Jonathan Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — During the Montana Legislature’s 2023 session, lawmakers introduced almost 1,700 pieces of legislation – more than any session since 1973. The huge volume of bills put strain on lawmakers and staff alike, and legislative leaders are taking a look at what can be done to limit that impact in future sessions.

On Wednesday, a subcommittee of the Legislative Council – a committee made up of legislative leaders from both parties – made several recommendations on ways to address the growing bill volume.

Todd Everts, director of legal services for the Legislative Services Division, shared statistics on what last year’s session brought in: 1,698 bills and resolutions considered, with roughly 3,400 sets of amendments drafted – 1,400 more than in 2021. Legislative committees held more than 2,400 bill hearings.

“This session was absolutely very historic,” said Everts.

Everts said legislative staff got through all the work lawmakers asked of them, but it was a challenge.

“I will say that it strained our resources to the core,” he said. “We were going 24/7.”

Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, chaired the subcommittee. He said his chief interests in addressing bill volume were limiting burnout for staff and ensuring all bills get the time and attention they deserve.

“We want to reduce the flood of bills closer to the transmittal deadline to improve legislative effectiveness – making sure our bills are properly vetted and that they are going through the system efficiently and properly,” he said.

Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, said she also wanted to make sure the rush of bills didn’t affect the public’s ability to hear about and participate in legislative business.

In the end, the subcommittee endorsed two immediate recommendations, which they’ll pass on to the full Legislative Council. The first is to encourage lawmakers to submit their own bill draft requests online, through a new portal that’s about to be set up. Currently, they have to contact legislative staff to set up a bill draft.

The second recommendation is to delay the general bill transmittal deadline – the day when all bills that don’t affect state revenues or appropriations have to pass through their first chamber or die – from the 45th day of the session to the 50th day of the session. It’s an idea that came from longtime Secretary of the Senate Marilyn Miller during Wednesday’s meeting.

“For the past ten sessions, I’ve thought, ‘I’ve got a great idea here,’ and nobody ever asked me!” she said.

Miller noted that the first half of legislative sessions is often much busier, as more bills are alive and committees hold initial hearings on them – yet in the second half, lawmakers often finish their work early and adjourn before the final legislative day.

“We are so much calmer in the second half,” she said. “Meanwhile, we've pushed everything that we have to do that is really, really important to those days when committees have no way to probably even hear them, let alone act on them.”

If the Legislature delayed transmittal but kept its current deadline for introducing general bills, the hope is that it would allow several more days to get through committee hearings and floor votes on the final rush of bills.

Changing the transmittal date would require changing legislative rules. Bogner said the full Legislative Council will likely hear the recommendation next month. If they decide to move it forward, it would go before the Joint Rules Committee ahead of the start of the 2025 session.

The subcommittee also asked to look at some other proposals for longer-term changes, such as tweaking the bill draft system to encourage lawmakers to submit them earlier in the process.

One idea that did not go forward was putting a limit on how many bills each lawmaker can introduce. Bogner and House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said they believed most lawmakers weren’t interested in that type of cap.

“I believe that's why we were elected, our job – to come and pass bills, to draft bills,” Bogner said. “To me, I think it should be unlimited. That's why you were elected. Talking to other legislators, I would say the majority feel that same way.”