The Off-Ramps Not Taken
Legislative Bulletin #15
Montana hit the headlines this past week, and not in a good way.
The Speaker of the House, Matt Regier and Majority Leader, Sue Vinton led their caucus in a series of decisions culminating in expelling Freshman lawmaker Rep. Zooey Zephyr of Missoula from the House chamber and lobby.
What precipitated the escalating sanctions and penalties? Rep. Zephyr spoke with anguish and passion against SB 99, a bill to deny gender affirming care in Montana for minors. She characterized the effects of the bill on transgender youth as torture.
SB 99 was opposed by thousands and, importantly, by medical professionals and their associations, including the Montana Medical Association (MMA) and the Montana Academy of Pediatricians. An emergency room physician and former leader of MMA sent each member of the legislature a letter explaining that, already, a youth had been brought to a nearby emergency room for attempted suicide directly linked to the legislature's debates and actions on SB 99.
In her speech, Zephyr said,
"If you vote yes on this bill and yes on these amendments, I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”
She has pointed out since that her statements were not hyperbole.
While Republicans were offended and immediately objected to her remarks, others argue the remarks were no more offensive than statements routinely countenanced in committee hearings, and that they were germane to the discussion on the bill.
After legislators officially stated their objections on the floor, Speaker Matt Regier demanded an apology and, when he did not receive one, cut Rep. Zephyr’s microphone for days.
Three hundred Montanans, including Rep. Zephyr’s constituents, gathered on short notice at noon on Monday on the plaza north of the Capital in support of Rep. Zephyr. Some of them flowed into the House gallery for Monday’s floor session where uniformed troopers and Helena police were already lined up.
When Zephyr attempted to punch in to speak on a bill and was not recognized, her supporters began to chant “Let her speak.” The House gallery was then cleared by officers clad in riot gear, and a handful of supporters who refused to move were arrested. Rep. Zephyr stood at her seat with her microphone held up while her supporters chanted, after House members were asked to stand at the sides of the room.
It needn’t have come to that, but once it did, Rep. Zephyr was blamed. After suspending business on Tuesday, House leadership on Wednesday brought a motion to expel Montana’s only transgender lawmaker and it passed on a party line vote.
Business was again suspended on the 82nd legislative day.
House leadership had several opportunities to alter the course of these events and avoid the extreme outcome.
House leaders could have registered their objections and left it at that, as so many others have had to settle with throughout the session, in committees and on the House and Senate floors.
Once leadership denied the Representative’s voice on the floor for a day or two, they could have quietly rested on their point and reinstated her microphone.
On Monday, with the House gallery full of her supporters, leadership could have de-escalated by calling the House into recess and allowing the crowd to disperse with polite encouragement from the legislative Sergeant’s staff.
Only when and if the crowd did not disperse after a couple hours, leadership could have asked for law enforcement assistance.
Rather than invoking a constitutional confrontation, leadership could have invoked House Rule 20-80 and deliberated on how to resolve the situation in the House Rules Committee. This discussion could have taken place on Thursday or Friday (April 20 or 21) before cutting Rep. Zephyr's microphone.
Instead, by Thursday, April 27, Rep. Zephyr was perched on a bench in the snack bar tuned in through audio on her computer to House proceedings and voting remotely. House leadership was reassigning bills away from her committees to avoid dealing with her presence, and the public was blocked from the House gallery after losing two critical days nearing the session’s final motion to Sine Die.
In the face of the controversy, Rep. Zephyr’s star rose on a national stage, sparking analogies to the authoritarian expulsion of two young black lawmakers in Tennessee earlier in April. She spoke eloquently on CBS, BBC, and The New York Times as well as Montana’s daily newspapers. Her speeches went viral on social media. She was interviewed on MSNBC beside one of the young Tennessee lawmakers, Rep. Justin Jones, and 26-year-old freshman Florida Congressman Maxwell Frost.
Rep. Zephyr is a poised, measured, and well-spoken champion for the basic human dignity, respect and rights of transgendered Montanans and Americans. The first to issue a statement in solidarity with Rep. Zephyr was the Montana American Indian Caucus, whose respective nations have recognized and honored Two Spirit members for many generations.
All of this unfolded in the closing days of a session where culture wars often eclipsed other issues of critical importance yet to be resolved:
Funding for Montana’s failing nursing homes remains well below recommended minimum levels
Desperately needed funding for affordable housing remains unfinished
A late-breaking attack on the Montana Environmental Policy Act was flying through both chambers.
The state budget was under water despite the largest surplus in state history
Hundreds of bills were still working their way through the system.
Into this highly charged moment, House leaders unnecessarily escalated the conflict with Rep. Zephyr, shutting down the House for two days, with only 8-9 workdays left to Sine Die.
In other news:
HB 819: Affordable Housing Mega-Bill Passes the Senate
On Thursday, the Senate Finance and Claims Committee amended HB 819, (Rep. Green-Hardin) wrapping four major housing initiatives into one large bill.
What began as a bill to buy down mortgages for middle class working families to access home ownership, now includes the following bills:
the Governor’s bill to facilitate infrastructure for affordable housing using state dollars and incentives for local governments to plan for and permit affordable housing projects,
a bill to construct affordable housing near state facilities that cannot find workers (such as the Montana State Prison), and
a bill to make $65 million in the coal trust available for lower interest revolving loans to help finance affordable multifamily housing across the state.
The third bill, HB 546, was strongly supported by Big Sky 55+ because the idea worked so well in 2019, using an initial $15 million investment from the trust.
That investment resulted in 152 units across the state, much of it rehabbed senior affordable housing.
The coal trust loans also leverage an equal amount of private sector financing which doubled the impact.
The principal trust moneys are not spent, allowing the investments to continue to earn interest.
Instead, the bill puts coal trust dollars to work in Montana on a critical priority - affordable housing for workers, seniors, veterans, and young families.
In 1982 Montanans passed Initiative 95 directing that a portion of coal trust dollars (25%) be invested in-state to generate economic development and jobs. That is what this portion of HB 819 does. This portion alone could finance over 650 affordable housing units.
"Big Sky 55+ supports HB 819 with the $65 million revolving loans for affordable housing units financed by coal trust money.
Long-Term Care update:
HB 2, HB 649, and HJ 28:
HB 2: Budget Amendment on Senate Floor Adds $45 million (State and Federal) for Senior Long-Term Care and other Providers
HB 2, the state biennium budget, has passed both House and Senate, and has been referred back to the House for approval of Senate amendments.
One of those amendments was a $45 million bump ($15 million state general fund matched by approximately $30 million federal dollars) to bring up provider rates, including nursing home reimbursements. While this amount still does not reach the minimum set by the Guidehouse $2 million study of what it costs to provide care in Montana, it is an important step toward that goal.
Meanwhile HB 649, which now would provide immediate money to stabilize providers was tabled in Senate Finance and Claims last week… twice.
On Monday it was tabled. On Tuesday it was taken off the table, amended to make it effective immediately and then tabled again. As it sits on the table, it would make up to $15 million available to the Director of the Dept. of Public Health and Human Services between now and the new fiscal year July 1, 2023, to bolster struggling nursing homes that are in danger of closing their doors.
HJ 28 shines a light on the growing presence of older Montanans and their emerging needs.
By the beginning of the NEXT biennium (2026-27) the first cohort of the Baby Boom generation will turn 80. Montana is already the 6th oldest state demographically with 26% of its population over 60, and by 2030 it will be 30%. People over 85 require five times as much help as people 65-74.
It is important to survey where older Montanans reside, and to assess what kinds of systems can help them and their families navigate an increasingly frail and challenged population. Some states offer good examples and innovations with wise investments that can help divert adults from higher acuity skilled nursing care with in-home and caregiver support systems.
HJ 28, an interim study bill carried by Rep. Mike Yakawich (Billings), addresses the whole continuum of senior care, including assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. Big Sky 55+ worked with lawmakers of both parties to craft this bill. It would give lawmakers the information necessary to plan thoughtfully and wisely for an aging, increasingly frail and significant population across the state in rural and urban settings.
HJ 28 passed the House 93-7 and has been referred to the Senate Public Health Committee.
Please send a message in support of HJ 28 to all Senators in hopes that the bill will come before that body in the next few days.
And finally, please join us for our final Virtual Legislative Town Hall
2023 Session: The Winners and Losers
Budget, Taxes, Constitution, Culture Wars, and more!
May 04, 6:00 PM – 7:00 PM MDT
Please join Sen. Pat Flowers (Belgrade), Senate Minority Leader; Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter (Billings), member of House Appropriations completing her 3rd term in the House; and Rep. Jonathan Karlen (Missoula), freshman lawmaker and member of Business and Labor, along with Big Sky 55+ Chair Terry Minow in a discussion looking back at the 2023 Legislative Session.