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House Speaker calls for a special session on immigration, pot tax distribution

by By NICOLE GIRTEN Daily Montanan
| May 14, 2024 7:00 AM

Montana House Speaker Matt Regier called for a special session to address immigration and state marijuana tax distribution in a letter sent to the Secretary of State on Tuesday.

The Kalispell Republican’s letter was signed by 12 other Republican lawmakers requesting the legislature reconvene to address the two hot-button issues.

The request follows rhetoric from Montana politicians claiming, without evidence, a Flathead nonprofit used “dark money” and connections to the Biden administration to relocate a migrant family who crossed the southern border and journeyed to the Flathead Valley. The organization has said this accusation is false.

On marijuana distribution, Republican leadership has been frustrated by what it sees as unconstitutional intervention by the courts that allowed lawmakers to try to override the governor’s veto of a bill that would give part of the marijuana tax funding to support county infrastructure. That override poll failed, however.

This is the second call for a special session this week from separate groups of Republicans. A dozen GOP lawmakers signed onto a request Monday to reconvene and consider legislation that would allow Supreme Court candidates to declare a party affiliation on the ballot. Judicial races in the state are currently nonpartisan.

While no Republican leadership signed that call for a special session to address party affiliation of judicial candidates, Regier’s request Tuesday includes signatures from Majority Leader Sue Vinton, Speaker Pro-Tempore Rhonda Knudsen and Senate President Pro Tempore Ken Bogner.

The Secretary of State has five days to send a poll to legislators asking if they wish to convene a special session; a simple majority vote is needed to call lawmakers back to Helena. The legislature has convened in a special session 33 times in Montana’s history and six times since the turn of the century.

A migrant family, a conspiracy and residents who push back on it

Last week, Montana politicians including Rep. Ryan Zinke, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte, spoke out against a migrant family who flew from Texas to New York and ultimately to Kalispell after crossing the U.S. Mexico border, as first reported by the-Daily Inter Lake. Those state leaders, all Republican, blamed the Biden administration for the family’s arrival.

Flathead Sheriff Brian Heino told the Daily Inter Lake he believed the family was undocumented but also noted a language barrier.

Johnny Ratka Skinner with the nonprofit Valley Neighbors of the Flathead told the Daily Montanan on Tuesday the organization that works to assist migrant families respects the privacy of vulnerable clients and is unable to release personal information.

“Our understanding of interactions that this family had with other local nonprofits before our arrival leads us to believe that nobody has taken the time to thoughtfully examine any potential documents they might have,” Skinner said in an email.

Regier wrote in his letter the crisis at the southern border spawned from “individuals ignoring immigration laws” and the federal government “has not just ignored the crisis but exacerbated it.”

“Since federal authorities have refused to act, we as a state must act to implement law and order for the safety and security of our citizens,” he said. “If we do not take swift action, we could see an increasing magnitude of illegal activity in Montana, specifically at our state’s northern border.”

Kalispell residents and volunteers with the local nonprofit working to assist immigrants, including the family that arrived last week, on Monday denounced the rhetoric from politicians, saying the claims the organization was tied to “dark money” or was at all connected with the Biden administration were false.

During public comment at a Kalispell City Council meeting, Ron Gerson, with Valley Neighbors of the Flathead, said the rhetoric from politicians was a “cover up” to not address underlying challenges in the community.

“Misinformation, name calling and blame-laying on the victims do nothing to resolve the problems,” Gerson said.

Immigration reform and border security continue to be hot-button issues this election year, following Congress’ failure to pass border security funding earlier this year.

Zinke claimed in a social media post a “dark money ‘nonprofit’”was “bringing illegal aliens to Montana.”

“I can tell ya, they didn’t get there by walking across the border to Babb and hitchhiking,” Zinke said in his post.

Zinke tweeted Tuesday his request to the Department of Homeland Security to conduct an investigation and deport them.

A handful of speakers at the meeting in Kalispell denounced the claim the nonprofit was associated with “dark money.”

Dee DeYoung, a volunteer with the nonprofit, said the claim was a “flat out lie” that was “intended to manipulate us and our community.”

“Let me tell you, we could use some of that money,” she said to laughs in the room. “We would put it to really good use.”

The organization was also involved in helping resettle Ukrainian refugees in 2022, as was reported by the Flathead Beacon.

Gianforte and Daines put out similar statements saying the border crisis had reached the Flathead.

“Joe Biden and Senate Democrats failed to secure the border, and now Montanans can see that failure firsthand,” Daines said.

Heino released a lengthy statement last week saying his department has seen an increase in undocumented migrants in the region, it was causing a strain on his department’s resources, and claimed immigrants were contributing to the housing crisis in the region.

“Undocumented and illegal individuals are currently living in the Flathead, and many are working, often under the table, without contributing to the resources designed for those who work and live here legally,” Heino said. “They are allowed to utilize resources like Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, and other resources designed to assist our legal citizens in our times of need.”

Heino was not immediately available Tuesday afternoon to answer questions on data sources for immigrant populations in the region. However, Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl told the Flathead Beacon the county does not have records of how many undocumented immigrants are in the area.

Undocumented immigrants cannot access most state or federal assistance, and according to Pew Research make up a fraction of the state’s population — totaling less than 5,000 people.

There were 20 speakers at Monday night’s meeting. Two said they were in support of immigrants in the community but wanted them to come here legally; the majority spoke to the positive experiences they’d had with undocumented people in the community and their contributions to the economy.

Across the country, undocumented migrants work in farming, as nurses, entrepreneurs and construction workers – often without work protections or insurance. This is the case in other areas of Montana, with immigrants being essential labor in Bozeman’s housing boom, working in new weather environments and with injuries they can’t afford to treat, as was reported recently by High Country News.

Marijuana Tax Revenue

Regier said he also wants the legislature to consider taking action on the distribution of marijuana tax revenue in the continuing saga following the controversial veto of Senate Bill 442 during the last legislative session.

As distribution currently stands, the Department of Revenue first reserves three months of operating expenses — about $4.1 million — out of the full pot of money, which totaled $56.4 million in fiscal year 2023.

Next, $6 million goes to the Healing and Ending Addiction through Recovery and Treatment (HEART) Fund for behavioral health and treatment programs.

Then, money is distributed as follows: 20% for wildlife habitat and conservation funding; 4% each for state parks, trails and recreational facilities, and nongame wildlife; $200,000 for veterans and surviving spouses; and $150,000 for the Board of Crime Control. The rest of the money then goes into the General Fund.

SB 442 would change how marijuana funds are currently distributed, so behavioral health and treatment programs in the HEART Fund gets 11% of the tax revenue instead of a flat $6 million, veterans and spouses get 5%, the Board of Crime Control gets 0.2%, county roads get 20%, and the other allocations remain unchanged aside from the drop in money going toward the General Fund.

Regier said in his letter the end of the session “caused procedural questions that resulted in the courts unconstitutionally interfering in the process of the legislature.”

“Marijuana tax revenue distributions need to be determined by the legislature,” the letter read.

Republican leadership signed a letter earlier this year accusing the Supreme Court of violating separation of powers after after the Montana Supreme Court cleared the way for an override poll to be sent out to legislators. The veto override failed.

The failure to override the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 442 means the revenue continues to be distributed just as lawmakers determined during the 2021 session.

Regier proposed convening the legislature for a special session on June 24, the same day requested by other Montana Republicans for the special session on judicial elections.

Reporter Blair Miller contributed to this report.