By Mary Ann Dunwell, Helena
In the waning hours of Montana’s 66thLegislative Session, good public policy squeaked through, including Medicaid expansion and an infrastructure bill. But, public works can’t fix the deferred maintenance of the outdated way these bills made it through. That takes political will.
Montana’s current legislative system dates back to statehood. Yet, we face 21stCentury demands. As we stuff more into each session without evaluating how it’s working or making important updates, public transparency clouds, democracy fades and Montanans lose.
I was co-chair for Minority Democrats of the House Legislative Administration Committee, where Majority Republicans killed bills to consider updates like session timeframes, length and frequency, number of bills, and objective, plain-language bill descriptions.
Far right committee chairs clogged meetings with back-to-back controversial hearings, instead of spacing them out. Large numbers of folks waited to speak, to no avail. Each side was limited to 20 minutes. People who traveled treacherous roads during this winter’s deep freeze were denied time to testify. Extreme conservatives at the helm sent progressive bills to kill committees or never scheduled hearings. This is not trains running on time. It’s bad governance.
Some Democratic women legislators were shut down, allowed fewer questions than Republican men or told to keep it brief. No matter what political ideology is in power, all legislators represent the same number of constituents and have the right to speak and understand. We need to level this uneven floor, so future generations of women and minority legislators are spared this double standard.
Thank goodness for journalists who hold legislators accountable. Sadly, the 66thLegislature frayed the fabric of the Fourth Estate. The far-right leadership refused to revoke the official press pass of a non-journalist blogger with ties to hate groups.
When session convened, our state was still reeling from severe budget cuts, after Republican legislators in 2017 inflated the official revenue estimate to avoid generating public money for essential human services. I sit on House Taxation and witnessed them do it again. They refused to listen to expert economists with Legislative Fiscal Division – their own staff – or the Governor’s Budget Office. And this far right leadership never moved the revenue estimate to the floor or Senate.
The Majority shaped a budget that ‘robbed Peter to pay Paul’, even though Peter’s broke. The far right couldn’t scrounge up enough public money to prevent youth suicide, yet voted through plenty of tax giveaways to out-of-state corporations. We faced a Hobson’s choice for public preschool, and had to decide between pennies for people with disabilities who depend on home help to eat and dress for work, or crumbs for seniors struggling to stay in assisted living. Bad policy got stuffed into good bills. Some argue it’s just the way it’s done. I don’t buy that and encourage you to weigh in during the interim, go to committees, get on update lists at leg.mt.gov, contact legislators and demand that we make positive change for future legislators and Montanans.
Mary Ann Dunwell is serving her third term as a Democratic state legislator for Montana House District 84, Helena/East Helena.