HELENA – A steady stream of state lawmakers and members of the public weighed in Tuesday on whether the Legislature should switch to annual legislative sessions, offering opinions that ranged from good idea to not messing with tradition, and starting sessions later in the year.
And many offered a reminder to put it to a vote of the people.
Senate Bill 310, by Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, passed the 2019 Legislature. It asks lawmakers to considering breaking from its current 90-day session. In its place the Legislature would have a 45-day odd-year session focused on policy and statutory changes and a 45-day even-year session that would focus on the biennial budget.
A senate steering committee held Tuesday’s hearing in which people offered comment on how to build knowledge and experience to strengthen the Legislature's role in state government. They were also asked if the change be more effective and whether changing the starting time of the session would be helpful and how to better integrate policy and budget during the session and the interim?
"We're anxiously awaiting other ideas," Osmundson said.
Montana is reportedly one of four states that does not have yearly sessions. The biennial sessions typically start in early January and end in late April.
“I’m a Republican and I don’t like change,” Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, said, bringing some laughter from the audience. “But I am willing to look at things that might make sense.”
Some of the lawmakers said shorter sessions may lure younger people to the Legislature, noting that leaving a job for 45 days every year may be easier than 90 days every other year.
They also said lawmakers seeing each other more frequently may help build relationships.
Esp said it would help the process become more collegial and help elected officials better serve the people of Montana.
Some, such as Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, noted that if it did pass the Legislature should consider a limit on the number of bills allowed to be introduced in each session. There were 1,309 bills introduced in the 2019 session. There were 3,325 introduced and unintroduced bills overall.
Brown said SB 310 is a great option for Montana.
“I think it is time we make a change,” she said.
Some lawmakers proposed starting the session later in the year, noting they get elected in November, get through the holiday season, and then hit the ground running in January.
"A delayed session may really work well," said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, adding winning an election and prepping for the session was "chaotic in the best of times."
A later start may give people more time to prepare.
Rep. Jasmine Krotkov, D-Great Falls, suggested a mentoring system be set up to help new lawmakers and guide them through the process.
Tara Jensen, co-director of the Montana Budget Policy Center, a nonprofit group that provides research and analysis on budget, tax and economic issues, advised lawmakers to take their time to reach a decision and to look closely at the states they want to model themselves after.
"An annual session is a big change," she said, adding that maybe it was time the caucuses have a full-time staff.
Jensen said any change should not be made without putting it to a vote of the people.
Eric Feaver, head of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said it was a vote of the people, now in the state Constitution, that established 90-day sessions every other year. He said to meet annually, lawmakers would have to take the question to the people.
“They decided it and they will have the last word,” Feaver said.
The committee did not take a vote at the end of the two-hour hearing. The Legislative Council is to make a recommendation by Nov. 1. It is to be passed along to the council for the next session.
Reporter Phil Drake is our eye on the state capitol. For tips, suggestions or comment, he can be reached at 406-231-9021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.