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Senate President pro tem Ken Bogner's goals for 2023
The Miles City Republican also addresses criticism of the party, and shares his philosophy on working with Democrats.
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Greetings, all, and welcome back to the newsletter! I hope you’re grooving to the Christmas music. If not, it’s time to accept your inevitable fate.
Last week, we took a deep dive into the ACLU’s strategy to undermine the GOP supermajority’s power in the imminent legislative session. Today, we’re going to turn the tables and approach the session from the other side of the looking glass, in a wide-reaching conversation with Republican Senator Ken Bogner.
Last month, Bogner beat out his colleague Barry Usher in a secret ballot vote to become the Senate President pro tempore; effectively, in his words, the Vice President of the Senate. This leadership role will carry particular significance in the 2023 session. Although Republicans will hold a veto-proof supermajority in the state house, that doesn’t guarantee that they will vote as a unified voice. It will take members in leadership roles like Bogner to coordinate and steer the party towards its myriad goals.
Bogner brings a range of political experiences to his new position: he currently represents southeast Montana’s District 19, including Miles City, in the Senate; earlier this year he served as the chairman of the Economic Affairs Interim Committee; he also ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for Lieutenant Governor in 2020.
While we focus on Senator Bogner’s top legislative priorities for 2023, we also explore his approach to working with colleagues across the aisle, and talk about how he believes he can best serve his constituents in District 19. Lastly, he responds to the criticism that some of the state GOP’s policies run antithetical to conservative, limited government politics.
Max: Ken, I thought we could start by talking about your new role. To be perfectly honest, I don't think I fully understand what being the Senate pro tempore actually entails.
Senator Ken Bogner: (laughs) I tell people to think of it like the Vice Presidency. I serve at the pleasure of the President, so whatever he needs to make the Senate run as efficiently as possible, that's what I'm there to help do. If he's got something that he needs done, he looks to me; if he can't be somewhere, I'm there as his representative.
Why did the position appeal to you?
It really appealed to me because this is going to be an historic session. We have a supermajority as Republicans and we have a huge budget surplus; things that are unprecedented or that haven't happened in a long time. I wanted to be a part of that conversation and help the Legislature disperse those funds and navigate a session that we haven’t seen before.
You served as a Marine in Iraq; you also attended Columbia University in New York City and Middlesex University in London. I’m curious how that time spent far away from home has informed your work in the Montana Senate?
My military service in the Marine Corps really set me up for this role [of President pro tem]. In the military, there's a lot of moving pieces and you can have a great plan, but as soon as you hear that first bullet go overhead, things change and it gets chaotic. And you have to be nimble and willing to adjust those plans on the fly. When we're only in session 90 days and we see 3,000 bill draft requests, things can change quick.
I think [my education] has also been beneficial in the Legislature. I’m bringing those experiences and the understanding that things aren't always black and white, and that there's usually another side to things, and that it really pays to listen to other people's perspectives.
Let’s talk about the upcoming session. Senate President Ellsworth recently said that the GOP needs to be “responsible with [the] opportunity” afforded by a supermajority, and to “handle it the way people want to see it.” What does that responsibility look like to you?
There's a reason why supermajorities tend to only last a short period of time. I think it’s incumbent on the leadership to make sure that the supermajority keeps that supermajority.
I can't speak for him, but for me the responsibility would be to make sure that we retain the seats that we have and we continue to do the work that Montana voters want us to do. They've sent a clear message over the last few sessions; we have a responsibility to continue to do what they wish.
It's not easy, you know, when you have that many [members]. We have 34 Republicans in the Senate, so we have to make sure we're all on the same page as best we can be, and that we're moving in the same direction and that we can accomplish our goals without losing any seats.
On that note, in last week’s newsletter, I spoke to Keegan Medrano from ACLU of Montana. Keegan described a plan to drive a wedge between GOP members who are “sort of true libertarians, who don't believe in growing the government” and “Republicans who want to grow the government.” Do you see that distinction as valid?
This is why I love being a Republican: we do have that diversity of thought and we're not all the same. And I think that makes our party stronger. There are divisions, but it's not detrimental—we keep picking up seats. We're able to stick together when we need to and continue to grow. As long as everyone feels heard, I think we'll have a great session.
I think it’s a bold strategy to try and upset the supermajority going into the session, especially one that's continued to pick up seats.
Ok, here’s a related—and probably more fraught—question for you. One of the criticisms of the Montana GOP is that some of the party’s bills and policies will expand the reach of government, and are thus antithetical to a conservative or limited government ethos.
For instance, Tammi Fisher, the former Republican mayor of Kalispell, made that argument in regard to LR-131, the Born Alive Infant Protection Act.
One could make a similar argument about Representative Mitchell’s new bill to ban youth from attending drag shows. Do you think that’s a fair criticism, that these sorts of bills run counter to a limited government and conservative ethos?
I personally don't think that's fair. We did a lot of things in the last session with a Republican governor that we felt gave the state government a more limited role. You gave the example of children at drag shows. As much as we want government out of our lives, there is a role for government and I think one of those roles is to protect our children. I think we are very much the party of limited government and we also want to protect our children.
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Considering the Democrats’ limited power, how do you view your relationship with their party, and where do you see potential room for consensus?
Yeah, I think going into the session, the relationship is good. We respect the minority. All legislators, they've been elected by their constituents. So we're definitely going in with that respect. And I know that is a goal of both mine and [Senate] President Ellsworth.
A lot of work done on [privacy] has been bipartisan. So that's one area I think that we can really strengthen our relationship [with Democrats].
What are some of your personal top priorities for the session?
I would like to put some transparency requirements on adversarial nations’ [business] dealings in Montana. For instance, if China is donating to our university system, or buying real estate or agricultural property, or if our state dollars are going to Chinese companies’ investments.
There are federal laws that would prevent Montana from preventing these purchases. But we can start with transparency and knowing who is buying our farms and ranches, or our homes. I use the example of China because they are investing around the world. For example, a Chinese company purchased land next to a military base in North Dakota.
I would say my other goal is to continue work on technology policy. I want to make sure that Montanans are protected from the government when it comes to facial recognition technology and biometric data.
If I understand correctly, there are two facial recognition technology bills at play. Representative Noland has a bill to fully ban it, while yours leaves the state limited options to use it. Does that sound about right?
I think that's a good way to generalize it. My bill would outlaw continuous surveillance, which I think 99% of the Legislature is on board with. It's finding the fine line between using facial recognition technology for its benefits rather than how it can be abused. And my bill would add some exemptions for 1:1 verification and one-to-many verification.
What do you mean by that?
I'll give you an example. If you file a claim to get unemployment insurance, the state wants you to verify who you are, [to make sure] you’re not trying to be fraudulent and steal money. So, for example, there may be an app that you would use to take a photo of your driver's license and then you would take a selfie and the app would compare the driver's license to the selfie to make sure that you are who you say you are.
Got it. So that in your bill would be kosher, versus this “one-to-many” model where you're cross-referencing an image against a set of images—is that right?
Correct. In my bill, there may be an exception for serious crimes, but law enforcement agencies would have to go through the Department of Justice to be able to use that technology [and verify the identity of a suspected criminal]. They would need a warrant and it would need to be a serious crime.
Thanks. I feel like my knowledge of facial recognition technology has gone from 0% to 0.1%. Beyond your personal priorities, what bills and policies will be at the top of the heap for the caucus writ large?
As I mentioned earlier, we have a budget surplus [of $1.9 billion] that we're going to have to deal with. I would say that is what the caucus as a whole is most concerned about: making sure that we spend that money wisely, and that the taxpayers get the biggest bang for their buck with that surplus. [We want to] make sure that there's long term tax relief and that we’re putting some of it into longer term investments, and capital investments in the state.
There’s another priority that the Legislature wants to take on, and that's bringing a little more power back to the Legislature. We've seen over time that the other two branches of government have gotten more powerful than the Legislature. We'd like to see the Legislature—the branch closest to the people—be an equal.
What does that look like in concrete terms?
For me—speaking personally and not as a representative for the entire Senate—I would like to see [us move from] a 90 day session every two years to annual sessions that are maybe split up into 75 and 25 day sessions, and keep our standing committees so that we have time to draft and vet bills longer.
It’s a big ask of our bill drafters and of our legislators, especially freshmen coming in. Last session we had the highest percentage of new legislators in the country, I think it was 30%. You’re asking them to come in a month or two months after getting elected and do 90 days worth of legislating. And then they're basically done for a year and a half.
There's interim committees, I know. But if we could get more legislators to be able to learn as we go and, and maybe have an extra session, even if it is just 25 days, that would just make us a stronger body and give us the ability to represent our constituents better.
What would you have benefited from the most, with a longer session?
Just having the time to look closer at the legislation. Right now there's 3,000 bill draft requests [for the 2023 session]. Now, all of them don't make it to the floor. But as a committee member, you are responsible for being the resident expert in that field and learning the issue that is in your committee. So to have more time to really delve in and comb through proposed legislation would be so beneficial.
And the more time you spend on legislation when it's initially passed, the less time you have to spend fixing it in the future.
Lastly, in addition to your new role as President pro tempore, you will continue to represent District 19 in the Senate. What concerns do you hear from your constituents, and how do you think you can best represent those folks?
The biggest issue is that we're an aging population. We need to get either younger people to stay or come in to the communities that I represent. To do that, we need to make it a little easier [to facilitate] things like childcare. If we're trying to recruit a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer to come into the community to provide a need, we want to be able to have those services that they need, whether it's childcare or some economic development opportunities.
One thing that the caucus is really concerned about and want to make a priority is tax relief. That would create a better business climate for Montana and get those companies to want to move to eastern and rural Montana.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, that’s all for today, folks. Thanks for reading, and we’ll be back with a new installment next week!
In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.