they supported Senate Bill 99.

Regier has said several times that Zephyr has not abided by rules of decorum for the House on multiple occasions, and that under Rule 20-20, the Speaker has the power to decide “all questions of order and privilege and decisions of recognition,” as the rule states.

He told reporters last week that he would only accept a public apology from Zephyr in order to perhaps recognize her again this session. He specifically pointed to Zephyr’s comments telling Republicans they should be “ashamed” of themselves for their vote on SB99 as the reason she was breaking rules and would not be recognized.

Under House Rule 20-80, which Democrats originally thought should be the rule in question, there is a process that could be followed to be disallowed from speaking and possibly censured.

Under the rule, the Speaker, majority leader or minority leader can call a member to order to have them seated immediately. The member can appeal being called to order, and if two others back the appeal, the House would vote on whether to uphold it to decide whether the member should continue being allowed to speak.

The call to order could also go to the Rules Committee, which could also recommend the member be censured “or be subject to other action.”

“Censure consists of an official public reprimand of a member for inappropriate behavior,” the rule states. “The House shall act upon the recommendation of the Committee.”

House Rule 20-30 also discusses questions of order and privilege, which could also apply to the Zephyr situation. It says questions of order and privilege are “those affecting the collective rights, safety, dignity and integrity of the House” and then “those affecting the rights, reputation, and conduct of individual members.”

The Montana Constitution says that either chamber can expel or punish a member “for good cause shown” with a vote of two-thirds of the chamber.

And the joint rules of both chambers say that if there is a substantiated charge of discrimination or harassment by a lawmaker filed through a complaint, a Legislative Conduct Panel can recommend to the Ethics Committee punishment, which includes removing a member from committees up to expulsion from the chamber.

The Ethics Committee would have to hold a hearing on the original complaint and vote on what action against the lawmaker in question was appropriate. The lawmaker facing the complaint would have an opportunity to speak in defense of themselves.

Then the full House or Senate chamber would be able to censure a member with a majority vote, or discipline or expel a member with a two-thirds majority vote.

Seven people booked, released by 9 p.m. Monday

Keegan Medrano, the policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, as well as Lt. Troy Christensen of the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed seven protesters were booked on criminal trespassing charges and released before 9 p.m. Monday.

Six of the seven protesters came from Missoula and one was from Great Falls, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Monday, Hannah Pate, of Great Falls, shared the reason it was important to demonstrate at the Capitol on behalf of Zephyr. Pate offered remarks while in custody of a law enforcement officer outside the Capitol before being taken to jail.

“That building is the public’s, and what they’re doing to Representative Zephyr is unbelievable — but also very believable,” Pate said, citing other actions by the legislature this session.

Christensen said it took four or five hours to book and release the seven protestors, and the jail released the last demonstrator close to 9 p.m. He said none had to post bond.

“That’s just what we do on misdemeanor charges,” Christensen said.

Justice of the Peace Tom Bremer said the people who were arrested had to leave the premises and get fingerprinted and photographed, and they have 10 days to appear before the court.

The Daily Montanan’s Keila Szpaller contributed to this story.

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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.

Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.