Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) When Bozeman Rep. Ed Stafman addressed members of a House committee this month, he expressed concern that the Legislature had incrementally taken power away from Montana cities and their citizens and given it instead to lawmakers from the far-from corners of the state.

While Missoula and Bozeman are perfectly suited to let voters consider local measures, including the regulation of single-use plastics, a bill passed by the Legislature in 2021 gives more power to lawmakers from the likes of Circle and Malta – both located hundreds of miles away – than it does to municipal voters grappling with local issues.

“Instead of giving power to the people at the lowest level, where they're closest to their elected officials, this body has taken that power away and decided it knows what's best for Bozeman, Glendive and everywhere else,” Stafman said. “Here we are in Helena telling our local governments what to do on an issue they have the perfect ability to take the temperature on of local citizens.”

That "issue" in this case is the regulation of single-use plastics, or the lack of it. Stafman had introduced House Bill 413, which would have repealed House Bill 407, a so-called “ban on bans” adopted by the Republican dominated Legislature in 2021.

Those who backed Stafman's bill said it wasn't surprising that an effort to restore power to the local level was tabled in committee on a party-line 11-5 vote. With Republicans currently holding a supermajority in the Legislature, Democrats have had little success in getting their own measures through the political meat grinder.

"I am disappointed, but frankly not surprised by the committee's action to table the bill to end the ban on banning plastics,” Missoula City Council president Gwen Jones told the Missoula Current.

“The majority in our current Legislature do not seem to be concerned with trying to moderate their positions or reach a middle ground. Instead, adherence to extreme, uncompromising positions in which state government dictates local action (or inaction) is our current culture. In my opinion, a Legislature dominated by idealogues is dysfunctional.”

The Legislature's hypocritical stance on local control

The Missoula and Bozeman city councils have both passed resolutions asking the Legislature to restore local control in order to address growing concerns over single-use plastics.

Pollution created by thousands of plastic bags that escaped the Missoula landfill during high winds last winter provoked a call for stronger efforts to reduce the use of plastics. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Pollution created by thousands of plastic bags that escaped the Missoula landfill during high winds last winter provoked a call for stronger efforts to reduce the use of plastics. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The two cities are among Montana's fastest growing, and their issues are far different than those facing more rural communities in the state's eastern reaches.

But members of the Legislature have stated their intent to ensure Montana has uniform policies and regulations, regardless of a city or town's demographics. That one-size-fits-all philosophy won't work for long, some believe.

“The Montana GOP does not support local control in Montana,” said Sen. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula. “They claim to support small government and local decision making, but if you consider their positions on local health boards, tax policies and now trash management, they want Helena to make all the decisions.”

Members of the Legislature have in recent years complained of overreach from Washington, D.C, and congressional meddling into state affairs. States, they have long contended, are better able to manage local issues than politicians based in the nation's Capital.

But a growing number of cities in Montana see hypocrisy in that position, especially as the Legislature centers power in Helena and quashes the right of cities to self-govern.

As Stafman noted in the hearing, “We (the Legislature) don't like the federal government coming and telling the state's what to do. Not only is it true at the federal level versus the state, it should be equally true at the state level versus the cities.”

Those who heard Stafman's bill and voted to table it said they didn't disagree that Montana should work to reduce waste. But they also said that it should be done at the state level so businesses don't have to deal with a patchwork of regulations.

Yet others contend that such statements are ridiculous when comparing the issues in a city of 100,000 residents versus a town with 2,000 residents. What's more, Marler will introduce a bill soon that would phase out the use of Styrofoam statewide.

At that point, it will become clear whether the Legislature truly believes in statewide reforms or is simply poking its finger in the eye of larger and often more liberal cities like Missoula and Bozeman.

Plastic already has inundated many Montana waterways, a recent study found.
Plastic already has inundated many Montana waterways, a recent study found.

“In a few days, I am introducing for the 3rd time a bill to phase out Styrofoam from the restaurant industry, statewide, over the next 6 years,” Marler said. “I expect Republicans to kill the bill again, which shows that they are not serious about reducing waste and protecting our beautiful state and outdoor economies.”

Ignoring the plastic problem

At the heart of the request, Missoula and Bozeman want back the authority to regulate single-use plastics, including plastic bags, straws, stirrers and polystyrene containers. Other states have already done so but Montana has not, leaving many residents frustrated as the "plastic impact" mounts.

On the environmental front, a Montana study found that microplastics now infest roughly 90% of Montana waterways. Conducted by Environment Montana and a team of University of Montana interns, the study tested 50 waters across the state and all but a few turned up positive for plastic fibers, filaments and film.

By 2050, scientists estimate that plastic will outweigh all the fish in the ocean, posing great risk to the planetary food chain. Plastic fibers also have turned up inland. A recent study found plastics in rain samples in the upper elevations of the Rocky Mountains and French Pyrenees.

“Climate change is real, our landfills are filling up, and allowing local governments to address these issues is just common sense,” said Jones. “Forbidding them to address them is overbearing, and also seems to be based on denial of scientific facts. It's hard to believe this how Montana is functioning in 2023. I hope we do better in the future."