HELENA — A legislative panel this week begins a yearlong project to explore ways to reinvigorate a branch of government that some lawmakers believe is playing a lesser role since the passage of term limits.
The Legislative Council will begin discussions Wednesday looking at how legislatures operate in similar states.
It follows a two-day retreat by council members in August. Among other topics, they were asked to discuss “ways to restore trust, respect, faith and confidence in the legislative branch,” notes from gathering show.
Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said he doesn’t believe legislators have a specific outcome in mind.
“I personally think that with the adoption of term limits and the likelihood they will stay, the role of the Legislature as an equal branch of government has been diminished in Montana,” Essmann said. “With our current framework, our ability to do oversight of the activities of the executive branch is diminished.”
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said a number of council members want to find ways to strengthen the legislative branch. He wants to look at what other similarly situated Legislatures have done to strengthen their legislative branches.
“There is some belief due to term limits and other factors that the Legislature is not as vibrant a branch as in the past,” he said. “We are looking at ways to make our branch stronger and more responsive to the public.”
The state, like the federal government, has three branches of government—legislative, executive and judicial.
In Montana, the executive branch, headed by the governor and other statewide elected officials, works year-round. So does the judicial branch, led by the Montana Supreme Court.
Legislators, in contrast, meet for just 90 days every two years. They meet for sessions that usually last from early January until late April in odd-numbered years.
They don’t convene again as a House and as a Senate again until early January for the next regular session unless a special session is called.
Committees meet during the interim to study issues, but they lack any power to act on behalf of the entire Legislature.
Montana is one of only four states remaining that meet biennially or every other year, according to a report by Susan Byorth Fox, the Legislative Council’s executive director.
The others are Nevada, North Dakota and Texas.
Oregon switched to annual sessions in 2011, while Arkansas did so in 2009 and Kentucky in 2001. New Hampshire did so in 1985, and Washington went to annual sessions in 1981.
The 1972 Montana Constitution put in place annual legislative sessions for the first time in state history. They were tried only in 1973 and 1974 and abandoned.
Opponents of annual sessions put a constitutional initiative on the 1974 ballot to revert to biennial sessions, although for longer sessions than those prior to 1972. Voters approved it and the state has had every-other-year sessions ever since.
Montana voters have rejected two proposed constitutional amendments to bring back annual sessions.
Essmann said he’s always liked Wyoming’s version of annual sessions or some version of it.
Wyoming legislators meet for 40-day sessions to deal with general legislation in odd-numbered years and for 20-day sessions in even-numbered years to pass a budget.
Of the four states with biennial sessions, only Montana and Nevada impose term limits on legislators. By a 2-1 margin, Montana voters in 1992 approved a constitutional amendment to limit the terms of executive and legislative branch officials.
In Montana, a representative can serve in the House no more than eight years in any 16-year period. That amounts to four two-year terms. A senator faces the same limits of serving no more than eight years in any 16-year period. That is two four-year terms in the Senate.
An attempt to lengthen the limits to 12 years was rejected by voters. Over the years, Montana polls have shown voters still strongly support term limits here.
Essmann said it’s always difficult for political parties to recruit candidates to run for the Legislature.
“Term limits have only made it tougher,” he said. “It forces turnover.”
Essmann has just completed serving five sessions in the Senate. He got an extra one because he was appointed to replace another senator mid-term.
“I’m just at the point where I’m starting to understand how some of these (executive branch) agencies function,” he said.
Hunter said he hopes the Legislative Council effort can focus on how lawmakers can really use the tools available in the legislative process. “I think many of us believe, due to term limits, people’s skills and ability to use the tools and levers available are diminished,” the House leader said.
The Legislative Council’s meeting Wednesday will look at what other legislatures do, whether they limit the introduction of bills and look at the Montana legislative calendar.
Future meetings through November 2014 will examine how sessions are structured in similar states, how other states structure their legislative leadership, how to facilitate and strengthen the Legislature’s role, how to train legislators and other topics.