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The good, the bad, the ugly (and uglier) of the ’23 session


The good, the bad, the ugly (and uglier) of the ’23 session

Mar 30, 2023 | 6:15 am ET
By Darrell Ehrlick
The good, the bad, the ugly (and uglier) of the ’23 session
Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana during a weekly coffee for Montanans in Washington, D.C. (Photo via Rep. Ryan Zinke Twitter).

With so many bills being introduced in the Montana Legislature, you’d think this ol’ Big Sky is falling.

Instead, it’s a rather overt attempt by Montana’s Republican Legislature and executive branch to refashion the state into its own image of conservative nirvana, and asking about some of these radical bills is often met with: We have the votes, that’s why.

That makes me think (again) there’s nothing more dangerous than a politician with a mandate, even though in more than a third of the races statewide, voters were only given one choice.

Still, the state’s constitution sets the bar awfully low, even for this collection of leaders, for what must happen every two years: It simply requires that lawmakers pass a budget and provide for public education. Other than that, every other piece of legislation is not mandatory.

As much as Republicans in Helena would like to blame the left for engaging in culture wars, the Democrats exist in such small numbers, they don’t have the political power to set an agenda, or even stomp hard on the brakes of so many bad ideas floating under the Capitol dome.

Yet, for all the questionable and likely unconstitutional legislation they’ve been passing, the lawmakers recently have come together to do several really impressive things for housing and nursing homes, both issues that affect vulnerable citizens who can’t fight for themselves.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, kept his word that the House would address affordable housing and proposed spending more than $100 million in state trust fund money for affordable housing projects – this after the program that spent $15 million last biennium succeeded. That’s literally building on success. And, as much as lawmakers try to solve the affordable housing crisis that has spread across the state and country, it’s a difficult challenge because zoning, labor costs and construction material prices, coupled with interest rates are all significant factors that they don’t control.

Meanwhile, lawmakers aren’t just trying to solve housing problems for families, but they’re also trying to do the right thing on nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities. In the past year, Montana has seen nearly a dozen close with more likely, unless the lawmakers take action. Not only have they planned to more fully – if not fully – fund Medicaid reimbursement rates, as a study the legislature commissioned suggested, but they’re also looking to backfill some of the losses to stabilize facilities that are literally teetering on the cliff of financial ruin.

The bad

Montana has come into this session in an enviable and likely temporary position: Having excess cash to the tune of $2 billion. Some of that was spent on property tax relief, while another chunk was handed out to people who really didn’t need the extra money.

Whether it is a belief in trickle-down economics, or just plain greed, the people’s money sure didn’t go to many people. And those who did will likely just throw it on top of the pile they’ve already accumulated.

Several different very wealthy people I know have told me a version of the same thing: I didn’t get rich by spending money, so the trickle-down economics, a nearly religious doctrine for many of our lawmakers, continues to cause lawmakers to rebate when they should be investing.

Next session, when the revenues haven’t been propped up by the largesse of the federal government, I wonder if the same lawmakers will propose reverting to the older income tax rates? Probably not.

Yet I wonder if this effort to cut taxes and give money back isn’t a prelude to cutting services in 2025 – because the revenue hasn’t come in as it has previously, even though that’s by the legislature’s design.

The ugly

Much of this session so far (and likely yet to come) has been fighting needless culture wars. Polls have consistently found that Montanans favor access to abortion, marijuana and appreciate the live-and-let-live mentality that has become the Treasure State’s calling card.

From debates about how Satanism fits in with abortion, to passing laws that attorneys know will likely be unconstitutional, this legislature has continued to reinforce the ideas of old, white, scared men because that is primarily the make-up of the body.

Transgender citizens have always been a part of us, and God willing, they’ll stay, even though doing so means literally being a second-class citizen.

In the past year, I’ve put on as many miles as most of the politicians and not one person has mentioned that the No. 1 concern is LGBTQ community or the alleged “gay agenda.”

The uglier

And Montana hasn’t been helped on the national stage either as folks like U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and his now ever-present western hat seem inseparable. For a man who seems to spend so little time in Montana, Zinke has adopted the “Yellowstone” look well.

Politico and E&E News both reported that after a tense meeting on Monday about rare earth elements, Zinke approached his successor, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and reminded her: “I wear a hat, but it’s not cowboys and Indians, I’ll tell you.”

She thanked him for his “clarification.”

I can only imagine what Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna New Mexico, thought.

And, I really didn’t think I would ever say this, but I miss the ol’ Navy Seal Zinke.