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For Montana Legislature, the biennial work begins

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The Montana Senate convenes on Jan. 2, 2023. PHOTO BY ERIC DIETRICH / MTFP

The Legislature began its 68th session with partisan speechifying and a minor rules fight.

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit MONTANA FREE PRESS

The 68th Montana Legislature has convened, its first day marking a relative calm before what could be a watershed session steered by the first Republican bicameral supermajority since the state adopted its current Constitution in 1972. 

Lawmakers with first-day-of-school jitters in both the House of Representatives and Senate began their days shortly after noon, taking their oaths of office as friends, family, supporters, a smattering of lobbyists and others looked on from the chamber galleries. The spirit, at least at first, was congenial, as returning legislators shook hands as old friends regardless of party. As newly elected Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, noted Monday, it all gets harder from here.

“We’re about to begin on a great adventure for the next four months,” Flowers told fellow Democrats in a Monday press conference. “I invite you all to look around for a second, look at your neighbors and realize this is as healthy and happy as you’ll be for the next four months. It’s all downhill from here.” 

In the House, legislators selected an unopposed Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, as Speaker, avoiding intra-party conflict and affirming decisions the caucus made in pre-session meetings late last year. The same was true in the Senate, where lawmakers confirmed Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, as president. 

In speeches to the chambers, Republican leadership previewed policy ambitions and trumpeted their newly attained supermajorities. Collectively, the party holds 102 seats across the House and Senate. 

“We must remain steadfast in working together to achieve the conservative mandate that our voters and Montanans sent us here to accomplish,” House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, told other Republicans. 

Vinton noted several GOP legislative priorities, including using the state’s $1 billion-plus budget surplus to issue tax rebates, increasing parents’ involvement in their children’s education and “demanding that all three branches of government adhere to the same rules of transparency of transparency and ethics” — the latter an apparent reference to the ongoing conflict between Republican legislators and the state judiciary. 

In an agenda-framing speech of his own, Republican Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, of Great Falls, said he regards addressing inflation, housing and cost-of-living issues as a priority for this year’s Legislature. He also touted what he called the success of Republicans’ 2021 agenda, which cut taxes and curtailed COVID-19 pandemic-era public health regulations. Fitzpatrick said the expanded majority won by Republicans in last fall’s election gives that agenda the electorate’s stamp of approval.

“Montanans made it clear that they like our conservative leadership and they want us to continue to lead the state in the positive direction that we did last session,” Fitzpatrick said.

In remarks to the press and other lawmakers, Democrats pledged to advance policies to address housing affordability, protect access to abortion, improve mental health care and more while also fighting the torrent of Republican legislation coming down the pike. 

“There’s a lot of responsibility in having majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and the same party in the governor’s office,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, of Helena, told lawmakers Monday. “You have to govern. And when we disagree, and we think that your policies aren’t meeting the needs of our constituents, we’re going to hold you accountable.”

Those Republican bills include several to refer constitutional amendments to voters, a prospect that could mean major changes to the state’s environmental and privacy protections, Democrats warn. With their two-thirds supermajority, Republicans need no votes from the minority party to pass such referrals. 

“I think it’s pretty clear in this last election that Montanans like their Constitution, and they like the freedoms and rights that come with that Constitution,” Flowers said Monday morning. “And I think you can count on Montana Democrats to fight against any effort to take away those rights and freedoms through amendments to the Constitution.”

Lawmakers also passed temporary operating rules, a move that allows legislative business to proceed while a formal rules resolution makes its way to the floor for a vote. Theoretically, that should occur Tuesday. 

The House Rules Committee met shortly after adjournment Monday to consider amendments to that resolution, ultimately adopting language that would lower the vote threshold for a so-called blast motion — a procedural move that allows bills stalled in committee to be brought to the floor for a vote — from three-fifths of the chamber to a 55-vote majority. Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, who brought the amendment, said its intent is to diffuse power throughout the body, not concentrate it in committee chairs and leadership. 

“We have some committees that are small — let’s say a 13-person committee,” Buttrey said during debate Monday. “And if seven people on that committee say the bill is not worthy of going forward, those people represent roughly 70,000 Montanans. If 930,000 other Montanans who their representatives say ‘I think we deserve the ability to debate this bill,’ I think that should be respected.”

Buttrey’s amendment represented one of the day’s only open conflicts, as other Republicans accused him of making it easier for Democrats to leverage relationships with dissenting members of the GOP.

“These motions are nothing more than an attempt to neuter the voices of the people of Montana who have sent conservative voices to serve in the Legislature,” said Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle.

The committee also adopted an amendment to House rules providing that a member may take a vote by electronic means only by permission of the Speaker. 

“If you’re here at the Capitol you need to be present to vote,” said Rep. Larry Brewster, R-Billings. 

The amended rules resolution ultimately passed on a 14-8 vote. It still requires approval by the full House before entering into effect. 

Reporter Eric Dietrich contributed to this story.

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