HELENA — With the start of the Montana Legislature’s 68th session less than a month away, lawmakers took their first steps Tuesday to set up the rules the session will run under.
The House Rules Committee and Senate Rules Committee met at the State Capitol – both separately and jointly – to advance draft rules proposals. Those proposals are a starting point, and more amendments could still be made when they are put before lawmakers at the start of the session.
In 2021, the Legislature implemented significant rule changes before the session to address COVID-19. During Tuesday’s joint meeting, lawmakers voted to eliminate a COVID panel created to respond to virus-related issues at the session. However, they maintained rules allowing the public to testify online during committee hearings, and letting lawmakers participate remotely with their caucus leader’s approval.
The committees also officially wrapped up the Special Select Committee on Judicial Accountability and Transparency, set up last session by Republican leaders to investigate claims of bias among the state judiciary.
In the House Rules Committee, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, proposed a number of changes – many of which would make it easier for a majority of House members to override decisions by the speaker or committee chairs. Bedey said during the meeting that some of the proposals might be controversial, and that his goal was to “provoke a conversation” about ways to promote fairness and efficiency.
One of his proposals was to change the number of votes needed for a “blast motion” – which brings a bill that was held up in committee to the full House for a vote. Those motions have been used in previous sessions, often by minority Democrats working with some Republicans.
Last session, it required 60 out of 100 House members to vote to blast a bill out of committee. Bedey suggested a simple majority of 51 votes.
“It’s a risk – I am not pointing out any particular problem at this instance, but the risk of effectively silencing a significant number of Montanans,” he said.
But those opposed to the change said making these motions easier would devalue the work of the committees that have studied bills most closely.
“I think it should be harder than just a simple majority to blast those out of the committee,” said Rep. Larry Brewster, R-Billings. “The committee’s worked hard on it and made a judgment on it. To blast it out again should be hard.”
The House Rules Committee discussed proposed amendments in the morning. When they took action in the afternoon, Bedey decided not to bring forward the proposal on blast motions. He told MTN after hearing the discussion, he concluded they needed to take another look at the issue.
The committee did adopt several of Bedey’s proposals, but mostly in further amended forms. They approved changes limiting select committees’ authority to take action on legislation, allowing a lawmaker to appeal if the presiding officer fails to recognize them on the floor and establishing a procedure for announcing lawmakers’ assignments to interim committees.