Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Housing. Mental health. The “partisan judiciary.” Property taxes.

“Those will be the hot topics you hear about over and over and over again,” said Rep. Llew Jones, a Conrad Republican.

Healthcare and provider rates. Plus, the budget surplus.

“Our caucus is going to be really focused on how we build out an economy that works for families and for businesses and for our communities,” said Rep. Kim Abbott, a Helena Democrat who has served as House minority leader.

Last week following Election Day, the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana hosted the two legislative leaders for a video conversation called “Can Civility Prevail in the Montana Legislature?” Jon Bennion, government relations director for The Washington Companies and advisory board member of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, moderated the forum with 655 registered viewers.

One topic the legislature will take up is the medical system, Jones said. It’s struggling, and he said he expects provider rates will be a big topic, and for good reason.

“A lot of times, big hospitals cry wolf pretty loudly, and it’s not true,” he said.

This time, though, the books show institutions are seeing as much as 24% increases in the cost of acquiring nurses alone. Jones said he anticipates Warm Springs, the state mental health hospital, also will be on the agenda.

Abbott agreed, and she said it’s a complex issue: “Luckily, both sides of the aisle have, I think, a lot of expertise and a lot of goodwill to work together on those issues.”

She pointed to childcare and housing as issues that directly affect the workforce. The cost to buy and rent homes in some Montana communities has skyrocketed, and Abbott said it needs to be easier to build more houses for workers.

“We need to look at regulations that make it hard to build,” Abbott said. “We need to subsidize in some ways. It’s going to take a menu of options to solve the problem.”

The budget surplus is a topic that’s already been under discussion. Last week, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte released a proposal for the estimated $1.5 billion surplus, and Abbott said the surplus will be a topic this session as lawmakers consider the state budget.

During the 2021 session, legislators passed some laws to reshape the judiciary, and at the forum last week, Jones said “there’s significant feelings of a partisan judiciary.” As such, he expects the subject to be on the front burner again.

Legislative sessions can be fast paced and intense, but both legislators said the work at the Capitol remains generally more civil and productive than the dysfunction people see from Washington, D.C. However, Abbott said increased political polarization has impacted Helena a little more in recent years, and she hears about getting along when she’s knocking on doors.

“I hear a lot from people that they just wish that the squabbling would stop and that people would work together,” Abbott said.

She tells them the good news is generally, legislators do work together. At the same time, she said legislative districts are politically askew, and if a candidate is winning with 75 percent of the vote, that person doesn’t have an incentive to talk to the other party.

“I’m of the mind that more competitive districts are better for solutions and better for governance,” Abbott said.

The legislature can be emotional too, but some of the division isn’t between parties, Jones said. It can be between rural and urban areas, and Jones, who represents a rural district that’s 70 percent Republican, said he might disagree with a Republican from an urban area.

At times, he said the legislature has seemed to be comprised of four parties, with moderate Republicans and Democrats and then extreme factions at both ends. He said “too much weight on the wingtip” can spin things out of control, but he said despite criticism he might get from all sides, he hopes most people simply want to solve problems for Montanans.

“Hopefully, there’s still a critical mass of folks that think that way,” Jones said.

Although the minority doesn’t have the votes to push legislation, Jones said it can influence outcomes in how its members make arguments. He also said the majority shouldn’t behave like a bully.

In legislative sessions, the minority holds the majority accountable, Abbott said. She said at times, debates might get out of control and decorum has been broken in the past, especially over particularly emotional topics, such as legislation that undercuts tribal sovereignty or a community’s humanity.

“Those are times that I think it’s very difficult to be civil, and I wonder what the rule for civility is there,” Abbott said.

She also noted retiring Rep. Frank Garner, a Kalispell Republican, checked in with her after particularly difficult hearings in the past, such as ones on bills that dealt with transgender children, and she appreciated his support and care for their caucus in those moments.

Even though Democrats are in the minority, she said every one of the elected officers in the House is representing 10,000 people, and they all go to Helena to deliver for their communities.

Republicans have a supermajority following this election, and although the final count was still up in the air during the Wednesday night Mansfield forum, Bennion asked about the possibility. He said Republicans had been “salivating at the possibility,” and Democrats had been “fearful.”

However, Jones and Abbott agreed that a supermajority doesn’t mean every idea gets every single Republican’s vote. Also, Jones said it’s important to remember that legislative referendums don’t necessarily pass muster with voters, with LR-131 as the recent example.

“You’d better take a look out there and see what has support,” Jones said.

Last week, Montanans voted down LR-131, which would have dictated how caregivers treat newborns with no chance of survival. Abbott said she believed the measure was meant to be divisive, but the outcome, which left treatment for infants in the hands of providers and families, shows Montanans still back one of the values in the Montana Constitution.

“Our right to privacy is very important to us,” Abbott said.

She said a lot of people have ideas about changing Montanans’ rights and liberties, but that doesn’t mean they’ll get enough support, even with a supermajority.

Bennion said both Jones and Abbott have demonstrated some of the best qualities of Montana’s Sen. Mike Mansfield, the longest serving U.S. Senate majority leader. The Mansfield Center has a mission in part to foster civil discourse in politics and democracy.

He noted Jones’ tenure extends back to 2005 and he’s worked in both chambers, and Abbott has been in office since 2017 and most recently served as House minority leader. As such, he asked for their advice for the crop of 30 or so freshmen legislators.

Jones said the incoming group of freshmen is as talented a group as he’s seen on his side of the aisle, and it includes people who have success in their personal lives. He said they haven’t had the chance to see all the perspectives in the legislature, but they’re looking to make good changes for their communities.

“Keep on focusing on solving problems,” Jones said he would advise them.

He and Abbott both encouraged people to tell the truth and to listen to others. Abbott said she’d also suggest new legislators be prepared for emotionally charged hearings because sometimes, they can take people off guard.

She advised legislators to start from a place of agreement and build from there — and Montanans agree on a lot, she said. However, she said it’s good when people with fundamental differences engage with each other.

“As things have gotten increasingly polarized, we’ve all had to practice that a little bit more,” Abbott said.