Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) - When he took office in 2021, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte said one of his top priorities was to reform what he saw as excessive and outdated state regulations.

Now, the first large set of bills coming out of that effort is going before lawmakers.

During the first week of the Montana Legislature’s 68th session, many of the bills up for consideration have been part of the administration’s “Red Tape Relief” initiative.

Leaders say they’re aimed at helping state government run more efficiently and removing rules that are no longer necessary.

“The purpose is for government to serve our citizens better,” said Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras.

Gianforte put Juras in charge of an advisory council to oversee the effort, along with leaders from 13 executive departments.

In two years, they’ve reviewed thousands of regulations and proposed hundreds of changes.

The proposed revisions range from eliminating little-used licenses to consolidating some state boards.

“Many of our boards haven’t met for more than ten years, so is the board really necessary?” said Juras. “Is it a function the agency can more efficiently administer?”

Juras said more than 100 bills based on the Red Tape Relief initiative have already been introduced, and even more are expected.

About 20 of the bills have already had committee hearings this week.

Most of those heard so far make relatively small changes.

For example, House Bill 113 would remove a requirement that “hucksters” — anyone who sells fruits, vegetables or other agricultural products door to door — get a $25 license from their county treasurer.

The bill dated to 1925, and county leaders reported rarely issued the licenses anymore. Juras said her own children had sold fruit door to door to raise money for choir activities, and she had no idea the license requirement existed.

However, other bills coming up are more substantial.

On Thursday, Juras and leaders with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry gave a presentation to lawmakers, talking about three bigger proposals. One of them, House Bill 152, is over 200 pages long.

It would extensively revise the state’s occupational licensing rules — standardizing language among nearly 200 licensed professions, reducing the number of license applications that go before state boards and making it faster for licensees from other states to get a license in Montana.

So far, some of the Red Tape Relief bills have moved forward with wide bipartisan support.

Democratic lawmakers say they’re not opposed to the idea of regulatory reform, and many of the proposed changes seem benign. However, they’re expressing reservations about the scale of some of the changes.

“If you take it a step too far, with a cleaver instead of a scalpel, you’re going to remove very valuable protections for our citizens and our hard-working people,” said Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman.

Kortum says he’s concerned about a pattern of shifting responsibility from boards to executive departments, which he believes could move power away from the public representatives who sit on the boards.

“The beauty of these boards is the democracy: All the voters get a vote, all the stakeholders, all the citizens,” he said. “When you move that to executive branch, you kind of have to beg the executive branch to make the change for you instead of making the change yourself with your vote on these boards.”

Kortum pointed to proposals like House Bill 64, which would end a state committee that oversees telecommunications services for people with disabilities and give the responsibility to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS).

The current committee must include members who have disabilities, along with seniors, service providers and other stakeholders. Kortum argued losing that type of representation would be a negative impact.

The administration has said, if boards are eliminated, the agencies that take over responsibility will still consult with the people affected by their policies. For example, HB 64 would require DPHHS to “seek input from the public and people with disabilities who use specialized telecommunications equipment when developing or amending program policies.”

Juras acknowledged people will have concerns about things like the elimination of a board, but she believes agencies have done a good job of tailoring their proposals to take stakeholders’ responses into account.

“It’s good to have those questions, it’s good to have comments and input from the public,” she said.

Juras said this slate of bills is only the first round of what could come from the Red Tape Relief initiative — “first-tier priorities” identified by the agencies. She expects the review to continue throughout the Gianforte administration’s four-year term – and potentially beyond.

“We’re at the tip of the iceberg,” she said.