HELENA — The Republican-controlled Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday rebuffed attempts to open the traditional closed-door meetings of the panel that assigns senators to committees every other year.
Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, tried several motions to clarify that the Senate Committee on Committees is subject the same open-meeting laws and rules under which other legislative panels operate.
All of Phillips’ motions failed, with all but one on a straight party-line vote, with Democrats supporting him and Republicans opposed.
By traditional practice, the Senate Committee on Committees, made up of members elected only from the majority party in the Senate, decides which senators will serve on which committees. It meets behind closed doors, without public notice or public participation.
Phillips suggested that this committee be subject to the same open-meeting requirements as other legislative committees.
“As the chairman of the Committee on Committees, I would not be for this,” said Sen. John Brendan, R-Scobey, who isn’t on the Rules Committee, referring to the amendments.
Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, called Phillips’ motion redundant because the Senate already is subject to state open-meeting laws.
“You couldn’t be more correct,” Phillips replied. That is the intent, he said, but the Committee on Committees is not following it.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said not providing public notice of the Committee on Committees meetings and closing meetings to the public has been “a persistent practice” under both political parties when they have been in control of the Senate. That included when he headed the panel several decades ago, he said.
“I really think Sen. Phillips is trying to get at the nubbin of this when he says the Committee on Committee shall follow the rules that any other committee of the Legislature follows,” Jergeson said.
Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, suggested the Committee on Committee may not fall under the state’s open-meeting laws because the panel “does their work before they’re really an official committee.” What’s more, some senators on the committee have not yet been sworn into office, he said.
Jergeson said the courts have held that the November caucuses, where parties choose their leaders for the next session, are open and covered by open-meeting laws.
Chas Vincent, R-Libby, who serves on the current Committee on Committees, said the Republican panel members honored all of the Democrats’ requests for committee assignments.
While the Senate designates a committee to make these assignments, in the House it is the speaker’s responsibility to make all committee appointments.