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.

How should Montanans' public two-year colleges be changed to increase enrollment?

What barriers exist for Native American voters?

How can the state better support families in the child protection system?

Are certain state income tax credits working?

These are a few of many questions that Montana's interim legislative committees have been asked by their peers to answer before the Legislature convenes in January 2021. The 2019-2020 interim panels have been loaded up with more studies than their recent predecessors, according to information from Legislative Services Division.

Before adjourning last spring, the 66th Legislature passed legislation directing five studies to be conducted during the interim and requested 27 other studies be assigned by the Legislative Council, which is a committee of House and Senate leaders. According to Legislative Services Division, there were 20 study resolutions in 2019, 15 in 2015 and 17 in 2013.

Following established practice, the LFD polled the 150 lawmakers to prioritize the studies. Among the 88 lawmakers who responded (fewer than usual), the highest ranking studies were: House Joint Resolution 35 state and local tax policy, HJ12 defense of utility structure, HJ14 future of water court, Senate Joint Resolution 24 lodging and facility use tax and HJ 49 law enforcement and courts' role in the Child Protection System.

The Legislative Council assigned that child protection study to the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee., along with three other studies: HJ32 "best practices for reducing opioid/drug use by pregnant women," HJ48 "ways of supporting families in the CPS system" and HJ50 "matters related to senior and long-term care."

All the study resolutions request that a report be presented to the next legislative session. The interim committees also may recommend legislation on their study topics. But not all studies are undertaken and many don't result in changes to state law.

The Economic Affairs Interim Committee concluded this fall that the HJ29 "study of meat inspection laws" was unnecessary. Likewise, members of the Transportation Interim Committee voted against doing the assigned HJ34 study on passenger transportation that was largely focused on expanding rail transportation statewide. Committee leaders cited a 2010 study that found rail passenger expansion financially unfeasible. A staff legal opinion affirmed the authority of committees to chose not to do studies requested in joint resolutions, because they aren't mandates with the force of law.

However, a bill signed in to law can mandate a study. For example, House Bill 754, sponsored by Sue Vinton, R-Lockwood and Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, established a two-year commission to study restructuring two-year university system education. The law calls for a 16-member commission with eight of the members being legislators, evenly divided between Senate and House, Republicans and Democrats. Vinton and Sen. Margie MacDonald are the only Billings area members of the commission.

The law explains why the study is warranted: The Board of Regents and the Legislature incorporated the vocational-technical institutions into the Montana University System over 25 years ago. Enrollment at 2-year colleges remains relatively low compared to other states.

To learn more about what these lawmakers will be studying this year, check the list above, visit leg.mt.us online and click on committees. Studies, drafts, meeting minutes and background reports are all posted online, along with meeting schedules. All committee meetings are open to the public and most are live streamed, although only audio is available for some sessions.


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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.