The waning twilight of the 2019 Montana legislative session featured a moment that perfectly encapsulated the long days before it happened. Representative Nancy Ballance, a Republican from Hamilton and chair of the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, stood up on the floor to make what appeared to be an innocuous statement to the chamber. What followed was anything but.
Ballance stood to say she had learned she would not be part of the interim finance committee, which she had continually served on in her role as the chair of appropriations because she remains one of the smartest budget policy minds in Montana. Instead, Republican leadership had placed a male freshman representative along with two other men. (Ballance would have chosen one of them: Representative Llew Jones.) Her exclusion was breathtaking to learn about and Ballance spoke for a bit about her decades of experience with finance and her long service on the finance committee.
Then she launched into a brilliant critique of how women are treated in the house. Remember, this is Nancy Ballance, who is a longtime member of her party’s leadership team. “I believe that this sends a powerful message to women in the state of Montana, to young girls, to those fifth grade girls who came in here and watched how this government works. When a successful woman can be replaced by a freshman man, I think that is a travesty. I strenuously object,” she said. She closed by noting boys around the state would learn “all they have to do is be a man” to get ahead.
Take a moment and watch the full speech: it starts at 14:48:00. It’s worth it.
What happened to Ballance started much earlier in the session and continued boil over throughout it. This was the case for many of the moderate Republicans who became known as the “Solutions Caucus.” Ballance got the chair of appropriations but leadership made Representative Carl Glimm, from Kila, co-chair to keep an eye and check on Ballance and the other “rogue” members of the caucus. Also, the final day of the session started with an internal ethics complaint against Great Falls Representative Ed Buttrey. It is no coincidence since he was the driving force behind Medicaid Expansion and had to explain his time on the board of Benefis health to a kangaroo court arranged by Representative Derek Skees. Buttrey escaped the frivolous charge.
The Democrats had 42 seats in the 2019 session and a tall order to get nine people from the other side to form a majority and 16 more if they wanted to move anything out of committees. At the beginning of the session it seemed like a massive order but then something really weird happened. In February, Representative Julie Dooling, Helena, carried an increase to the state pay plan and it passed with what became the 64 or so “yes”votes that carried most of the bipartisan legislation throughout the doldrums of April.
Another state government bill that always had a historically difficult path in the legislature, improving and expanding the Montana Historical Society and other museums around the state, also created drama on floor in the session’s waning days. When brought up for a vote and passed with the same majority of members, the more hardline members of leadership stood up and demanded this breakaway Republican group pledge fealty to the Montana GOP platform against tax increases. Republican Majority Leader Brad Tschida, who obviously failed at his job when he needed to hold his majority together, scolded the group from the floor as the session closed on this very point. It was glorious to watch. The very splintering of the Montana GOP on live TV for several days over a museums bill.
This is not to say the Democrats do not have any similar internal squabbles and issues. Some of them played out on numerous different votes and left some members going back home feeling just as excluded as Ballance. But the minority caucus held together when it mattered and it worked with the moderates on the other side of aisle to craft legislation that was palatable and, sometimes, groundbreaking.
A lot of this fantastic legislation, carried with massive majorities off the house floor, went on to disappear in the state senate. This include two of my favorites: change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and a gun safety bill carried by a Democrat and an amazing group of future leaders from Helena’s public schools through a house kill committee then the floor but then withered away in Senate Judiciary. The senate became a graveyard for legislation and I heard rumors this was because leadership wanted to send a message to former senator and now Representative Jones that he (and the solutions caucus) did not get to control the narrative. Petty personal politics prevailed.
This especially played out in the waning week as senate leadership held up Medicaid Expansion as a hostage for legislation they wanted passed. Most notably this was a corporate bailout bill that would have sold Colstrip mining facilities to Montana energy monopoly Northwestern Energy. It could then pass on costs associated with maintaining the facilities and cleaning the toxic mining waste up to rate payers. After passing a initial vote on the floor, it then died the next day when legislators–democrats and some hardline republicans–broke against it.
Sponsors of this plan were so adamant about it that they continued to try to jam versions of the bill into amendments and other spending and general government bills throughout the closing days of the session. At one point the Montana Newspaper Association told a committee there was no clear guidance on what they were trying to do. It was a grim display of democracy and a clear showing of how indebted many of these politicians–including some Democrats from the Butte area–remain to the actual special interests of Montana. It harkened back to politics of the Copper Kings.
Legislators also determined not to renew for two more years the Montana Pre-K pilot program and a longer-term version of Pre-K looked like a Trojan horse for privatization of schools to the teachers union and other school associations–and me–so it could not overcome those hurdles. I am huge proponent for starting children on an earlier path to success but I and the same people opposing this bill know the costs associated with corporatizing and robotizing our school and teachers. That model is even less sustainable in the future.
The villain of the session was undoubtedly Representative Greg DeVries from Jefferson City and it should not have surprised anyone who watched his campaign. DeVries took to the floor earlier in the session to decry aborted Native babies as genocide and had to make a weak forced apology on the floor. He became much quieter for the rest of the session though he voted against nearly every single bill. It will be a pox on his district if he is re-elected. Honorable mention goes to Senate President Scott Sales, who tried to use dark arts to disguise last minute bill maneuvering and fell flat on his face. Good luck with that statewide run!
My superhero(ine) of the session is Representative Jade Bahr from Billings. The freshman legislator, younger than most of the rest of her caucus, stood up early on during a mundane highway naming bill and said she would not vote for any such bill until there was at least one named after a Native American. It was another breathtaking moment. She later delivered on her promise, giving an inspiring and beautiful floor speech about Minnie Spotted-Wolf, the first woman Marine. Bar’s future is bright and I am here for it. Honorable mentions goes to Tom Woods, who was on-point during the session on parliamentary procedure and led the way on the debate about the Colstrip bailout bills.
This GOP split will only worsen through 2019 and 2020. The Cascade County infighting may be in the rearview mirror and fixed with legislation passed this session but the Montana GOP has a long road ahead of it filled with potholes–fitting since they believe in a magical fairy dust that makes everything work but not in taxes.
I hope everyone in the middle and left (really everyone who is not alt-right) will realize and internalize the bravery of the moderate Republicans who have publicly broken with the more hardline members of their party. They are why things passed this legislative session and I have long admired their ability to do so. If Montana is a “Republican state” then we need to think about whether that GOP model is the DeVries of the world or the Nancy Ballances. While holding true to our moral compasses and polestars, we can work with the latter to advance this state into the next generation.