Practice what they preach? Helena lawmakers increasingly meddle in local affairs
Members of the Montana Republican Party have long advocated for state's rights, seeking the room to craft their own rules and regulations free from Washington, D.C., interference.
But some of those same Montana lawmakers are now looking to force regulations crafted in Helena onto cities across the state. In some cases, it's an intentional act intended to undo local ordinances they're opposed to, or to prevent certain cities from taking action on local issues.
“Cities, towns and counties around Montana have long advocated for reasonable local control as provided by the Montana Constitution,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said. “In the case of a charter city, like Missoula, we interpret our ability to apply local rules liberally, again based on the Montana Constitution.”
Most famously, then-Rep. Austin Knudsen took offense to a 2016 ordinance adopted by the Missoula City Council requiring background checks on all gun transfers and sales within the city.
Advocates in Missoula billed the ordinance as a necessary public safety measure and a reasonable step in closing a federal loophole. But Knudsen, who is from a small town several hundred miles east of Missoula, disliked the locally crafted ordinance and pushed then-Attorney General Tim Fox to overturn it.
For local officials, who spent months listening to public comment when crafting the ordinance, the blow from Helena proved frustrating, but it wouldn't be the last.
“Missoula’s gun ordinance, for example, only marginally affected non-residents and was supported by a majority of the Missoula City Council and, by extension, the voters,” Engen said. “When legislators from far-flung places in Montana impose their values over those of local jurisdictions, those actions seem to fly in the face of the spirit and letter of our Constitution.”
This month, Knudsen – now the Montana attorney general – used his “supervisory powers” to direct the Gallatin County attorney to dismiss a case against a Bozeman bar. The bar had violated a local mandate implemented during the pandemic asking businesses to close by 10 p.m.
Knudsen said his order was intended to send a “clear message” that he “will not allow overzealous local governments to hold Montana businesses and their employees hostage.”
But to local officials, it marked another example of hypocrisy in which a Helena lawmaker from a distant town usurped local control while lamenting so-call overreach from Washington.
“If these folks were true to their word, that the closer you get to the people the better the decisions are, then they would empower local governments to do just that,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “We're held very accountable to these decisions and in that we'll be elected or unelected, and the folks subverting that process are not going to be elected or unelected by the people whose lives they're affecting.”
Also this month, a Hamilton Republican introduced a bill that would limit local control on alternative nicotine and vapor products. If adopted, it would retroactively cancel the flavored vaping ban recently adopted by the Missoula City Council, which is also up for consideration by county commissioners.
When introducing his bill, Rep. Ron Marshall said, “everything should go through the legislative body when it comes to law.” But local officials working to get ahead of what they see as a public health issue disagree, noting that the same legislators often criticize similar mandates out of Washington.
“They argue about getting the federal government off the state's back and leave more decision making power locally, but they're doing the exact same thing to local government,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “The connection is tenuous at best if folks are claiming that the decisions we're making locally here adversely impact another jurisdiction across the state.”
Other efforts in Helena also look to tie the hands of local officials. But it's those local officials who are elected to represent the will of local voters and tackle local issues. Missoula voters don't elect officials in Culbertson, and those in Culbertson don't elect those in Missoula.
But increasingly, the legislators sent to Helena from other counties have taken a keen interest in Missoula politics and have worked to head off ordinances they dislike. From gun regulations to vaping, the examples aren't hard to find.
“I would hope that Legislators keep in mind that pendulums swing and efforts to negate the will of local voters and the authority of local officials can be a two-way street,” Engen said. “I’d ask that lawmakers put themselves in the shoes of locals and think about how they’d feel about Missoula imposing its will on Scobey.”
While centralized rules work in some cases, Engen added, local communities need room to shape them, just as Helena legislators seek the space they need to shape rules out of Washington.
“I’ve long argued that local elected officials are highly accountable to the residents they serve and live with the consequences of their actions as residents themselves,” Engen said. “And while there are circumstances in which central, consistent rules makes sense for states and the federal government, there’s considerable room for local jurisdictions to make the values of their communities manifest through laws and policies.”