Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Republicans in the Montana Legislature – where they currently hold a supermajority – want to change the makeup of interim legislative committees so the majority party has more power, which they say would simply reflect the will of voters.

Senate Bill 176, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would make it so four-member interim committees would be comprised of three members of the majority party and one from the minority party. Larger committees would also have to reflect the composition of the legislature.

“If committee composition during a legislative session is weighted by election results, then the interim committee should as well,” Regier said. “Democracy should not end at sine die.”

Currently, interim committees are made up of an even number of Republicans and Democrats. But Regier said his bill would better reflect the results of the last election and give the minority party – currently Democrats – a better opportunity to spread lawmakers across interim committees so they are not overtasked.

The measure would apply to 13 different interim committees, Regier told the Senate State Administration Committee at the bill’s first hearing Monday.

Regier ran a similar bill in the 2021 session that died on a 22-28 vote in the Senate. He said he had taken administrative committees out of this year’s bill in hopes that it will clear the hurdle he said sank it two years ago.

Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, told reporters Monday morning he was supportive of the measure.

He said he felt the changes would still allow for bipartisanship, but would help get lawmakers better on track in terms of drafting bills that would run during the next session.

Regier said after the hearing the changes would also stop the minority party from blocking movement during the interim, like selecting a committee chair, because he believed having a weighted committee would lead to fewer tied votes.

One opponent was the only other person aside from Regier who testified on the bill at Monday’s hearing – Anne Hedges, the director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center.

“I just don’t hear anyone these days saying we need more partisanship in our politics,” she told the committee.

She said she believes interim committees are different from the legislative session – more of a time to mull over ideas, explore different angles and see what works and what doesn’t than in legislative sessions, where the majority rules.

She said the bill was making the interim committees ones where the majority party wouldn’t even need to listen to the minority members, a disservice to the state.

“I just think that this is not the right direction to be taking the state,” Hedges said.

Regier said amendments that have been introduced came from Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls.

Should the committee choose to adopt the amendments when it takes executive action, the measure would allow for the majority in the interim to vote to request four bills for the next session without any votes from the minority party. There would still be an unlimited number of bills they could vote to request on a bipartisan basis.

Regier said after the hearing that having four bills that could come solely from members of one party would allow them to prioritize certain things without interference from the minority party.

“You don’t want to turn it into a bill mill where they’re throwing out a lot,” he said.