Battle over MT House rules in holding pattern

Posted at 4:49 PM, Dec 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-05 16:28:06-05

HELENA – Republicans abruptly adjourned a House rules panel Tuesday, saying they’re not ready to decide whether to change a long-standing rule to make it easier to move contentious bills to the floor at the 2019 Legislature.

“If all these changes happen, then there are a handful of individuals who can game the system,” said House Rules Committee Chair Derek Skees of Kalispell. “It technically makes a minority out of both parties.”

Democratic Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena had made a motion to put the change up for discussion in the committee.

Committee Vice Chair Forrest Mandeville, a Republican from Columbus, then moved to adjourn the meeting less than a half-hour after it began – and all Republicans on the panel agreed.

Skees said the committee will consider the issue when it next meets Jan. 8, the second day of the Legislature, to start finalizing rules for the 2019 session.

The fight is over whether to allow a simple majority in the 100-member House move bills from committee and make other procedural changes. Under rules in effect since 1989, it takes a super-majority of 60 House members to “blast” a bill that’s bottled up in committee and move it to the floor for possible passage.

Democrats, who have a 42-member minority in the 2019 House, and some Republicans have proposed the change.

They say the super-majority rule makes it easier for GOP leadership to kill bills they don’t like – but that may be supported by a majority of the full House.

“We want to get the Legislature in a place where we are reflecting the will of Montanans,” House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, told the Rules Committee on Tuesday. “At the end of the day, democracy should win out. And 51 percent of the people in our House should be able to make decisions for the body.”

Republicans on the panel didn’t allow any discussion of the issue, as they simply voted to adjourn.

But Skees told reporters afterward that he thinks the change is a “horrible” idea.

The change would allow a small group of Republicans to pair up with Democrats or other factions and control the House on key votes, he said, if they could form a majority.

Skees called them “an oligarchic group,” but declined to identify them by name or specific members.

The person who proposed the changes is Rep.-elect Ed Buttrey, a Great Falls Republican who is currently a state senator, but who was elected to the House this year.

He has argued that in the Senate, a simple majority can remove bills from committee and take other votes to override leadership, and that the same rule should apply in the House.

Buttrey is one of a handful of moderate Republicans in the Legislature who have joined Democrats to pass some key legislation in recent years, such as expanding Medicaid coverage in Montana in 2015.

Skees said he plans to talk with members of the House Republican caucus, and Democrats, between now and the next House Rules Committee meeting, about the ramifications of the proposed change.

“We’re going to continue to discuss this with all 100 members of the House and make sure that this dramatic change in House rules benefits us all, not just one caucus,” he said.