HELENA — The Montana Legislature is in the middle of one of the busiest periods of the 68th session, as the halfway point approaches.
Friday is the “transmittal deadline” for all general bills – bills that change state law but don’t appropriate money or increase or decrease state revenue. General bills must pass through either the House or the Senate before the 45th day of the legislative session in order to keep moving forward. There are a lot of those bills to be voted on this week.
“We’ve only got 90 days by our Montana Constitution to accomplish all the work,” said House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell. “This is status quo chaos of the session.”
As of Tuesday morning, 1,407 pieces of legislation have been introduced in the Legislature: 814 House bills, 504 Senate bills and 89 resolutions. More than three-quarters of them are general bills. Already, nearly 100 more bills are active than in the entire 2021 legislative session.
Over the last week, legislative committees worked for hours each day – holding hearings on dozens of bills and taking votes on even more, to determine which ones would go before the full House and Senate.
Regier said the House will likely debate around 200 bills on the floor by the end of the week. He said some of the high bill volume comes from Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Red Tape Relief initiative, which occupied legislative bill drafters early in the session.
“We’ve had 160 bills or so from the Red Tape, so if you take that out, we’re probably a little bit below average,” Regier said.
Regier believes, overall, committee chairs have done a good job of balancing the workload.
“They’ve really handled this higher-than-expected volume better than even in past sessions I've been involved in,” he said.
House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said the red tape bills explain some of the increase, but they don’t account for the whole picture. She said she’s concerned about what the rush of bills means for public participation.
“They get less of an opportunity to weigh in, they get less of an opportunity to show up and say their piece, and it's a lot harder to follow legislation that might have an impact on their lives or their communities,” she said.
Abbott said she hopes legislative leadership will consider changes for future sessions to address the crush of bills around transmittal. She suggested looking at when bills are introduced and potentially trying to “weed out” some legislation that isn’t ready for a full hearing.
“We’re going to get our work done, whether it’s long days or long nights – but once we get through it, I think Legislative Council needs to take a hard look at structural things that we can change with the public in mind,” she said.
Regier said he’s open to having those discussions as well. He said one idea would be adding staff to draft bills during the interim.
“There were times this session, days where there were only one or two committees meeting, so there was a lot of downtime in that lull,” he said. “I think if we drafted more bills in the interim and had people’s ideas ready to go, then we could spread that out instead of Bill Drafting having to hustle.”
The House will have full-day floor sessions Wednesday and Thursday to debate bills and take preliminary votes. The Senate will meet in the afternoon Wednesday and is scheduled for an all-day session on Thursday. On Friday, the two chambers will likely focus on dozens of “third reading” votes – final votes in the chamber that move quickly because they’re not accompanied by debate.
After transmittal, the Legislature is expected to take a break for several days. They’re set to return Thursday of next week to begin the final two months of the session.