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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Mar 06 2017

Are Legislators Listening to Montanans?

Half-way through the legislative session, it appears they mostly are not

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On Wednesday last week, the Montana State Legislature hit the halfway point and, simultaneously, the transmittal deadline: the point at which every non-appropriations bill must clear the chamber in which it was introduced. So, all bills introduced in the House must have passed the House, and all bills introduced in the Senate must have passed the Senate. Any bill that has not passed its chamber of origin is now dead.

The week before transmittal saw a flurry of activity as legislators hurried to pass any remaining bills ahead of the deadline. It was an especially busy week for public lands bills. All four of the bills MWA was watching, three we supported and one we opposed, were introduced in that week. Two of those bills survived and two did not.

The two bills that did not survive were twin resolutions supported by MWA, one in the House and one in the Senate, stating that the Legislature would oppose any attempts to transfer or sell public land. SJ17, introduced by Senator Diane Sands, and HJ11, introduced by Rep Virginia Court, both failed to make it out of committee. Senator Sands and Representative Court attempted motions the next day to blast these bills out of committee and onto the floor, but both attempts failed. (You can see the vote counts for HJ11 here and for SJ17 here. A “Y” is a vote to move the resolutions opposing transfer onto the floor for further consideration. A “N” is a vote to leave them tabled in committee).

While the results were not exactly surprising, they were outrageous. Again and again, Montanans have voiced an overwhelming opposition to transfer. Just this year, more than 5,000 people signed our petition at mtgreatoutdoors.org rejecting transfer and more than 1,000 rallied against lands transfer at the capitol. Dozens more made personal phone calls to their legislators or presented eloquent testimony on behalf of these resolutions, including particularly compelling words by Heidi Buzzetti from MWA’s MSU Wilderness Association.

These results make it clear that a majority of our legislators are not yet listening to Montanans on the issue of transfer, so we must continue to look for opportunities to hold them accountable for these votes and to persuade them to vote differently in the future. 

Looking ahead to the rest of the session, two bills on MWA’s watchlist have survived and moved on to the Senate. One represents a tremendous opportunity, the other a major threat. That opportunity involves Rep. Court’s bill (HB491) to create a state Public Lands Day to celebrate our public lands heritage. The bill does not mandate time off work but simply creates an opportunity every March 1 for all Montanans to honor our public lands and the ways that they enrich our lives and make Montana such a wonderful place to live. We don’t yet have a committee or hearing date for this bill but will update you when we do so that you have a chance to voice your support for our public lands and this effort to celebrate them.

The one major threat is HJ9, Rep. Kerry White’s resolution to release all Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). It narrowly passed the House last week and has moved to the Senate. This resolution attempts an end run around years of local collaboration from diverse voices to resolve these WSAs and instead force the outcome preferred by Rep. White and his organization – a total release of all WSAs from wilderness protections. Thousands of people spoke out against the resolution, by email, phone, and at the hearing. 
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These results make it clear that a majority of our legislators are not yet listening to Montanans on the issue of transfer, so we must continue to look for opportunities to hold them accountable for these votes and to persuade them to vote differently in the future.

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The bill picked up bipartisan opposition in the House – you can see the vote totals here. We will be working to ensure that it does not pass the Senate. The bill has not yet been assigned a committee or hearing date, but we will keep you updated as it moves through the process. For now, please contact your legislator directly to let them know that this resolution undermines local collaborative solutions and makes it more difficult to reach broadly supported solutions for these special landscapes. If the Legislature wants to resolve these WSAs, its energy could be more usefully spent supporting these local collaborative processes rather than through a one-size-fits-all edict out of Helena or Washington, D.C.

One last note on HJ9: At the committee hearing, testimony was limited to 30 minutes per side, despite the fact that there were more than 70 people attending in opposition and fewer than 10 in support. As time ran out, our intern, Andie Creel, was cut off mid-sentence as she attempted to deliver her thoughtful, heartfelt testimony. They were able to silence Andie’s voice in committee, but we believe her testimony deserve to be shared.

We invite you to read and share her beautiful words about the lands that she loves and to join her in raising your voice in defense of our public lands and wild places.

- Kayje Booker, MWA state policy director