Facing near-unanimous opposition from Montana conservatives, and bipartisan opposition from his Senate colleagues, US Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) proved why people do not trust politicians and hate their government. At the last minute, Daines slipped the CSKT Water Compact into the coronavirus relief package. With one source estimating the bill only had a 3% chance of implementation, it is not a total surprise that Montana’s junior senator would make such a nefarious move.
On page 2,323 of the nearly 5,600-page bill is the fraudulently-named Montana Water Rights Protection Act. If implemented, the bill would take away water rights from 2/3 of the state and is expected to have catastrophic unintended consequences. Multiple legislators have confirmed that a group of conservative Montana legislators met in private with Daines and his chief of staff to make a last-ditch effort to urge him to withdraw his bill. In addition to denying the request, the senator reportedly went on to state that he did not care if he lost his 2020 re-election bid as a result of throwing his conservative base to the wolves.
Despite senior staff in the White House and Vice President’s office telling Montana Daily Gazette sources that President Trump and Vice President Pence would not support the illegal and unconstitutional compact as a standalone bill, “emergency” and omnibus packages such as this (especially during a lame duck period) rarely get vetoed.
During a cleverly scripted hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Daines reiterated his claim that he worked with legislators and county commissioners to resolve this dispute with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. With the nine county commissioners from Flathead, Lake, and Sanders Counties united against the Daines’ bill along with dozens of legislators, the senator was caught lying on the record.
With a $2 billion price tag, red flags went up when DC congressional staffers began to look at the precedent-setting bill, prompting them to reach out to their Montana contacts. Sources report that Daines’ office told both the Trump Administration, and congressional staff that the CSKT Water Compact was a “non-controversial” bill in hopes of letting this quietly slip by. This prompted the Chairman of the Montana State Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Keith Regier (R-Kalispell), to draft a letter stating that the bill was controversial and should be sent back to the legislature.
In January, opponents of the CSKT Water Compact held a press conference to discuss Daines’ disastrous legislation and Sen. Al Olszewski (R-Kalispell) went public with an op-ed that addressed the Daines bill. At the time, if elected governor, Olszewski said he would use the money the state allocated to give to the tribe to fight the legislation in court. Conservatives like Regier and Olszewski would like to see the bill come back to the legislature as it is no longer the version that was narrowly passed in 2015.
It is worth mentioning that Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen (R), incoming Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R), and incoming Congressman Matt Rosendale (R) all voted against the bill while in the state legislature. One person who has largely kept their name out of this fight is governor-elect Greg Gianforte and his running mate Kristen Juras. Gianforte and Juras are both supporters of the CSKT Water Compact. Additionally, Gianforte is expected to vote in favor of the nearly $1 trillion package.
At least one legislator has said that Knudsen, who was Speaker of the House when the Compact passed, supports Sen. Olszewski’s position that the state’s portion of the payout to the CSKT should be used to fight this in court. The question now is, will he?