Rep. Kelly Kortum blasts GOP on housing, budget and pitches Dems as party of "stability"
Plus: Wilco's Jeff Tweedy heads to Sandpoint, and the Indigenous Made Summer Market comes to Missoula.
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In the wake of the 2023 Legislature, state Democrats have gone on the attack over a range of policies instituted by the GOP supermajority. Second-term state representative Kelly Kortum of Bozeman (HD65) ranks among the Dems’ most vocal critics of the majority party.
Kortum embodies the idea of a citizen lawmaker: an IT specialist at the Bozeman Community Food Co-op, he embraces a boots-on-the-ground approach to local politics, and served as the communications director for Gallatin County Democrats prior to serving in the legislature.
He plans to run for the House again next year, but he’ll do so in a new district—HD64—after his prior district was redrawn due to exploding population in the area. Housing is a top priority for him; he brings his perspective as a long-time renter in Bozeman to the larger conversation about the issue.
I caught up with Kortum to discuss not just where he thinks the GOP went wrong in 2023, but what the state Democrats would do differently and how his party can strengthen its ranks in the next election cycles.
Read along as we chat about pressing issues like property taxes and take an insider’s look at the dynamics of the session. We also discuss the significance of county parties (also referred to as “central committees”), which Kortum believes can increase voter turnout, and influence party elections during the MT Dems’ convention in Butte this coming weekend.
Max: You recently described the Montana GOP’s approach to the 2023 session as “sophomoric.” Why?
Rep. Kelly Kortum: I'll be as polite as I possibly can be here. Under the supermajority, the way things got done was ham-fisted at best. The schedules were all off. They backloaded all of their bills towards the deadline, so we'd have to have twenty bill hearings a day instead of a much more reasonable three.
The worst part was the petty politics: bullying, cliques, all sorts of gross behavior that you don't expect from adults. And I didn't encounter it this bad in my adult life until I ended up in that chamber (laughs).
One day, one of the Republicans voted with us and her party leadership bullied her into crying and she missed the rest of the day. What sort of people treat their colleagues like that?
Any bill of major substance the Democrats tried to pass was dead on arrival. They couldn't allow Democrats to pass a good policy during a supermajority because it would be embarrassing. So that meant a lot of good policy died. It also meant a lot of horrible policy passed. If bullying and that sort of authoritarian push is allowed to prevail, then a lot of these crappy policies pass because the Republicans who would've voted against them were threatened by their own party. They're just not expected to buck the party. And when they do, the decent Republicans are mercilessly bullied.
It reminded me a lot of high school or middle school, how cruelly a lot of the leadership in particular treated their fellow members; we in the minority were pushed around a lot, too.
And then [we] see so many problems on the other side of that four months of hard work, just because the leadership couldn't get all their ducks in a row and run a normal session. It was poorly organized and unprofessional.
Principled, constructive conservatives are really easy to work with. It's the new default in the Republican party that's really hard to work with.
We’ll talk about property taxes later, but what other problems are you referring to here?
Going up there, one of my biggest issues was housing. The GOP right now is doing victory laps because of the housing policy [they passed], but I will tell you, every housing policy pass was a deregulation. That's not to say I didn't vote for them, but it is to say that it's only one way of addressing housing issues. Deregulating everything lets in a lot of room for bad actors and mistakes when construction goes on. So I won't say that nothing was done on housing, but the stuff that was done on housing was the lowest possible element, and it was cheered on by the deregulation lobbyists.
We didn't address affordability at all. There'll be more houses, but they'll just be million dollar McMansions because we deregulated everything. How does that help me as a working person get to my job in a reasonable time and not waste a lot of gas and commuting time? It doesn't. They [claimed] full victory on things that they only did a minor hand waving at, like the housing policy.
It's pretty obvious now to a lot of onlookers that were skeptical of our arguments over the last couple of sessions that when the GOP has a hundred percent control of everything, constructive things don't happen.
After the session, Senator Fitzpatrick from Great Falls was calling for the governor to line item veto budget items because the budget was so tight. But during the session, they gave [away] a billion dollars, recklessly spent it on tax cuts that disproportionately favored the wealthy.
I hope the people in Montana see that when the Republicans have the keys to everything, that they squander it. And I hope it resonates with the people that a one-party government isn't a healthy thing for any of us.
How do you go into a session with a $2-3 billion surplus and then have a tight budget at the very end?
At the risk of asking an overly simple question, why should Montanans vote for Democrats instead?
The Democrats are making sure that our lives are stable and that we can afford to live where we work; that we can afford to work and live in dignity. [For example], Democrats are really shooting for broadband that reaches everyone, childcare so we can ensure that everybody that wants to can work, things like that. The economic argument for the Democrats is really easy to make right now in our state.
What the GOP did with their supermajority, they spent all their money on rich people and ignored some of these glaring problems like the property taxes going up or the inflation affecting our demographics, for example.
The Democrats tried to pass [bills] that would've, for example, stopped you from being exploited by rental application fees, or encouraged your stability in the case that your trailer community was sold to an outside bidder.
You ran communications for Gallatin County Democrats. Based on your experience, how can the party best convey those sorts of messages to impact turnout?
One part of it starts with us as legislators. We can write letters to the editor and op-eds to our local communities and outside of our communities, if the issue is relevant to the state as a whole.
Two, and now, this is not always the most popular opinion, but I believe the central committees are very powerful and very important in terms of spreading the message. I know here in Gallatin [County], we tried to set an example of how to do it the right way: politely, but powerfully.
We definitely are turning out more people than we ever have here in the county as far as having conversations on doorsteps, as far as letters in inboxes, that sort of thing. In full disclosure, I did serve on the central committee from 2016 to 2020. The central committees are key to getting our message out in the rest of Montana.
That said, a lot of counties don't have central committees, so I believe it's incumbent upon the state party to offer full support to any county that's looking to organize a central committee.
[They can tailor their communication to] their own community. Democrats, say, in Libby can focus on environmental safety, and Democrats in Bozeman can focus on housing and affordability and rentals. Democrats in Billings can focus on the economy or whatever it breaks down to be. We can all have our own same flavor, but still be on the same team.
Why is supporting these committees not always the “most popular” opinion?
The state party has gotten much better at utilizing the central committees, but there's always the crunch during the elections to focus on the top candidate and the national issues.
That means we have to change our message every two years. I believe the message is that Democrats are about stability, about keeping you in Montana and making sure you have a happy, healthy life. And I believe that's a perennial argument. Everybody always wants those things. Why should we change our message every two years when we have a hundred years’ worth of data that shows when you protect the people, they will elect you, just like a hundred years ago against the Copper Kings.
Is running these committees expensive? Is that why you think there isn't more emphasis on them?
No, they're not expensive. In fact, you can run one for free, more or less, with online tools and a couple of volunteers. I believe we have two part-time staffers here in Gallatin County. And that took a lot of effort to raise the funds to pay a communications person and an organizing person.
A local group of three people could decide to set up a central committee, send in the paperwork, and then be recognized right away. So they're not expensive. They just take volunteer work and maintenance to keep up. And sometimes, especially during crunch time, it's easy to overlook some of the work that we need to put towards central committees. There's always background work that can be done on [election] off-years.
Alright, let’s talk property taxes. There’s lots of confusion and anger right now around home reappraisals, what that means for property taxes, and who is responsible. What’s your assessment of the situation?
When you have the trifecta of both houses of the legislature and the governor, you need zero Democratic votes to do anything. And the outcome is that [the legislature] spent nearly all of the surplus and your property taxes have doubled [Note: Although some appraisals recently jumped by at least 40%, that increases doesn’t guarantee that taxes will rise at the same rate].
I think that's a pretty key indicator that Democrats had no part of this explosion. This is all on the Republicans because they have a hundred percent of the power and responsibility. They didn't need a single vote from us, they just did what they wanted. And this is what happens when you let them do whatever they want.
Do you think a cap on property taxes, like the one former GOP lawmaker Matthew Monforton hopes to put on the 2024 ballot, is appropriate?
Probably. But it would have to be done in a way that was equitable, and I think that's going to be a sticking point, no matter the makeup of the legislature and the governor. Is this just another way to invite rich millionaires from out-of-state to come in and drive up the cost of housing, or have billionaires retire here and buy up investment properties?
I'm really skeptical of anything the Republicans say as far as sharing the tax responsibility equitably. It would have to be pretty precise and thoughtful when it comes to who's helping, you know, fund our schools and who isn't.
So is there a place for talking about an upper limit on property taxes? For sure. My problem with all of this is we wouldn't have to be freaking out about property taxes if we didn't cut the top marginal tax rates twenty years ago under Governor Martz. And then have a huge tax cut again under Gianforte when we could have just invested that money in schools to offset property taxes.
It's ridiculous to me that they get away with cutting taxes, therefore cutting state funding to public schools, demanding then that the locals pick up the tab for the schools by a property tax, and then blaming everyone else along the way for the crisis we have with, say, properly funding salaries for teachers and keeping them in our state.
Property taxes, schools, income taxes, it’s all connected and all the GOP has done for twenty years is funnel that tax money up to rich folks and make it harder for normal people to live in Montana.
Would you support a sales tax in the state?
No. At most, I would do a very targeted tax that would hit tourists only. One of the biggest problems is that we're paying for infrastructure for tourism when there's no mechanism besides the bed tax and hotels to capture that money.
Sales tax, for me, never. Sales tax is a bipartisan disagreement: there are proponents and opponents on each side of the aisle here.
I think something special about Montana is we pay what it says on the sticker. Those taxes disproportionately hurt our lowest earners. Sales tax is a regressive tax because the least wealthy of us end up paying more of their income in those sales taxes. So it's not equitable. It's not a fair tax.
I think it’s pretty easy for a minority party to blame the majority party when issues arise, regardless of which party has the power. But what do you think the Democrats would've done differently with the budget during the session, had they held a majority?
A lot of it, I can point at the Democrats’ surplus plan that they developed before the session started and we worked off of.
This [surplus] could be used to bring long-term prosperity to everyone. I brought a bill, for example, to raise the minimum wage to $11.39, which [reflects inflation rates, compared to a similar bill] that I brought in ‘21. That was the inflation witnessed by Montanans over that period. That's what their wage should be if their minimum wage grew with inflation.
That bill died on party lines, but it would've given a raise to 40 or 50,000 Montanans that are just barely making it by, or not making it by without working more than two jobs. So that was an example of long-term prosperity that could be brought by Democratic policy. And that didn't even cost the state government anything.
If you're looking slightly bigger-term, you can look at some of our trust programs that provide housing loans to first-time home buyers. Those are great investments because the money stays in Montana and the interest gets spent on Montanans. We tried to expand several of those programs and some of them did actually make it through, but some of them did not, just because it's much more easier to give that money to millionaire donors than it is to people you never meet who are just trying to make it.
That's a pretty big difference in policy. The Republicans spent [much of it] and that’s gone. When Democrats spend, it improves our infrastructure, our human infrastructure, and our civil infrastructure, ongoing and for years to come.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One more thing (or two)…
This coming Wednesday, Jeff Tweedy, frontman of legendary rock and Americana band Wilco, will perform a solo show at the intimate Panida Theater in Sandpoint. Expect songs from all across the prolific artist’s 30-year catalogue, a good dose of wry humor and a healthy sprinkling of existential dread. You can buy tickets and find more info about the show here.
This Sunday, Missoula’s Caras Park will host the Indigenous Made Summer Market. More than 30 artists and makers will show their work, including BSCH alum Stella Nall. The event runs 10am-3pm. More info here.
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.
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