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Capitol issues

The sculpture “Montana” atop the state Capitol in Helena towers over the life-size statue of Montana Territorial Gov. Thomas Francis Meagher astride his horse.

The Montana Legislature won't convene again in regular session for nearly a year, but next week around 120 of the 150 lawmakers are expected to gather in Helena for discussions about the structure and function of the Legislature itself.

Dubbed "Legislative Week," the series of meetings was organized by the Legislative Council and the Legislative Finance Committee. All legislators were invited to get together on Tuesday and Wednesday. Interim committees on Energy and Telecommunications, Transportation, Revenue, Legislative Audit, Consumer are meeting Monday. On Thursday, meetings are set for Environmental Quality Council, State Administration and Veterans Affairs, and the Children, Families, Health and Human Services interim committees.

According to the Legislative Week website: "The purpose is to bring legislators together to 'cross-pollinate' and provide opportunities to receive some additional training and share information. It is also being held in conjunction with the study in Senate Bill No. 310 that is looking into annual sessions and we thought giving a chance to meet in January 2020 is a small way to try on meeting every year."

SB310, sponsored by Sen. Ryan Omundson, R-Buffalo, was approved by large bipartisan majorities in the 2019 session. The bill included some statutory changes in legislative responsibilities and directed the Legislative Council, made up of the House and Senate leaders, to conduct a wide-ranging study of how the Legislature works.

The Steering Committee for the SB310 study is asking lawmakers and the public to comment on:

  • How to build knowledge and experience to strengthen the Legislature.
  • Would a change to annual sessions be more effective?
  • Would changing the timing of the start of the session be helpful?
  • How to better integrate policy and budget during the session and the interim.
  • If major changes are desired, should there be a commission with wider representation from the public to make recommendations?

Ideas for annual sessions have been floated previously. Usually, the proposal was to split the 90 days allotted for the biennial session between two annual sessions. The state of Wyoming has annual sessions, but like Montana develops a two-year budget. One year Wyoming has a budget session, the next year a policy session. Experience has shown that Wyoming lawmakers often will consider policy in the designated budget session and budget issues in the policy session.

Similarly, the Montana Legislature has numerous rules to facilitate moving bills through the process and deadlines by which bills must pass or die, but there are numerous exceptions and workarounds to the rules.

There have been times year ago, when Montana annual sessions seemed like a better idea. In recent years, the legislative sessions have been so partisan and contentious that most Montanans are relieved when the session adjourns. Most important decisions are postponed to the final days, and often the public doesn't know all that's in the legislation till after the legislators go home.

Since 1974, the Montana Constitution has mandated regular sessions of not more than 90 days in odd-numbered years. A change to that schedule would require a vote of the people to amend the Constitution.

While annual sessions are unlikely to resolve the conflicts that have hindered lawmakers in biennial sessions, it is reasonable to assess the Legislature's effectiveness and consider what other changes could help it work better for the people of Montana.

To see a schedule of the Legislative Week sessions and the interim committee meetings, go to the Legislature's website: leg.mt.gov or check the link with this Gazette opinion at billingsgazette.com. Each meeting in the Capitol will include opportunity for public comments. The SB310 discussions will be live streamed on the Legislaturer's website and most meetings will be, too.

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