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No holds barred: Senator Jason Small talks victories and airs frustrations from the '23 session
The Busby Republican, now termed-out, hopes to soon run the state AFL-CIO. PLUS: Missoula's Cosmic Sans channel the Rolling Stones on "Late Summer."
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During his four sessions in the state legislature, the moderate Republican state Senator Jason Small emerged as a particularly candid voice, especially within his own party. When many of his peers proved press-shy, Small occasionally aired a contrarian, albeit tempered, perspective.
A boilermaker by trade, Senator Small is also a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe; he recently expressed his concerns over the treatment of Native lawmakers during the 2023 session in the Missoulian. Small also served as the chair of the powerful Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee this session.
During a recent visit to Missoula—on a sweltering, smoky afternoon—Senator Small kindly agreed to join me on my porch for a wide-ranging conversation about the 2023 session and Montana politics in general.
Read on as Small—in his typically frank fashion—highlights victories from the session, offers his perspective on the censure of Rep. Zooey Zephyr, calls out lawmakers who seek to “torture other people,” talks renewable energy, flags his interests in running for statewide office and much, much more.
** Looking for the Song of the Week? You can find our review of Cosmic Sans’ “Late Summer” at the end of this interview. **
Max: What would you consider the biggest victories of the 2023 Legislature?
Senator Jason Small: Well, it was kind of an odd year in the legislature. I don't know that the Republican comms team did the best job they could do. A lot of the individual GOP members did some great stuff, but you damn sure didn't see it in the news.
Across the board—whether or not you count that last two weeks of absolute turmoil —the Republicans did do some good altogether: we gave a property tax rebate and cut the state income tax. And then there at the end that all got lost at the mix, of course. We weren't seeing that kind of news coming out.
On a personal level, I had a bill that would've been kind of national news, honestly, in a different scenario: it caps insulin co-pay costs at $35 a month.
That was one I was kind of proud of. I think that's a spectacular bill. One-tenth of the state is diabetic. We kicked the shit out of Big Pharma there.
Another big one that in a normal time and place would've probably got quite a bit of exposure was a firefighter presumptive illness bill. It adds two types of cancers to their list of illnesses that they can acquire on the job that insurance will start to cover.
One of them was cervical cancer. Since the late eighties, they've more than doubled the amount of women firefighters. And then the other one was testicular cancer.
You also sponsored SB 208, which effectively stops local governments from banning or limiting energy sources that come from fossil fuels. How do you respond to criticism that the bill prevents Montana from moving towards renewable energy sources?
208 is a pretty mild version of [companion bill SB 228]. 208 is pretty legitimate because you've seen a lot of localities in the country start [limiting their energy sources]. And what do they do? They put their retailers and restaurants out of business. Of course they pretty much just hurt poor people; if you have to convert from cheap natural gas heating fuel or something like that to electric you're putting these folks in a world of hurt. So I kind of view them as preventative maintenance [bills], so to speak.
I’ve heard folks from all across the political spectrum say that a move towards renewables is inevitable. Do you agree?
Obviously renewables are gonna continue to gain and gain and gain.
My biggest concern is stabilization of the grid. If everything's going kaput, you still have to have some availability of base load. And it doesn't matter to me if it's peaking units, gas units, coal, whatever, nuclear. We do have to maintain that to keep the grid stable. But renewables definitely have a time and place.
The whole renewable deal, it’s in that category of a “one-size-fits-all” government agenda. But it's never a “one-size-fits-all.” There's places where it's gonna work a hell of a lot better than other places.
A few minutes ago you described the end of the session as turmoil. What do you think will be the lasting impact of the GOP’s decision to censure Representative Zephyr?
First off, I don't think that whole situation was handled really great. I mean, you can't just tell somebody, “Hey, we're not gonna listen to you no more. Just sit there and shut up.”
“Censure,” Republicans have kind of thrown that around quite a bit the past several years. I think personally there should have been a warning there [instead]. I would like to have seen it handled that way.
But I'm definitely not in agreement with what happened on the floor, [either]. I really do feel like the Representative kind of went way too far. You know, there could have legitimately been some pretty serious outcomes from that.
Although I'll support the Representative’s freedom of speech, I also feel that the Representative damn sure overstepped her boundaries there by encouraging everybody to get even more fired up than they were.
Do you think Representative Zephyr’s censure will prove to be a boon for the state Democrats?
I think it's backfiring on them, something fierce.
When I went home, that was the primary subject that everybody wanted to talk about. And of course there were a couple of people who were extremely sympathetic. There were other [Democrats] that it definitely pushed in the other direction.
I don't know if that's gonna hold true across the board, but I think that for the Democrats’ cause this might've done more harm than good. Time will tell.
You're termed out. What are you interested in doing next?
I'm interested in a lot of stuff. I was thinking about maybe cutting a rap CD or maybe acting (laughs).
I hate to step away from politics at this point. I think I've done a lot of good. Even though at times it's been fairly detrimental to everything else going on in my life, I feel like I've made a pretty big difference. I've passed some great legislation. I've been able to kill some legislation that was terrible for people.
Just due to where I'm at in my life right now, I don't think at the moment I'm able to try to take a run at something on the federal level, but I would sure like to.
And so I'm gonna step outside of the technical political realm and do something that's always been dear to my heart anyway. I've been a workers’ advocate—a pro-coal, pro-jobs advocate—for over a decade. And next month I'm gonna run for the executive secretary position of the AFL-CIO here in Montana.
Whether or not I win it, who knows. I think I'm in a pretty good position and pretty well respected. It'd be the first time to anybody's knowledge a Republican ever ran that organization around here.
Are there specific policies or changes that you'd advocate for in that role?
A lot of it's pushing stuff I've been doing for years: just trying to actively keep apprenticeships going and recruiting people. One of the things I'd like to pursue would be to try to convince the powers-who-be to set up a project labor agreement for some of the military missile silo rebuilds and stuff we have coming up.
Upgrades on them are pretty old and whatnot. There's gonna be a large rebuild on some of the national defense system here in Montana.
I think I'm sitting in a pretty good spot. I've had a lot of support from my peers. I think I have the capacity to do it. Maybe I can be the eyes and ears and a good intermediary between between the State of Montana and labor.
A few months ago you told me that you were interested in sponsoring a psychedelics decriminalization bill. What happened there?
Well, so there were three or four different entities that put in psilocybin-related bills. We kind of all got screwed. What happened was, somehow or another, those bills never came into writing until about the last week of being able to get them out. And then there was no way to get them in good enough shape to even bother to present them.
They kind of got stalled somewhere?
Yeah. There's some stuff out there now, a little groundwork for next session that somebody can pick up and get the ball rolling.
It was kind of a BS deal. We got flooded. Frankly, the legislature really got kind of railroaded this year because there were like 1,300 department bills put forth, and outta that 1,300 bills, you probably could have condensed that to about a hundred if you would've wanted to.
And that doesn't include placeholders, right?
Those were full bills that ate everybody's time up, ate up all our staff's capacity, ate up all of our writing capacity, and it really just screwed the legislature.
There were a lot of lessons learned on that deal, I think, for future legislators. This was the first time that it was all Republican controlled. And I think a lot of things that we'd learned in the past when dealing with a Democrat governor, people just kind of forgot about. Looking at the vetoed bills and some other stuff here in the past several weeks, I think next session's gonna pan out way different than this one did.
This next session, I don't foresee the executive branch’s wants and wishes flying through like they did this time.
Not that there was anything strange going on by any means, but it's been common practice in previous sessions to hold back some of the executive primary bills to make sure the legislative bills that everybody wants go through. And it didn't occur that way this time. And I think a lot of people felt like they got bit on the posterior, pretty bad (laughs).
What’s a piece of advice—or just a lesson you’ve learned while serving in the legislature—that you think would be helpful for folks to hear?
One thing I'd tell new legislators, or somebody that’s thinking about running is, don't let anybody bullshit you: it's not just four months every two years. It's another, in my case, ten, twenty hours a week, every week, throughout the next twenty months.
And you know, there's no reimbursement for that. It gets difficult because you're trying to work a 40 hour a week job. You got a couple kids, maybe got a small business on the side.
It's all encompassing. And you lose your anonymity. Next thing you know, a trip to go to town, to Costco, that should take you 45 minutes stretches out to three hours (laughs).
Be prepared to never have time for yourself anymore. Shut your phone off at eight o'clock at night, ‘cause people can call you all night long.
If you're gonna do it, you need to figure out how valuable your time is to yourself. You need to figure out, can your family handle it or not? Can you afford to do it?
I put a pay raise bill together for the legislators to take us from 12 bucks an hour or whatever we're at, to $23 an hour. That way we're making the same as the kids at McDonald's and stuff. But the governor vetoed it.
So the barrier to entry is, how much can you afford to lose? You might have the best intentions in the world, but do your best intentions outweigh the damage it does to the rest of your life?
It's stuff people need to think about if they're gonna step up into the ring.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about this idea of transactional politics; that lawmakers will vote for things they don’t actually agree with. Personally, I think that lots of well-intentioned folks still ended up voting for bills that are clearly unconstitutional, or just seem hurtful, this session. Senate Bill 458, for instance, feels malicious to me. Do you have any thoughts on that dynamic?
I had a hard time with this initially when I started. Oftentimes you pass some garbage just to get it ironed out in court. And I do believe that that one's going straight to court. I think that was the intention with it.
I took some of those crappy votes this year, and I’m not proud of it. But another thing you have to think about is that you're in this position where [those bills] are passing anyway and you have to decide to yourself how much political capital do you want to burn when you can't make the difference anyway?
And so that's a gauge and that's something I've thought about for quite a number of years: what hill do you want to die on?
When you talk about bills that get passed just to be sent to court, it's hard for me to not see them as solutions without a problem.
Or a flagrant waste of the taxpayers’ money.
There's people who go to the legislature with the intent of fixing stuff and doing good. There's people who I think just go to the legislature to torture other people. I mean, I really think that's legitimate with a handful of people. Their whole intent is just to go make something miserable for somebody.
Frankly, I think it's a waste of time to even bring a lot of that crap to the legislature. I don't like it. It's not a game I would play. I actually went to help people and fix stuff, but there's others who didn't.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Montana Song of the Week
Cosmic Sans - “Late Summer”
True to its name, Psychedelicatessen, the terrific new album from Missoula’s Cosmic Sans, offers up a full deli counter of rock and roll styles, touching on psychedelia, prog, pop, punk and even a little stoner metal. On standout track “Late Summer,” the five-piece takes a turn towards more conventional classic rock.
Channeling the smoky barroom warmth of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, “Late Summer” shows off a looser side of the band: jabs of jaunty piano, crisp drums and a joyride of a guitar solo share space throughout the track. Although it veers away from the polyrhythmic gymnastics of the rest of the album, “Late Summer” highlights Cosmic Sans’ knack for vocal hooks, their stellar musicianship and their ability to add nuance without ever sounding fussy.
Thanks so much for being here. In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.