The Capitol Tracker is back

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By the time this year’s session of the Montana Legislature ends, lawmakers will almost certainly have considered more than 1,000 bills. Despite the best efforts of our intrepid Montana Free Press reporters and editors, we won’t be able to write about every one of them.

This is where our new launch 2023 Capitol Tracker is coming. This year’s edition of our biennial digital guide is an effort to help Montanans understand the often overwhelming procedural firehose of the Legislative Assembly: the array of bills, votes and caucus slates that make up the quantifiable aspects of the business that takes place in the State Capitol building.

There’s more content in the guide than I have space to describe here, but here are some highlights:

  • Detailed pages for all 150 lawmakers, including information about the bills they sponsored and how they vote on the measures our newsroom identifies as the session’s top bills.
  • Detailed pages of every bill introduced before this year’s legislature (i.e. 431 and more from Friday morning).
  • Search tools to help you find specific bills and legislators.
  • A calendar listing upcoming committee hearings.
  • A summary page detailing the procedural actions lawmakers have taken on a day-to-day basis.

If you want to see more, check out the wrap-up story we published on January 11 – or just rummage through the guide itself at I’d love to hear what you think (especially if you spot a bug that I haven’t squashed yet).

Of course, much of what happens on Capitol Hill during committee hearings, floor debates, and hallway gatherings isn’t necessarily something you can quantify in the databases that power this guide. That’s why our team wears evening wear every day this winter to walk the halls and attend as many discussions as possible.

Speaking of which, if you see anything in the data, we should chase it down the halls, by all means. let us know.

—Eric Dietrich, Associate Editor

In numbers 🔢

Years since the Montana Legislature raised the cap on payments a property owner can receive through block management, a program administered by Fish, Wildlife and Parks that reimburses landowners for opening private property to public hunting.

In 2021, lawmakers voted to increase the annual cap from $15,000 to $25,000. According to the sponsor of the invoice Senator Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, 25 landowners reached the increased cap in 2021, so FWP is again asking lawmakers to increase the limit, this time to $50,000. In a Tuesday hearing, FWP Director Henry “Hank” Worsech said more than 1,200 landowners are participating in “Montana’s first hunter access program,” providing access to more than 7 million acres of land. Worsech said if recent trends continue, four landowners should hit the $50,000 cap, which is funded by collecting license fees from hunters.

Senate Bill 58 Proponents also claim that the increased cap will incentivize landowners to stay in the block management program like other opportunities – for example, a program that has been described as an “Airbnb for ranchlands” – gaining ground in Montana. In an email to the MTFP, an FWP spokesperson noted that Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget also includes an increase to the hunter’s daily rate, which is currently set at $13 per day. No opponent testified on Tuesday.

—Amanda Eggert, Journalist

Verbatim 💬

“I wanted more details on the feedback teachers receive after giving these evaluations. Do they find it useful, timely, and the biggest question as a teacher, what if the child doesn’t on the right track? What resources are available to me to help reinforce this trajectory?”

—Anne Keith, member of the Montana Board of Public Education, asking how the Office of Public Instruction is supporting the 75 teachers across the state who are participating in a new pilot program of standardized tests. The board’s Thursday meeting featured an update on the program, which explores the possibility of replacing year-end assessments with several smaller tests given to students throughout the school year. According to the OPI report4,156 fifth and seventh graders in 62 Montana schools are participating in the pilot and have taken 5,529 tests in math and reading so far this school year.

OPI’s Senior Director of Teaching and Learning, Chris Noel, responded to Keith’s question by informing him that the agency had launched an online hub to respond to inquiries and feedback from educators. OPI also surveyed teachers, counselors and school officials late last year about their experiences with the pilot to date – 46% of respondents rated preparing for the “testlets” easy and 69% saying that their administration was also easy. Superintendent Elsie Arntzen told the council that the next round of pilot testing will begin on January 17.

Alex Sakariassen, journalist

Field of view 🌄

Rae Senarighi, best known for his colorful abstracts, intricate typography and striking portraits, presents his exhibition “Transcend” at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena. Credit: Bruce Fritz

From January 20 to March 30, Helena’s Holter Museum of Art will feature twin beds exhibits highlighting the work of transgender, non-binary, and two-spirit artists from Montana and surrounding areas. Rae Senarighi, pictured above, grew up in Missoula and gained attention for her “You Are Loved” billboards across the state. His Holter exhibit, “Transcend,” features large-scale portraits.

“I want there to be room for someone like me to fit into an art museum, and there’s someone who looks like me,” Senarighi says. “I exist. I am here.”

—Brad Tyer, Editor

Public Comment 🗣️

The Legislative Committee appointed to provide feedback on newly adopted House and Senate district maps at the Montana District and Dispatch Commission will hold a public hearing next Tuesday, January 17. Members of the public are encouraged to submit written testimony, but can also attend in person. The committee will then meet on January 20 to hear testimony from DAC Chair Maylinn Smith and pass a resolution with recommendations to the committee.

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Journalist

Glad you asked 🙋🏻

Now that the 2023 legislature is winding down – holding hearings on bills, voting on measures – the MTFP is answering questions about public participation processes.

There are lots of ways to do it, to contact lawmakers directly to appear in person to testify at a hearing on the bill (which is frequently described by Capitol insiders as one of the most effective ways to get your message across). But the most practical way to participate, for many, is to submit comments to an entire committee debating a measure that interests you.

The best way to do this? Access the Legislative Assembly’s Public Participation Portal at and upload your comments there. If you want to take it a step further and provide a Zoom testimonial, you can also sign up to do so through the portal.

—Amanda Eggert, Journalist

On our radar

Amanda – This beautifully crafted story from CBC drawing parallels between two Northwestern Montana environmental issues – The asbestos contamination of Libby and the selenium pollution of Lake Koocanusa – came to mind this week after learning that Montana has reached an $18.5 million settlement agreement with WR Grace to repair damage to natural resources resulting from decades of vermiculite mining at Libby.

alexander – During my desperate search for compelling art to accompany an article on how public land benefits K-12 schoolsI came across this interactive map from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation detailing tracts of state trust lands across Montana. Turns out the acres that support public education funding are closer to home than you think!

ArrenMy agenda friends from Arizona are running a bill this session to create a statue of Don Bolles, a journalist murdered while reporting on organized crime in the 1970s, on the Capitol campus in Phoenix. It’s a fun idea and an interesting perspective on the lobbying process.

Mara — The gas stove debate has been (smoldering?) on my radar for a few months now, partly because I hate my electric burners. Interested in understanding what the smell of controversy is? Politico has you covered.

Eric “For the past few weeks, I’ve unwinded from days spent under pressure on Capitol Hill by watching machine shop videos on YouTube. This series where an Australian metallurgist reconstructs an analog computer from an ancient Greek shipwreck particularly pleased me.

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