Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) – With 10 days left of Montana’s 90-day legislative session, eyes turned Monday to House Bill 2, the state’s main budget bill. The Senate got its turn with HB 2 Monday, amending the bill eight times before advancing it on a 28-to-22 vote. 

But, in the House, the public gallery erupted in protest over Republican Speaker of the House Matt Regier’s decision to not allow Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, to speak on a bill for a third time.

On Tuesday, leadership canceled the House Floor session and the Capitol was, at least partially, at a standstill, leaving the immediate fate of the final bills of the session up in the air, including HB 2. 

Protesters supporting Zephyr, Montana’s first transgender woman to serve in the Legislature, shouted ‘‘let her speak.” Regier called for the gallery to be cleared and law enforcement officers with batons pushed people out and arrested at least seven people. 

Regier and other Republican lawmakers have said Zephyr broke decorum when she said that lawmakers should see “the blood on their hands” if they vote for a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth, referencing the high rates of suicide for transgender youth. Lawmakers in the Freedom Caucus almost immediately called for her censure until she apologized for her statements. She has not apologized. 

Regier addressed the protest and his decision about Zephyr during a press conference Tuesday, but did not take questions or address the House’s upcoming schedule. 

“Currently all representatives are free to participate in House debates while following the House rules. The choice to not follow House rules is one that representative Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr. The Montana House will not be bullied. All 100 Representatives will continue to be treated the same,” Regier said.  

On Monday, while she spoke to those arrested and watched them get taken to jail, Zephyr said she was proud of her community for fighting to be heard. 

“To see my constituents come up and say, ‘let her speak, let our voices be heard.’ What I feel is pride in my community standing up for Democracy,” Zephyr said.

The last day of the legislative session is scheduled for Friday, May 5. Lawmakers will have to finish their work, and pass a budget to the governor’s desk by then. Passing a balanced budget is the Legislature’s only constitutional mandate.

House Bill 2 outlines how the state will pay for everything: education, infrastructure, social programs and more. The bill is almost 70 pages long and allocates billions of dollars to programs in the state for the next two years

Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, carried the bill in the Senate Monday morning. 

“After several tweaks and lots of deliberation in lots of little rooms all over this Capitol, over the past four months, our final legislative budget is a good conservative budget that we can all be proud of. From East to West, from urban and rural, it's a budget that will allow the executive branch to efficiently and effectively operate our state government in the next two years,” Esp said. 

The budget already passed the House on a vote of 67-31 in March. The bill has one final vote in the Senate before it’s sent back to the House. That final vote has yet to be scheduled.