Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — On Thursday, a group of staunchly conservative state lawmakers gathered at the Montana State Capitol for the official launch of the newly formed Montana Freedom Caucus.

At the start of the Montana legislative session, 14 Republican lawmakers signed their names to a letter, announcing the creation of the caucus. Members say they’re constitutional conservatives who are willing to “hold the line” and stand up to public pressure on their key issues.

“We are the watchmen on the wall,” said Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, who chairs the group. “More than that, we are the firewall for freedom.”

Also in attendance Thursday was U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, a member of the federal House Freedom Caucus, which this caucus is modeled after.

Asked what sets Freedom Caucus members apart from other Republicans, Manzella said it’s their commitment to constitutional principles.

“We’re not people who are going to be bought; we’re not going to trade votes and make deals and those types of things,” she said.

The caucus identified five priorities: returning more of the state budget surplus to taxpayers, election integrity, judicial reform, parental rights and opposition to foreign land ownership.

Manzella said the caucus has other members, but they aren’t publicly releasing their names. She said other lawmakers interested in joining will go through a vetting process and have their voting records examined before they can become full members.

Rosendale said administrators who had worked with the federal Freedom Caucus came up with the idea of a network of state-level Freedom Caucuses, and he suggested Manzella to start one in Montana. He said the organizations will be able to share resources and ideas across states.

“I’m very, very proud that they were able to get this group organized,” he said. “I just think that having that unified voice and getting that information out to the public is going to be very effective for the Freedom Caucus and very beneficial for the state.”

The federal Freedom Caucus has become well known for pushing back against Republican leadership. Most recently, Rosendale joined other caucus members in holding out their votes during the selection of a House speaker, in order to win concessions on what he calls a more open set of congressional rules.

“We needed to make rule changes – not to have extreme, abnormal conditions on the House floor, but to actually restore them, so that each member had an equal voice to represent their constituents and their district on a more level playing field,” said Rosendale.

He said the caucus has shown how effective a small but committed group can be.

Manzella said Montana Freedom Caucus members take inspiration from actions like Rosendale’s.

“Our oath of office is to support and uphold the Constitution of the United States and the state of Montana, so that's our that's our number-one priority,” she said. “And if that means that we have to buck leadership or the governor or another caucus, that's what you can expect of us.”

The identified Montana Freedom Caucus members are, in addition to Manzella:

  • Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls
  • Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby
  • Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade
  • Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade
  • Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork
  • Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay
  • Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle
  • Sen. Bob Brown, R-Trout Creek
  • Sen. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown
  • Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila
  • Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux
  • Sen. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork
  • Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County

Montana is now one of 12 states where a state-level Freedom Caucus has been set up.