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Montana Legislature, staff working through most bills in decades

Montana State Capitol
Legislative Services Division
Posted at 6:19 PM, Apr 11, 2023

HELENA — The Montana Legislature is back after a brief Easter break, for what’s likely to be a very busy final month of their 68th session.

Throughout the session, leaders have talked a lot about the huge number of bills lawmakers have had under consideration. Now, we’re getting more details about the impact of that rush of legislation.

According to the Legislative Services Division, lawmakers had introduced 1,644 bills as of April 10. That’s 331 more than the 1,313 introduced in the 2021 session – and LSD says it was more than any session since 1973, when lawmakers introduced 2,211 bills as they got state laws in line with the newly adopted Montana Constitution.

“Certainly, people work long hours to accommodate this bill flow – and, you know, that's a good thing,” said LSD executive director Jerry Howe. “We really enjoy working for the Legislature.”

LSD employs about 65 staff, including researchers, bill drafters, financial staff, IT and more. As a nonpartisan agency, they’re tasked with providing information and assistance to lawmakers and the public.

“Our staff certainly works behind the scenes, and we enjoy that,” Howe said. “There's a lot of work that that goes on here, and we're proud to have legislators front and center – and we like to support them in any way we can.”

The state constitution says the Legislature “shall meet each odd-numbered year in regular session of not more than 90 legislative days.” LSD estimates that, since January, bill drafters, editors and proofreaders have worked a total of 3,600 hours beyond their typical 40-hour workweeks. The IT department has worked an additional 3,700 hours.

Howe said those numbers don’t account for the work put in by executive branch employees, other legislative branch staff and the House and Senate employees who serve during the session.

“There’s just a very big synchronized effort to help the Montana Legislature accomplish its objectives,” he said.

Speaking to MTN Tuesday, House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, praised their work.

“The staff has done a tremendous job with that,” he said. “We asked them to step up to the plate, and they have.”

But Regier said he does believe this session is approaching the limits of what can be done in 90 days.

“The seams are ripping,” he said.

Regier said he expects legislative leaders will have to look at options like limiting the number of bills – and possibly proposing annual legislative sessions – in the coming years.

The bill volume is also leading to changes in this year's legislative schedule. Last week, lawmakers voted to suspend the session rules and move back several deadlines.

“As you know, we are experiencing a voluminous number of bills this session, so we’re going to move a few transmittal deadlines to help us process the bills,” said Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, during a floor session last Wednesday.

The next important deadline is April 18, the 76th legislative day, when any general bill that’s been amended in its second chamber must be returned to the first chamber, so lawmakers can decide whether to accept the changes. Regier said the House is holding a full-day floor session Wednesday so they can get through 82 Senate bills that may need to go back to the Senate with amendments.

Leaders have canceled most planned Saturday sessions. The 90th and final legislative day is now scheduled for May 6.