Notes of a freshman legislator

At the half way point of the Montana Legislature, and 60 days into Greg Gianforte’s four year term as governor, it is a painfully clear that beyond more conservative policies being implemented and radically conservative legislation well on its way through the Montana House and Senate, the Republicans in leadership are intent on locking in partisan advantage throughout Montana’s government.  While policies can change when a new governor is elected, and legislation can be amended, the institutional changes proposed for state government will impact Montana for decades.

First and foremost, the Gianforte and his Republican party have signaled their determination to politicize Montana’s independent judges and to remake the courts as partisan bodies that will only offer justice through a Republican lens.

 Already passed by the Legislature is a bill that eliminates the non-partisan Montana Judicial Nominations Commission that for 50 years has screened applicants seeking to serve as judges and justices.  Under the new law, the only screen is the Governor and whatever political pressure he or she feels when selecting new members to Montana’s bench.

Another bill will force Supreme Court Justices to run in seven separate districts, the purpose of which is not to select the best individuals to serve on the Court but to ensure that conservative, rural Montana has an outsized voice in picking justices who will make decisions impacting the entire state. 

Finally, the Republicans have proposed bills to make every justice of the peace, district court judge and supreme court justice run in partisan elections as either Republicans or Democrats. While these bills have been narrowly defeated, they are clearly part of the larger Republican agenda to radically transform our independent, non-partisan judiciary that has served Montana well ever since statehood in 1889

If remaking the judicial branch is one clear objective of the Republicans, a bill that passed the House at transmittal will empower Gianforte  to capture every branch of state government by reclassifying 10 percent of the positions within every agency and department as political, subject to appointment by the Governor or his hand-picked agency directors.

Under Montana’s Constitution, the Governor is empowered to appoint the directors of Montana’s administrative agencies.  But under these directors, Montana’s agencies rely on professional non-partisan staffs to execute the laws and programs enacted by the Legislature.  And in plain fact, there is no such thing as a Democratic state highway or a Republican primary school – most state functions are non-partisan and should be driven by the goal of good governance not partisan advantage.

Under HB 588 however, with its mandate to reclassify 10 percent of the positions at every agency as a political appointment, virtually every leadership position in every agency would be become partisan.  In the Department of Transportation, for example, which has about 2000 employees, 200 positions would be reclassified, meaning that every division director, bureau chief and regional administrator and their deputies would be subject to cronyism and political manipulation.  This is a recipe for marginalizing state government’s best and most professional employees and politicizing every government function and program.    

As a legislator, I hear from voters all the time about how they want less polarization and more cooperation.  Instead, the Gianforte administration and the Republican dominated legislature are determined to insinuate politics into every corner or state government and fundamentally alter institutions that have served Montana well literally for decades.  I urge Montanans to oppose these dramatics and radical proposals to change our government and how our people work together.