By Anne Hedges
A question: What do you get when you combine a disdain for science, a bully mentality, and a hostility toward anyone outside of your inner circle?
Answer: The 2023 Legislature.
We knew it was going to be bad. While it could have been worse, it was still terrible. Did the majority party knock on doors during the election and ask their constituents if they wanted more sprawl, increased pollution, dead fish floating on the surface of streams, foul air, increased forest fires, more intense droughts, and less public oversight of government activities? Even if that is not what legislators heard when they knocked on doors during the election, it’s what Montanans are going to get from the legislative “Pigpen” that occupied the Capitol for far too long this winter.
There were glimmers of sanity throughout the session that were easily overlooked due to the chaos and venom that was swirling through the halls of the Capitol. For instance, Sen. Janet Ellis, (D-Helena) was able to overwhelmingly pass a bill to establish timelines for public information requests of state agencies (see article). The public cannot hold government accountable if it cannot see what the government is doing. Montanans’ Constitutional rights to know and participate are foundational to our democracy, and this new law will help implement those rights. HB 188 by Rep. Gary Perry (R-Colstrip) was amended after MEIC requested it be changed to permanently fund coal communities with coal tax trust fund dollars to help those communities deal with the decline of coal mining and transition to new economies.
Many bad bills failed, too. No Constitutional amendments garnered enough support to be put on the ballot. NorthWestern Energy’s power grab to gain control of the electric transmission system went down in flames. Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls) once again failed in his attempt to expand takings law and force the government to pay whenever it protects public health, the environment, or communities. Net metering is still intact despite NorthWestern’s repeated attacks. A proposal to expand the exempt well law was defeated. Proposals failed that would have made environmental nonprofit groups disclose their membership and lose their nonprofit status if they challenge agency decisions in court. Punitive proposals to tax wind energy development never made it out of committee, and bills to make it harder for local governments to adopt and rely on growth policies were deep-sixed. And many bills were amended to decrease or eliminate their impact on the environment.
The articles in this issue largely describe the losses that were suffered and the challenges environmental protection faces going forward. The Legislature’s denial of the climate crisis is perhaps the most troubling and will require the greatest efforts to overcome. The late Bob Campbell, visionary author of Montanans’ Constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, would roll over in his grave if he learned that the Legislature arbitrarily declared that a healthy environment doesn’t include a healthy climate. MEIC and all of our partners, supporters and members, will make sure that Bob can rest in peace knowing that Montanans’ Constitutional rights include the right to a safe, healthy, and livable climate.
This article was published in the June 2023 issue of Down To Earth.