House Republicans reach rules compromise on 2019 Legislature’s opening day

Posted at 4:50 PM, Jan 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-08 14:21:10-05

HELENA – On the opening day of Montana’s 2019 Legislature, House Republicans Monday agreed to key rule changes they said would lead to a more “open and transparent process” on controversial bills before the body.

The agreement, worked out in a private Sunday meeting among Republican factions in the House, won party-line approval Monday on the session’s first substantive vote, 58-42. All Republicans voted for it and all Democrats opposed it.

The new, temporary rules – which likely will become permanent later this week – made a slight change to one rule that had garnered most of the attention: Reducing from 60 to 58 the number of House votes needed to “blast” a bill from committee and bring it to the floor.

But according to House Republicans who pressed for the amended rules, the more important changes clarify or determine that a simple majority of the House – 51 votes – can overturn actions by the speaker on bill and committee assignments.

“We wanted a level playing field, making sure that everyone had a fair opportunity to get their bill to the floor,” said Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, who helped negotiate the changes. “And I think we’ve absolutely done that in this (change).”

Monday’s vote to change the House rules headed off a potential floor showdown between moderate and more conservative factions of the Republican majority.

Moderate Republicans had feared that GOP House leadership might attempt to bottle up controversial bills in “kill committees” – even though those measures might have support from a majority of the body.

House Speaker Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who had initially opposed changing the rules, said the compromise showed that Republicans can work together and be united in working toward “limited government, lower taxes and making Montana a better place to live, work and do business.”

“This action today allows us to work on important issues that are facing our state,” he said. “These rules are designed for a fair, open and transparent process.”

House Democrats opposed the change, saying a simple majority of the House should be able to override any action on a bill in committee.

“It’s disappointing that our colleagues across the aisle have decided to institute an arbitrary and insufficient rule change, rather than allow the majority of Montanans to have a voice in this chamber,” said House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner in a statement.

Democrats objected primarily to requiring 58 of the 100 members to vote to remove a bill from committee, after it’s had a hearing or a committee vote.

A House committee will examine the temporary changes Wednesday and likely vote on whether to send them to floor, for final approval.

Other changes in the proposed rules:

• A majority vote of the House can override the speaker’s appointment of any committee members – including conference, interim and select committees.
• A majority of the House can change the membership of any committee with three days notice, and any conference committee with two days notice.
• The speaker must refer all bills to a committee within two days of the House receiving the bill or its introduction – thus preventing the speaker from a “pocket veto” by not assigning a bill.
• A bill assigned to a committee can be reassigned with a majority vote of the House, if the bill hasn’t yet been heard in committee. If a hearing has occurred, it takes 58 votes.
• A bill reported out of committee with a “do not pass” recommendation can be overturned by a majority vote of the House, and then debated on the floor.