Montana Republicans in the House on Tuesday approved amendments to their rules that would make it possible for committee chairs to kill bills through inaction, though committees themselves could overturn that with a majority vote.
Republican Rep. Matt Regier, of Kalispell, brought the proposal. He said it will allow the committee chairs to manage the landslide of legislation heading their way. It also gives the Speaker of the House more power in committee assignments.
But Democrats, who are in the minority, argue the changes will limit what legislation can be heard and inappropriately concentrate power with one person. The makeup of committees is also majority-Republican, meaning if a bill from a Democrat was stalled, the party would need support from GOP lawmakers to get it moving again.
Republicans in the November election took back the governor's office for the first time in 16 years and added to their majority in the Legislature.
The amended House rules still need approval after the session starts Jan. 4. Regier's amendment, and the rules, both passed on a 12-7 vote Monday. The amendment first died on a 9-9 tie with Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, absent and not having given his proxy to another lawmaker. When Usher came back to the meeting, the committee reconsidered the amendment.
A total of 1,812 bills have been requested so far, continuing a trend of a skyrocketing workload over the past few sessions.
“We have a lot of bill drafts that we need efficiency as it goes through committee. This allows the chair of the committee, at their discretion, to bring the bills forward,” Regier said. “It does provide … that a committee through a majority vote may schedule a bill in the committee’s possession for a hearing and committee action. So that is also giving the majority of the committee oversight if they disagree with the chair.”
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said the change could silence ideas and stifle the voices of Montanans.
“Our worry about that is it’s making it harder to represent our constituents and making it harder for our constituents to have a voice in the process,” Abbott said.
Under the change, committee chairs wouldn’t have to schedule the bills for hearings or votes. That could be overruled by a majority vote in the committee.
The change also gives the speaker say, instead of needing approval of the majority of the House, over committee assignments. Regier said that was a reversion to the way the House rules were before the 2019 session.
“That’s going back to the way things were done for years,” Regier said. " … The thought behind this is that we elect the speaker, let's let the speaker do his job.”
One Republican in the committee, Rep. Casey Knudsen, of Malta, spoke against the proposal. He said given the challenges the Legislature will face this year with the pandemic, it was best to leave the rules as they were in the last session.
“I think we need to focus on creating a set of rules that will allow the session to operate as smooth and as efficient as possible,” Knudsen said. “The 2019 rules were hammered out across the entire Republican caucus, across the entire Legislature, and I do believe they did a good job at being fair and equitable to all legislators.”
On Monday, the joint House and Senate Rules Committees met to discuss adaptations the Legislature might make as it meets during a pandemic that has sickened 69,346 Montanans and killed 763.
That group did not make any decisions, saying they would vote when they met again Dec. 16.
The Senate Rules Committee adjourned after roughly 20 minutes, opting to put its own changes on hiatus during in its breakout meeting Tuesday.
Sen. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, had proposed amendments to Senate rules that would acknowledge the technology at play when lawmakers participate remotely, such as raising their hand through a Zoom function or vote by remote means.
“These are almost all procedural changes either to acknowledge the technology we already use or to accommodate remote participation,” Pomnichowski told the committee.
This proposal and two others — largely measures meant to increase efficiency — went on hold after Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, suggested waiting until the Joint Rules Committee had passed, or didn’t pass, its own set of rules. Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said he would appreciate some time to “digest” the details in Pomnichowski’s proposed rule changes.
Committee Chair Cary Smith, R-Billings, set the next hearing for Dec. 16, after the Joint Rules Committee.
The House Rules committee on Tuesday only briefly addressed the pandemic, when it voted down a bill by Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, that would have allowed for remote participation in the House. Another rule before the joint committee would allow a hybrid session for the full Legislature if approved.
Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-East Helena, is not on the House Rules committee but tried to give public comment about her desire to hold the upcoming session either remotely or delay it. She also tried to read a letter from a constituent who was upset at the lack of mask use and distancing measures by Republicans during legislative caucuses and other recent meetings.
Usher and Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, both objected to Dunwell’s testimony, saying it was not on the topic of the proposed rule changes before the committee.
At one point, Skees and Knudsen both asked a staff member who was also participating via the Zoom platform, to cut Dunwell’s microphone and mute remote participants.
After Dunwell’s testimony, Rep. Jennifer Carlson, a Republican from Manhattan, who was in the Senate chamber where the committee met, gave uninterrupted testimony related to remote participation during the pandemic, saying that her constituents “want to be able to see the representatives who are online and Zooming in, because we need to know that they are there.”