Notes of a freshman legislator

I’m into the daily routine now:  caucus, committee hearing, floor session, committee hearing, walk, dinner, bed.  Repeat.  That’s it, for the next 75 legislative days.  Each portion of the day is filled with bills, some that require a lot of thought to understand and many that will have real impact on peoples lives.  I’m tired at day’s end.

But this week, I made an important adjustment.  Because of the pandemic, legislators can work remotely and, for the first three weeks of the session, I was either working out of my Helena apartment or from my Missoula home.  However, on the third weekend, I decided I wanted to be on the House floor for the abortion and transgender debates on Monday afternoon, so I drove back to Helena.   The debates were tough, very tough, but sometimes one just needs to bear witness.  Once I was in Helena, and since I felt almost safe on the House floor in my mask and my shield, I stayed for Tuesday’s session and Wednesday’s, and Thursday’s, and finally Friday’s too.

My week on the floor underscored what I already knew.  It’s virtually impossible to be an effective legislator without some opportunity for casual conversation; for saying hello to allies and opponents alike; and for the opportunity to have an extended, mostly private discussion with another legislator about a bill or a strategy.  Even spending a couple of hours a day in the capitol made an enormous difference in my understanding of bills, the formal procedures to adopt or defeat them, and most importantly, how to affect legislation.  All three components work together, and I expect the learning curve to continue with each legislative day.

In a week filled with important bills, including four bills that will rob women of their constitutional right of privacy and reproductive choice, two bills stand out.  First, HB 113 would bars doctors from using their professional judgment in treating and counseling transgender patients.  Along with its evil twin, HB 112, which requires transgender athletes to compete under the sex assigned them at birth, this bill passed the House on second reading. But it was a close vote, 53-47.  During the next 24 hours, with citizens working the phones and legislators quietly talking to one another, four Republicans switched their votes from green to red, from aye to nay. HB 113 went down on the third and final reading, 49-51.  There will be many bills this session where Democratic legislators will be no more than witnesses to a conservative, almost radical majority imposing their priorities on Montana.  There will be a few bills, however, where our votes will really be critical, and HB 113 is one of those. 

The other bill of note for me was HB 129, titled “A General Revision of the Family Education Savings Act.” While this bill came in under the cloak of harmonizing Montana’s laws with the federal tax laws governing education savings accounts, its real aim was to give an enormous tax break to the wealthiest Montanans who choose to send their children to private schools. Under the bill, each married couple would be able to reduce their taxable income by up $6,000 for contributions to their children’s education savings account. 

Let me be clear, I have many friends who have chosen to send their children to private schools rather than enrolling them in our public schools.  Many of these friends have worked hard to grow these schools or have made hard financial decisions to pay for their decision.  I admire all of these parents for their commitment to their children’s education and don’t second-guess them for an instant.  I don’t, however, think I should have to underwrite their choices through state tax policy. 

As a legislator, I think I have several core obligations, including being frugal with tax money and strengthening Montana’s public education system.  I certainly don’t want to get in the way of the private education system or put obstacles in front of parents who want that for their children. But subsidizing their tuition expenses is not among my priorities. I would feel better about this legislation if it at least provided a measure of financial justification.  There are families of modest means who do sacrifice to enroll their kids in private or religious schools, but the majority of families who prefer private schools are affluent and should not be rewarded with a big tax break. 

Finally, this legislation not only provides a tax break to some of the richest families, it is a reward that most people living in rural Montana can’t use.  For the most part, private and religious schools are found only in our larger cities with enough families and wealth to support them.  For a ranch family living in eastern Montana, schooling is about long bus rides and schools struggling to stay open, never mind getting a tax credit for sending children to schools hundreds of miles away.

While these arguments seem strong to me, and while the decision to vote no on HB 129 was clear and compelling, my colleagues in the legislature felt otherwise.  HB 129 rolled through the House, 57-43.