(Daily Montanan) Montana could lose an estimated $350 million in federal funding — money that goes largely to student loans and Pell grants — if a bill that aims to regulate transgender athletes becomes law, according to the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
Ali Bovingdon, chief legal counsel for the Commissioner’s Office, said Thursday the university system plans to oppose that bill in the Senate. Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, sponsored House Bill 112, which would require transgender female athletes to participate on a men’s team instead of a women’s team.
In a legislative update to the Montana Board of Regents, Bovingdon listed numerous concerns with the bill. She said it violates the NCAA’s policy on inclusion and gender equity, and if it were to pass, it could jeopardize Montana’s ability to host championship events.
She said that would be an obvious loss to athletic programs, but it also would mean an economic hit to communities hosting those games. Citing conversations with chambers of commerce, Commissioner Clayton Christian estimated one weekend of football is worth anywhere from $5 million to $10 million for a community.
Bovingdon also said the bill would likely violate an executive order from the administration of President Joe Biden on Title IX. If it does, she said the state risks losing that $350 million.
The bill was passed in the Montana House and is currently in the Senate. The measure is similar to one that passed in Idaho, where a judge temporarily stopped implementation as a court challenge progresses.
Bovingdon said she believes the ACLU of Montana intends to file “pretty much immediately” if the legislation becomes law in the Treasure State. The bill has elicited significant opposition including from medical professionals.
“It’s of note that the Big Sky Conference has also submitted a letter in opposition to the bill,” Bovingdon said.
Christian also updated the regents on a law Gov. Greg Gianforte signed that allows guns on campus. He said the law lets anyone with a valid concealed weapons permit or anyone with minimum firearms safety training to carry “all across Montana, to be honest, including campuses.”
The Montana University System testified in opposition to the bill, but Christian said he was grateful for a couple of amendments. One made it so the law wouldn’t take effect on campuses this semester, and another allows campuses to expressly prohibit firearms at athletic and entertainment events.
Prior to the May meeting when regents will have “significant” discussion about implementation, Christian said the board would hold a public hearing on the topic. He said he knows regents are receiving much public input, and he said he’s not ready to answer all the questions being raised, but he knows one thing for sure.
“Our top priority is to keep our campuses and our campus communities safe, and that’ll be the driving principle behind this,” Christian said.
The law also strips authority from the Montana Board of Regents, a body constitutionally charged with overseeing campuses. The Montana Legislature’s lawyers raised the constitutional concern in a legal analysis of the bill. Thursday, Christian did not directly address the matter of board authority, and neither did any of the regents in discussion of that agenda item.
Regent Loren Bough, however, said he wanted to be sure he understood correctly that regents couldn’t reverse or somehow exclude campuses from the law. He asked Christian to confirm the appropriate tact.
“We now need to just focus on how we implement around it safely, without having an option to set aside our campuses,” Bough said.
Christian agreed. He also said the board’s legal team is closely reviewing all aspects of the law, but he made reference to the Republican sweep at the ballot box in November. For the first time in 16 years, a GOP-majority legislature is working with a GOP governor. (Former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, vetoed a similar bill.)
“I think a voice spoke in November, and I think we have to have some respect for that voice,” Christian said.
In her update, Bovingdon said the university system also would be opposing a pair of bills sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, that made their way through the House and are in the Senate. One, House Bill 218, is referred to as the “campus free speech bill,” but Bovingdon said campuses already have policies protecting free speech.
“This bill in some ways I think is trying to address a problem that doesn’t really exist on our campuses, but I think it does have some popularity among the legislators to guarantee those protections in law,” she said.
She said House Bill 349, a companion bill, would mean certain students are excluded from campus groups if they don’t affirm the group’s “sincerely held beliefs.” She said the Associated Students of the University of Montana testified in opposition to the bill, and its argument reflected the notion it’s a solution in search of a problem.
“We feel, and ASUM feels, the university system does a very good job protecting the free speech rights of our students,” Bovingdon said.