On this episode of "Capitol Talk": The Legislature debates a bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's anti-discrimination law; should teachers carry guns in schools; proposed university cuts and how they could raise tuition; the delay in Zinke's confirmation hearing; and a new poll shows Rob Quist and Amanda Curtis are the front-runners on the Democratic side to replace Zinke in Congress.
Sally Mauk: Welcome to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative news program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. And Chuck, welcome back first of all.
Chuck Johnson: Thank you Sally it's great to be back.
SM: Great to have you back. Chuck, the House Judiciary Committee heard passionate testimony this week for and against a bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's anti-discrimination law. And this is not the first effort to expand that law.
CJ: No, this has been tried at least, I think, at least over the last 15 years or so, and it always gets a debate on the floor of the House, but it usually doesn't proceed and further, at least it hasn't since those years.
SM: Well opponents argue that this bill would infringe on religious freedom, and/or isn't needed. Here's Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation:
"The bill's premise is that people are targeted because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity and therefore are in need of special protection. Fortunately that premise is false."
SM: But Chuck, the committee heard testimony of those who have been targeted, including a veteran denied housing because she's a lesbian.
CJ: Yes and it was a relative of the bill's sponsor Kelly McCarthy who had served in the military and couldn't find housing because she was a lesbian, so there was evidence to the contrary to what Jeff Laszloffy said.
SM: The bill exempts religious organizations, but some opponents still say if homosexuality goes against their religious belief they shouldn't be forced to, for example, have to rent to a gay person. But the bill's sponsor, as you say Billings, Democrat Kelly McCarthy, he's not buying that argument:
"I don't' know that discrimination is a privileged that is worth defending."
SM: He also argues, Chuck, that excluding sexual orientation and gender identity from the anti-discrimination statute keeps some businesses from moving to Montana; that there's an economic argument to be made.
CJ: He did make that case and of course people are looking at what happened in North Carolina in that some businesses have moved away, some conventions have dropped their plans to have convention ins North Carolina. I believe the NCAA is not going to have tournaments and playoff games in North Carolina, so it can definitely have an impact.
SM: Well we'll keep following that bill. Rob, this session is also considering several bills to expand gun rights, including a bill innocuously titled "The Montana School Safety Act". This would allow teachers and other school officials to carry a conceal weapon on school grounds.
Rob Saldin: Exactly. The argument put forward here by supporters of this measure is that it's a way to — as the bill's name would imply — keep schools safe. And they point to things like the Virginia Tech massacre and the Sandy Hook incident and various others and say if only teachers had been armed they would've been in a position to take out these killers and prevent these horrible tragedies. You know, obviously on the other side, people look as this and say this is absolute madness. It's far more likely that if you have guns in a school like that that they would be used in ways that created new tragedies, not in a way that prevents crazed killers from carrying out their plans.
SM: Well as you say, many teachers are alarmed at this prospect, including John Moffat who was a teacher in Lewistown when he was shot and seriously wounded by a student.
"There is nothing I could've done even had I been armed at the at time. And I can only imagine that the outcome would've been worsened by the reaction of anybody trying to intervene not knowing for sure exactly what had happened, not understanding who the shooter was, or any of those details and being surrounded by screaming, yelling kids, staff members; it would've added to what was already a disastrous situation."
SM: And I think Rob, a lot school officials agree with Mr Moffat that this bill would increase, not mitigate, dangerous situations.
RS: Exactly, yeah. These kinds of bills — and it's not something we just see in Montana of course — these efforts are taking form across the country and almost always they are opposed by people who actually work in schools.
SM: And likely this would be opposed by the governor if it ever reached his desk.
RS: Oh, I would certainly think so.
SM: Chuck, and appropriations subcommittee this week approved a cut to that the state's universities say would leave them over $20 million short in their budgets, and would force them to substantially raise tuition.
CJ: That's right Sally. The officials from the state University System said that this budget-hole if it doesn't get filled later on in the session would lead to tuition increases of about 22 percent the first year of the biennium and about 8 percent the second year of the biennium. If they chose that route they could also cut programs or do a combination, but those are pretty steep cuts. The 21.6 percent tuition hike the first year would amount to about $1,000 per student if they were applied equally across all the campuses, which is pretty considerable for a college tuition increase it seems to me.
SM: We should point out that this is not the last word on these budgets, that this is really the first step of a very long process.
CJ: Correct, this was the very first step. It was the first subcommittee that went over all the education budgets and it will next go to the full House Appropriations Committee in a couple weeks, and I think even the sponsors of these motions to make the cuts were hopeful there might be more money that shows up later on in the session, either through revenue estimates that are considerably higher than the current ones, or other bills that might pass. There are a series of tax bills that are proposed by governor Bullock that are before the legislature; there are funding switch bills, there are things like that that could fill some of these holes if the pass, but I think that at this point they're probably a long shot to pass at present.
SM: University officials are probably counting on some sort of tuition increase regardless, it'll just be what will be the size of that.
CJ: I Think that's true Sally. Remember the university system and Governor Bullock and the Board of Regents and the Legislature worked out a deal the past two legislative sessions for tuition freezes at the state colleges and universities, and to do that the governor and the legislators agreed to appropriate sums of money to make up the difference that they would get an increase in tuition, and so that was not possible this time because the budget hole the state's in, but these would be significant increases.
SM: Rob every week we've been saying Congressman Ryan Zinke is going to be confirmed as secretary of the Interior, but it still hasn't happened. Do we know why?
RS: I think we do. The roots of this are back in 2013 when there was a change to the Senate rules pushed through by Harry Reid who was the Democratic majority leader at the time. It eliminated filibusters for cabinet nominees. And at the time, Reid's thinking was that well, we have to push this through to prevent Republicans from filibustering Obama's nominees. Now it's kinda come back to bite them with Republicans in control of the White House and the Senate, so Democrats are left — instead of being able to kill the most objectionable of Trump's nominees through the filibuster — they basically have to rely on trying to drag things out through procedural mechanisms, and most notably they're allowed to force 30 hours of debate for each nominee, and that's slowed down the process considerably, and with the Senate on recess next week we're looking at the very end of February, or more likely the first few days of March before Zinke's nomination comes to a vote. But bottom line here, this just represents a delay, his eventual confirmation is not in any doubt.
SM: Well meanwhile, Congressman Zinke hasn't taken any votes in Congress since January 5, and some people, Democrats especially are criticizing that.
RS: They sure are. Again I think this is something that back then, when he first got nominated the hearing came around in a reasonable amount of time. I think there was an expectation that he would glide through the process and by now would have certainly taken his post at Interior. That hasn't happened, and it has raised the question what exactly is he doing. He's still collecting a paycheck for being a member of Congress, why isn't' he casting votes?
SM: It also moves up what will be a special election held in Montana to replace Congressman Zinke. And if he'd been confirmed a few weeks ago, that election might have been held this spring. Because it has to be within 85 - 100 days after his confirmation that that is called.
RS: Yeah, exactly. It has delayed the special election. I think that actually works to the benefit of whoever gets the Democratic nomination. That's because it just allows more time for the Trump presidency to turn into a train wreck. It's already been a rough start for him. As of the end of this week he has a 40 percent approval rating in Gallup's tracking poll. That's the worst ever at this early stage of a presidency by 11 percentage points, and it's 21 points lower the average at this stage. So looking forward, you also think, is that the kind of thing that can turn around? Maybe. But there's ample reason to think that it's probably going to get worse, not better. And if that happens, there very well could be a backlash that works to the benefit of whoever gets that Democratic nomination.
SM: Of course Mr. Trump says it's all a fine tuned machine.
Chuck, Democrats and Republicans plan to meet shortly after Zinke's confirmation to pick who they want to replace him. Your paper, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle did a poll showing that two people, musician Rob Quist, and legislator Amanda Curtis are the front-runners on the Democratic side.
CJ: That's correct. Troy Carter, my colleague got a copy of the email list of the people that will vote in this election, and the poll found that Rob Quist had a slight lead over Rep. Curtis of Butte, with Kelly McCarthy another representative from Billings far behind. In fairness, the poll went out before some of the latest candidates got in the race, so it's not conclusive by any means except that it show probably the two best known candidates are the two leader, no surprise there. Quist has the advantage of not having to be in the legislature, so he can go travel the state. Amanda Curtis of course is well known for putting out video blogs on her thoughts on the Legislature, and I think she's doing that now, and as I understand it she's out traveling on the weekends, so those are probably the two leading candidates.
On the Republican side, stories have indicated that Greg Gianforte who lost the governors race to Steve Bullock in November has the support locked up of a number of the delegates, so he's probably be the favorite there, although the Chronicle has not yet done a survey of the Republicans on their candidates.
SM: Does it surprise you Rob, that Rob Quist is leading Amanda Curtis in that poll by a few delegates given that she's a well known Democrat and has political experience, and he has none?
RS: It did surprise me initially, and I think the conventional wisdom in the media and whatnot has been that she was the favorite. But you talk to Democrats and especially inner-circle Democrats and I think this result was much less of a surprise. And from what I hear that has more to do with uneasiness about Curtis than necessarily a whole bunch of enthusiasm for Quist. Back in 2014 Curtis ran for the Senate against Steve Daines, jumping in as a late replacement after Senator John Walsh dropped out. And I think by any reasonable standard she ran a very credible campaign under very challenging circumstances, but there is a lingering resistance among some Democrats to putting her up again. Part of that seems to be grounded in political calculation, that maybe she's to liberal to win. And given the new political environment — the Trump presidency, the nationwide resistance to it — Montana Democrats feel like they may actually have a chance at winning this one, so electability is key. But another part of it seems to stem from Curtis having rubbed some Democrats the wrong way back during that 2014 run. Now to be sure, I think Curtis still has a strong and passionate cohort of supporters, and she could totally still get the nomination. But the fact that a musician with basically no political experience has gained this kind of traction, that's not a great sign for her, and I think it's a little bit of a different situation than a lot of us expected.
SM: It's hard to imagine we're going to have another campaign season so soon, but we'll be ready.
You've been listening to Capitol Talk our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin. Have a great weekend.
"Capitol Talk" is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk is joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.
Tune in to "Capitol Talk" online, or on your radio at 6:35 p.m every Friday during the session, and again on Sunday at 11:00 a.m.