Montana legislators submitted 699 more bill draft requests — an increase of 27 percent — in the first 19 days of the 2019 session than during the same time period in 2017, according to data from the Legislative Services Division.
The rush of bills to committee and floor has also seen a jump. Those first 19 days saw 80 more bills — an increase of 16 percent, or 4.2 per day — introduced in both houses than at the same point in 2017.
Senate Minority Whip J.P. Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, said that during the Legislature’s opening week "it felt as though we didn't really get rolling. But now we have. I’m glad the people are doing the people’s work.”
Of course, legislative priorities have been numerous on both sides of the aisle. As Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville noted, “not every bill is created equally.”
To name a few priorities, Thomas listed K-12 funding, state pay raises and income tax reduction for seniors for the GOP, while for the Democrats Pomnichowski listed Medicaid expansion, infrastructure and university funding.
Thomas said the increase does not necessarily stem from an issue specific to 2019, though Pomnichowski said she felt there have been more requests for agency and interim committee bills.
There is also what House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, refers to as “frontloading,” or requesting a significant number of drafts early for use as the session progresses.
“You don’t know what constituent phone call that I might get today, and I might have a real issue,” Schreiner said. “The thing about having a Legislature that meets for 90 days every two years is that means if we don’t get something in there today, that constituent or that community may have to wait a whole two years before they can remedy a problem that might urgent and important.”
The Legislative Services Division classified 1,781 drafts as “on hold” Thursday morning, well more than half of those requested so far this session. That number represents an increase of 616 from the first 19 days of the 2017 session, and nearly double from the same point in 2013.
Deadlines for individual legislators to request general and revenue bills passed Jan. 22 and 29, respectively.
“We’ve put these limits in place to try and kind of regulate the number of bills, but what it’s done is driven this number up, of placeholders,” Thomas said. “We’re kind of a victim of our own rule, in my opinion.”
Pomnichowski’s webpage shows her as sponsor or requester of 149 bills since Nov. 5, all but seven on hold as of late Friday afternoon. On Monday, Jan. 28, she presented her only bill to receive a hearing so far this session. The bill, Senate Bill 105, would create a code of conduct and compulsory anti-harassment training for lobbyists.
Pomnichowski said that with so many requests on varying topics, she fields inquiries from both houses and parties for drafts as the session progresses. A House Republican, she said, approached her following Thursday night’s State of the State address to inquire about any drafts addressing county law.
“Sometimes there’s not a lot of attention on the legislative session until we call to order,” Pomnichowski said. “By that time, each person has just two more bill drafts. They usually use them up and then as the session progresses we discover that we need bill titles for legislation we want to try and pass.”
Legislators are allocated seven requests each after Dec. 5. Five of those must be used before the beginning of the session in January.
Pomnichowski said she is open to a more “responsive” process, especially a later deadline to request general bills and an allowance for more than two draft requests after the session begins.
“The agencies and the interim committees are used to thinking ahead of the session,” Pomnichowski said. “And they’ll draft bills, they’ll come to interim committee meetings and discuss legislation, so they kind of are ahead of the session. But typically it’s while the session is on when people kind of start to think of things and so that’s when bill ideas come up.”