Discover more from Big Sky Chat House
Sen. Forrest Mandeville pitches a GOP strategy for 2025, criticizes Gov. Gianforte's wildlife habitat funding veto and attacks Sen. Tester on his voting record
Plus: Powerstrip Fest comes to the American Legion!
Welcome to Big Sky Chat House— a newsletter of candid conversations with movers and shakers in Montana.
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Equipped with a passion for the wonkier side of policy, a background as a land-use planner and strong conservative convictions, GOP State Senator Forrest Mandeville (Columbus) has a lot to say about the state of affairs in Montana.
Mandeville served three sessions in the House and just completed his first session in the Senate. He also ran, unsuccessfully, for Secretary of State in 2019.
This interim session Mandeville will serve on the Legislative Audit committee, as well as the State Administration and Veterans Affairs committee, navigating a variety of issues including pension reviews (apologies to all you pension policy fans out there, that part of our conversation didn’t make the final cut).
Read on as Mandeville tackles a wide range of topics—from the housing reform bill he sponsored, to his beefs with Sen. Tester, his concerns around Governor Gianforte’s veto of an extremely popular and bipartisan funding bill and more.
Max: What do you consider the biggest victories of the session? What are you most proud to tell your constituents about?
Senator Forrest Mandeville: It's pretty wonky, but Senate Bill 382, the Land Use Planning Act, is something I'm extremely proud of. There was a big coalition that worked to get that to the finish line. We really had to narrow the scope to get it passed, but it has the potential to really modernize the way we do planning in Montana. It takes away from the ad-hoc case-by-case basis review and adds some predictability into the process for everyone.
Right now, if you're a developer, you go buy property and you decide what you want to do; it might be compliant with the growth policy, but you still have to go through your zone change and you have to go through your public hearing process. Then you have to go through the subdivision process, go through a public hearing, and go through everything again. So this would make it so the developer will have [more predictability] and a better idea of what they can and cannot do on a piece of property. And the neighborhood will have a chance to weigh in on both the land use plan and any zoning changes.
I expect to be working on tweaks to that bill in the next session, to make sure that it's running as smoothly as possible.
As far as the session as a whole goes, I'm glad we were able to return some money to the taxpayers. But I also think we got a lot of really important stuff done through long-term tax reductions. We had a lot of solid pro-life bills that we were able to get through and get signed by the governor. I think we had a really successful session from a conservative standpoint.
When I interviewed him for this newsletter, Democratic Representative Kelly Kortum argued that housing policies passed during the session will largely create a lot of McMansions, versus denser, more affordable housing. Do you think there's merit to that argument?
Not really. I mean, what we have now is single-family homes on five or ten acres. That's what our [current] regulations have incentivized through minimum lot sizes and not really having any incentive for developers to densify.
If someone wants to go put McMansions on ten-acre lots, we're not saying they can't. We just want the market to decide that; we don't want the regulations to dictate the market. [Currently] it's so much cheaper to go build those big houses on large lots in the country, because it is so prohibitively expensive, process-wise, to create infill development.
You mentioned on Facebook that the session was not without its “disappointments.” What you were referring to there?
Not all of my bills got passed. I had a bill get vetoed, actually, that had to do with subdividing and-land use as well [pertaining to sewers and wells].
I don't think that we went in to the session with a very good plan. I think there were several plans floating out there. I think the governor had a plan. I think maybe House leadership had a plan. I think there were some members of the Senate that had a plan and they were generally in compliance with each other. Everyone had an idea: we want to reduce taxes, we want to give some money back, we don't want to spend the surplus on new spending, new programs. But I think the way they came together was fairly clunky. And I think that was shown in the way that we ended our session.
I'd like to see more of a plan next session. It's easier said than done. I don't like to just tell people what to do, but I would like to see a majority coalition make a plan before [the 2025] session and stick with it and make sure there's buy-in for the main issues. I think it's a little early to know what those issues are going to be, but let's figure this out ahead of time and stick with it. Otherwise we're gonna have 151 plans, again.
People get hurt when their plans fall apart, when people don't agree with them.
Are you referring to coordination with the governor's office? Is it more a question of being selective with the bills being introduced?
Kind of all of the above (laughs). I was on Finance and Claims this session, and it was my first time on a budget committee. I'll take some responsibility for it as well, but it would've been nice to have had conversations with the governor's office about what they needed, and what was budget dust; what they requested just to see if they could get the legislature to approve it or not, and what was really needed.
Senator Lang had a bill [Senate Bill 442] that had to do with funding for wildlife habitat and for county roads using marijuana money. Senator Lang did a great job getting a coalition together for that bill and addressing a lot of the weak points in the first Senate committee, getting those fixed to move forward. I was very disappointed that the governor vetoed that bill. I think there could have been more work on the governor's side to let the legislature and the sponsor know what his problems were with the bill. He had a couple of different concerns in his veto letter that I don't think were completely valid. So that was a disappointment for me; it passed with overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate and the governor just took the veto pen to it.
I think there were some suspicious things that happened with that veto, timing-wise. I think we should get the opportunity to override that veto. I do not think that the Senate was still in session when that was vetoed. I don't know what the heartburn is about doing it. If you think the veto is valid, if you think it's going to stand up, let's have the poll and see what happens.
Looking towards 2024, what do you think a Republican would do in the Senate better than Senator Tester?
Senator Tester's a pretty good Republican when he is running for re-election. But for about five-and-a-half years of his six-year term, he votes in lockstep with the liberals in DC. I hope a Republican in the Senate would be a better voice for pro-life legislation; that's important to me. Also—and this doesn't always work out as well as I would like it to—I would hope that a Republican senator would be more fiscally responsible than Senator Tester has been.
I've seen people I thought would be good Republicans get to DC and vote to print money and vote for big handouts. Big checks were handed out during Covid and both President Trump and President Biden were responsible for that. President Biden authorized bigger checks and Senator Tester was right there with him.
You mentioned that you feel like Senator Tester campaigns as a Republican. What are you referring to there?
It seems that when he is running for re-election the farm pictures start coming out and he starts talking about how he is just a good old boy dirt farmer from Big Sandy, but the way he’s voted is the opposite of what most farmers and ranchers I know would want to see out there: pro-abortion legislation and some of this big spending stuff is not what my constituents who work in that same field want to see. I do not believe that he's accurately representing what his values are, basically.
Farming is obviously a big part of Senator Tester’s public persona, but I don’t see how that correlates with something like his voting record on abortion access.
Looking at the state as a whole, you have a very pro-life group of individuals, like Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who got almost 60% of the vote a couple of years ago, which is more than Senator Tester has ever received by a large amount. [Being] pro-life's not the only instance: second Amendment rights is another one where Senator Tester will say one thing, act like a a pro-gun good old boy, and then vote with the anti-Second Amendment crowd in Washington [Note: Senator Tester has a mixed record on supporting firearms-related bills].
I just don't think that the persona that he puts out there as being one of us is accurate, given his votes. And I understand he gets elected, and I respect his ability to do that. It's just frustrating when you say one thing to get elected and then act a different way once you are elected. And probably every politician does this. It's definitely not unique to him: you say what you need to say to get the votes in order to win, because you can't do anything if you don't win. But I think your votes in office say a lot more about your priorities and your values than what you say on the campaign trail.
Who do you think is best suited to take on Senator Tester next year?
Well, I'd really like to see Congressman Rosendale run for the Senate again. I think Matt's been a good advocate for conservative values. He may not have grown up in Montana, but I think he's done his best to show those Montana values. He's been involved in agriculture on the eastern side of the state. He puts the work in.
I can't tell you how many meetings and gatherings I've been to where Congressman Rosendale is there and he knows people by name. He'll chat with my wife about our kids; he doesn't have to do that. I think he honestly does have that interest in my family and what my family's going through. I think he's a very genuine individual.
I don't know [businessman Tim Sheehy, who announced his campaign in June]. I've never met him. I had the ability to go to a meet-and-greet in Billings a couple weeks ago, but it was during the middle of the day and, like most people my age, I was working. I can't really speak to who he is or what his values are. I respect his military service, but I'd rather see someone that has put in the time to get to know Montana, like Congressman Rosendale.
Are your constituents asking you about property tax increases? If so, how does that conversation go?
First, I think the valuations that the Department of Revenue has put on some property is insane. It's just wacky. My wife and I moved about a year and a half ago, and so we had an appraisal done on our current home. Compared to what the Department of Revenue says our home’s market value is, what it appraised for a little more than a year ago is massively out of line. So I do tell people to send in their forms to request a another look at the assessment values. You can also protest your taxes.
People don't always understand that that does not mean your taxes are going to double. There's mill values that haven't been calculated yet. There's a couple of shoes left to drop before we know exactly what the impact on taxes is going to be. But that's frustrating because people are just getting little bits of the information at a time, and you have to stay on top of it because that drip, drip, drip of bad news is not a good thing.
I’m also telling people to be sure to apply for your property tax rebates, which we should be getting more information about within the next couple of weeks.
Do you support instituting a sales tax?
I've always voted against it when it was in the House [on the grounds that] we don't need another tax, we just need to make sure that the taxes we have are used properly. In my experience, if you institute a sales tax, the next thing you start talking about is what should be exempt from a sales tax. And if we exempt a bunch of stuff, then the sales tax and everything else would have to be higher to make up that that difference.
I wouldn't say I'm 100% against the sales tax, but we’d really have to think about how we're going to implement it before we do.
I'm a little more inclined to support capping property taxes at a certain rate or controlling the rate of increase, which has been discussed before as well. But if you cap homeowners property taxes, you do create a shift to agriculture, commercial and industrial properties. How much of a shift would that create and how should that shift be controlled?
We need to do something. Maybe we do a statewide sales tax and use it to backfill local taxes, to basically do a rebate [on] property taxes at the local level. But then how do you prevent a municipality, a county, a school district from charging a lot in taxes with the assumption that the statewide sales tax is going to backfill it? So there's a lot of options. There's a lot of questions.
Is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?
I think it's an extreme blessing to be able to serve in the Senate and serve the state of Montana and my constituents. It's not something I take lightly. Sometimes I do wish that there was a way for me to spend more time doing this, but it's a part-time job and I don't think it should be a full-time job. But I wish that I had the time to go to all of the meetings and meet with people more than I [currently] can.
I like to say that there's not a lot of jerks up there [in the legislature] because you do have to get elected (laughs). Even the people from the opposite side of the aisle, or even some of the people in my party that I don't always get along with, they're genuinely good people. And I do like working with them.
I've been in meetings where me and someone else have just been ripping on each other, and then you walk out, you shake hands and move on to the next bill, because you might need that vote on the next bill.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
One more thing…
I’ll be MC’ing the inaugural Power Strip Festival at the American Legion in Missoula on August 19! Tons of great music, great DJs, delicious food and beyond!
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.