As the Montana Legislature nears its final days, some lawmakers are objecting to policies being added into so-called budget companion bills in ways they say skirt public input and even legislators' awareness of what's happening.

Companion bills are meant to execute the state budget, but can also be vehicles to pass big policy changes late in the legislative session. Several of the bills were moved Wednesday to what's called free conference committees, where legislators have wide latitude to make both fiscal and policy changes.

Distributed around the Capitol on Wednesday was a flyer printed on bright pink paper with the headline "Just Trust Us," followed by the words "Really? Seriously? Do Friends Leverage Friends?"

The flyer listed several companion bills and illustrates the brewing tension over their fate in the last nine or fewer days of the session. 

Companion bills start life as placeholders, with nothing more than language to transfer $100 from one fund to another. They're meant to be amended to accommodate last-minute changes to the budget without re-opening the entire budget bill, House Bill 2. But policy also gets slipped in by amendments that don't go through the same public hearing process as bills.

Examples of that include doubling the size of a drug interdiction team within the Montana Highway Patrol, adding six full-time positions at a cost of $1.2 million. That's been added to Senate Bill 352, the lone Senate companion bill.

SB 352 was meant to coordinate the spending in some of the late-moving policy bills with the state budget bill, which legislators would like to avoid having to open up again and change this late in the session.

The state Constitution limits what can be amended into bills to things that fall under the bill title. Because SB 352 has a very broad title, to "generally revise laws related to the state budget," some lawmakers see it as a sort of legislative Christmas tree where they can keep hanging their ornaments, or ideas and bills they don't want to see die.

For SB 352 so far, that's included the $1.2 million drug interdiction team. Other attempts this session have been made to graft major changes in DUI laws onto a companion bill for the judicial branch. Another proposed amendment dropped Wednesday afternoon for a different companion bill would change how drug treatment courts work.

"I think when we go into these free conference committees on something that has such a broad title, I get a little nervous," said Sen. Dee Brown, a Republican from Thompson Falls, on Wednesday. "I get a little nervous for the taxpayers of Montana because I am concerned they would not be part of the discussion."

Still, a unanimous Senate voted 50-0 to send SB 352 to a free conference committee. So why not just vote against Senate Bill 352?

Because the bill also includes the appropriations for all the remaining policy bills still working their way through the Legislature. If the companion bill doesn't pass, those policy bills don't get funding, essentially killing whatever changes they hoped to accomplish.

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Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, said Wednesday on the Senate floor that this session there's been an increased effort to allow for public comment on policies proposed in companion bills. Still, with just nine days left in the legislative session, things can move so quickly it's hard for people — even lawmakers — to track.

"If there's something brand-new (in a companion bill) it needs to be aired and have the opportunity of public comment on it at an appropriate time," Thomas said. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

Sometimes policies put into companion bills have been debated in other legislation that died earlier in the session, but sometimes they're entirely new proposals unveiled at the last minute.

Several other companion bills tied to segments of state government like the health department or the judicial system are also headed toward free conference committees in coming days. 

Elsewhere in the Legislature on Wednesday, the House pushed back votes to move the state budget and the proposal to continue Medicaid expansion toward the finish line.

Legislators said they delayed the Medicaid expansion vote to make sure it followed proper procedure as the bill moved back from the Senate.

Rep. Nancy Ballance, a Republican from Hamilton who is critical in the crafting of the budget, said Wednesday she wanted to see a resolution on how much revenue the state is expected to collect be firmed up before moving the budget. Ballance said she also wanted companion bills and some lingering legislation — like the Medicaid expansion bill — to be finalized before closing up the state budget.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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