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Brooks: Did Steve Bullock really not know that Republicans wouldn't bargain in good faith?

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Last week, during a special session of the state Legislature, the Senate passed a bill to block new rules that would make it easier for Montanans to change the genders on their birth certificates. Currently, the Department of Public Health and Human Services requires a court order proving the holder of the certificate has undergone gender confirmation surgery. The proposed change would allow the department to also accept sworn affidavits asserting that a person has undergone gender transition or has an intersex condition, as well as government-issued IDs. The new rule also would also change the word “sex” to “gender” on official forms.

The department held a public hearing on the rule changes in October, and the public was generally in support. Most people do not care about the difference between the words “gender” and “sex.” Those who do tend to support the people’s right to define their own gender. One exception to this general rule is the Montana Family Foundation.

You may remember this research and educational organization from last session, when it promoted a bill to require Montanans to use the bathrooms and other public facilities that correspond with the sex on their birth certificates. This plan would have improved society by making us bring legal documentation to the pool. When it failed to pass the Legislature, the Montana Family Foundation organized a ballot initiative to do the same thing.

The foundation’s president, Jeff Laszloffy, is a normal adult man whose main concern is conclusively determining what everyone’s gender is. He objected to the rule change at DPHHS, arguing that it would cost the state too much money. Like his worry that letting people choose their bathrooms would let men assault young girls by claiming to be women, this objection is grounded in concern for others’ wellbeing, and not in some pathological desire to persecute 0.3 percent of the population.

Anyway, God commands Laszloffy to supervise our birth certificates, but the state constitution leaves it to DPHHS. That department must submit to the Legislature, however, and during last week’s meeting to address the budget shortfall, Sen. Albert Olszewski, R-Kalispell, proposed a bill to stop DPHHS from changing its birth certificate rules. The Senate passed it along party lines, 29 votes to 19. Fortunately, the House declined to take it up before the session expired, and SB 10 died amid the silence it deserved.

The astute reader may notice that SB 10 did not pertain to the state budget. The fiscal note attached to the bill found that it would neither cost nor save money, as I’m sure Laszloffy was relieved to learn. Given that this legislative session was convened on an emergency basis to fix the budget, and knowing that SB 10 affected said budget not at all, one must ask why Republicans in the Senate wasted their colleagues’ time by passing it in the first place.

Such questions are either impossible to answer or very simple, depending on whom you ask. A more interesting question, though, is what Gov. Steve Bullock—who supports the rules change at DPHHS—thought would happen when he called back into session a Legislature dominated by Republicans and gave them a $227 million shortfall to bargain with.

This is not a question of whether Republicans should have exploited this situation to persecute transgender Montanans. This is a question of whether a canny politician might have guessed that they would. Gov. Bullock convened his party’s representatives and a substantially larger number of his political opponents to negotiate a budget package that just had to pass. That’s like going to the used-car lot and telling the salesman that you want a good deal, but in the interest of transparency, he should know that you have no way of getting home.

It’s not a clever way to negotiate, is what I’m saying here. It reflects a larger pattern of failure on the part of Montana’s Democrats to wield what power they have. By summoning the Legislature, Bullock relinquished some of his power as chief executive—over DPHHS specifically, and over the state’s budgeting priorities more generally.

This misstep looks like an instance of bad politicking, but SB 10 shows how bad politicking can have moral ramifications. Trans Montanans are a minority who depend on a minority party to protect them from persecution—persecution that comes from well-funded organizations like the Montana Family Foundation and from bigoted lawmakers like Olszewski. Last week reminded us that such people are doing whatever they can think of to push their agenda. Bullock and the Democratic Party owe it to trans Montanans to think a little harder, too.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the natural human concern with everyone else’s gender at combatblog.net.

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