As the legislative session nears its midway point, lawmakers are expected to move up to 200 bills through House committees alone over the coming days in an effort to beat a transmittal deadline.
The schedule crunch is a collision of the need for policy-making speed with the requirement for public comment.
Wednesday is the last day to introduce general bills and March 3 is the deadline for those bills to move from one chamber to the other.
“We’ve got a lot coming this week. It’s going to be hard to say what all comes … but I’ve heard up to 200 bills on this side. We're just going to try to get them scheduled and keep moving and let the public know as quick as we can,” said Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, a Republican from Martinsdale.
The House Judiciary Committee on Monday was the poster child for the heavy workload, hearing 20 bills between 7 a.m. and just after 6 p.m., breaking only for the House floor session and a few other reprieves.
The committee added bills to its Tuesday schedule later Monday, including one to abolish the death penalty. Those additions were announced on the House floor after the noon registration cutoff for those testifying remotely, though committee chair Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican who represents rural Yellowstone and Musselshell counties, said the normal deadline would be lifted and people could email committee staffers until midnight to sign up to speak about bills.
The Legislature's rules encourage three days' notice to the public before hearings, but allow for a meeting to be "held upon notice appropriate to the circumstances." That includes accommodating the transmittal deadline, when schedules generally get tight. State law requires sufficient notice, with the amount of time required increasing "with the relative significance of the decision made." While it's generally agreed on that something like county commission meetings need 48 hours' notice, court cases have determined a shorter timeline could also be acceptable.
At the end of the House Judiciary Committee’s long day Monday, Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, raised concerns about the opportunity for input.
“If we just think about public participation in this process, and the public's ability to know and understand ... what's happening and how they can participate by 10 o'clock tonight, I have genuine concerns about this,” Bishop said. “ … Is there another option?”
Usher said he understood Bishop’s frustrations, but also said he felt more people were coming into the building to testify in person, alleviating concerns over signing up to receive a Zoom link to participate. The session is being held under a hybrid model because of the pandemic, and allows for remote participation.
“There’s a podium right here. It seems like more than 50% of the people are now coming in person. If the trend is moving back to in-person, and I can see that in the hallways, people should do that,” Usher said. “We’re always open. And they can also submit written testimony ... There’s plenty of options.”
Bishop pointed out submitting written testimony when a bill is heard could be meaningless if the committee takes immediate action on the legislation after a hearing, as happened for most of the bills Monday.
“I’m frustrated and I think the public is frustrated,” Bishop said. “ … It’s hard for me to make a good case at this point that all of those concerns have been given the weight and the integrity that they deserve.”
Usher said he understood and he was trying to make the start of the week heavier in anticipation of amendments down the road that would require time for debate.
“We’re going to have work. … We are busting our tail to make sure that we do the best we can with the tools we have,” Usher said.
The last bill the committee heard Monday was part of several that would alter the state’s child protective services, including required certification for protection workers and the timeline for emergency hearings if a child has been removed from their home. The final discussion was on a bill that would define imminent danger and add additional limitations on when a child could be removed when there’s concern about abuse or neglect.
Those opposed to the bill implored the committee to not take hasty action because of the scheduling demands.
“I know you’re busy this week, but please don’t take this bill lightly,” said Kelsen Young, the executive director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Others opposed to the bill said the timeline from introduction to committee discussion made it impossible to voice their concerns with the sponsor.
“This bill was dropped and scheduled within 24 hours and there wasn’t time,” said Marti Vining, head of the Child and Family Services Division of the state health department.
One bill from Republican Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would create COVID-19 liability protections for the state and local governments similar to legislation signed by the governor already to provide a shield for businesses in the state. The bill passed, with almost no discussion, on a 12-7 party-line vote with Republican support and Democratic opposition.
Another bill related to the pandemic requires legislative approval for any action that protects renters from eviction over nonpayment because of economic hardships after a 60-day period. That bill also passed on a party-line vote a few minutes before the House floor session started.
Some legislation dealt with firearms, such as one that says carrying a concealed weapon in a publicly owned building may not be limited by a local government, with a few exceptions. The bill passed again on a party-line vote immediately after its hearing.
By Monday evening, the committee had 15 bills on its schedule for the next day. Galt said that while he understood the congestion, the Legislature’s hands were tied with rules on where bills can be assigned.
“It’s about the best we can do with what we have now” Galt said. “ … It’s something that we’re always concerned about when it comes to this. I don’t think we’ve seen this many bills in this short a time, but every session we always have kind of everyone trying to get their last little bit before transmittal. We’re trying to be as flexible as we can to get public participation and give lawmakers the opportunity to vet these bills.”
— Reporter Sam Wilson contributed to this story.