Montana’s Legislative Horror Show

It’s getting hard to read the news about Montana’s legislative session these days.

The serious business of crafting public policy for the good of all Montanans has been sidelined by measures intended to be punitive, divisive and completely out of line with Montana’s long standing “live and let live” reputation. If there’s any good news, it’s that the 90-day session will end this week — although it’s certainly not going out on a high note.

The eyes of the nation were once again focused on the hateful antics of the Republican supermajority that banned Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a freshman Missoula legislator who also happens to be transgender, from taking her place on the House floor and representing the 11,000 Montanans who sent her to the Legislature.

What did she do to deserve this harsh punishment to remove her from ongoing public policy debates? She actively opposed the punitive bills focused on the transgender community — something she knows a lot more about than most legislators.

And gosh, Montana’s snowflake Republicans were horrified and insulted because she told them, backed up by medical and psychiatric proof and experience, that transgender people were going to commit suicide because of what the Legislature was passing into law — and she said they’d have “blood on your hands.”

Mind you, this is the same political party that still supports the Jan. 6 insurrection to overthrow Congress and stop a legitimate president from taking office. The same party whose ex-president promised “death and destruction” if he were arrested and charged with national security violations or business and electoral fraud. The same party that thought it was OK for him to tell the goons at his rallies to “rough up” protesters.

In the meantime, the same supermajority that controls the Legislature couldn’t even meet its own deadlines for introduction of bills, public notice of hearings, or even transmittal of bills between the House and Senate. Some might call it rank incompetence, and they wouldn’t be wrong.

Likewise, the numerous concerns that have been raised about unconstitutional bills are simply blown off because the Legislature has the power to pass those bills and the governor has the power to sign them into law — and they will remain law until someone takes them to court and has them overturned when they’re found to be unconstitutional.

Clearly, the provisions of Montana’s Constitution are meaningless to these arrogant and headstrong Republican majorities. There’s no better example of violating all Montanans’ constitutional rights than the decision to close the galleries to the public last week — and perhaps this week, too.

Montana’s Constitution is very clear under the Right to Know provisions in the Declaration of Rights that: “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

Yet the Republican leadership decided if the public wanted to exercise its constitutional right to “observe” the proceedings of the Legislature, it could do so by watching television coverage through a single lens — kind of like looking myopically through a toilet paper tube.

There’s no camaraderie or honor whatsoever at the end of this legislative session — just taillights heading out of Helena back to the places where most Montanans still follow the “live and let live” and respect for individual privacy traditions for which our state has long been known.

Perhaps, when they leave their vicious pack mentality, they’ll remember those traditions — and reflect back on how they betrayed them, the Constitution and Montanans for 90 long days.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.