Credit: ELIZA WILEY / MTFP File photo

HELENA — There’s still a year to go before Montana lawmakers gather for their next full-fledged legislative session, in 2021, but the state’s political class is converging on the Capitol this month for a “Legislative Week” event billed, in part, as an opportunity to explore whether annual sessions would help legislators do a better job governing the state. 

Aside from the possibility that attendees call a surprise special session, legislators won’t be doing their biennial business of passing laws or crafting a new state budget. Instead, the week will feature a cluster of informational sessions and hearings by interim committees tasked with studying issues and suggesting legislation for 2021. 

Even so, several of those interim committees have substantial agendas, and with a critical mass of politicians gathered in one place, anything could happen. Here are some issues to keep an eye on:

ANNUAL LEGISLATIVE SESSIONS?

Montana is one of only four states in the nation where the Legislature meets every two years instead of annually, and lawmakers have long discussed whether Montanans would be better served by annual sessions. It isn’t clear that there’s political appetite for switching to annual sessions, which would probably require a constitutional amendment, but lawmakers did pass a study bill in 2019 to solicit public input and examine the option.

Legislators say they want to do a better job coordinating policy and budget conversations, which can sometimes be disjointed as topic-area legislative committees and appropriations committees work on separate tracks. Among the ideas on the table are alternating annual legislative sessions focused on the state budget with sessions focused on policy changes. Lawmakers also plan to discuss how a shift to annual sessions would affect the ability of citizen legislators with day jobs to serve in the Legislature. 

A discussion on those topics, including opportunity for public comment, is set for 8 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, in Room 137. 

DEALING WITH COAL CLOSURES

With generating units 1 and 2 of the Colstrip coal power plant shut down earlier this month — and NorthWestern Energy saying it wants to double its owned generating capacity in response to regional coal plant closures — it’s a dynamic moment for Montana’s energy sector.

The Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee will puzzle over the policy questions those developments create in an all-day meeting Monday. On its agenda are a discussion of issues raised by Colstrip’s wind-down, including what legislative analysts estimate as a $17 million-a-year hit to tax collections with units 1 and 2 offline. NorthWestern officials are also scheduled to discuss the utility’s transmission infrastructure and its proposed acquisition of a greater share in Colstrip’s Unit 4.

The committee will meet at 8 a.m. Monday, Jan. 13, in Room 172.

PROMOTING BROADBAND INTERNET

High-speed internet access is widely seen as key infrastructure for rural Montana communities looking to boost their economic development prospects. But lawmakers haven’t always agreed on the right way for state government to encourage broadband development, with Gov. Steve Bullock vetoing a Republican bill designed to incentivise rural telecom development last year.

The Economic Affairs Interim Committee will look at what other states are doing to promote broadband infrastructure, as well as hear presentations from major Montana internet providers including CenturyLink, Charter Spectrum, and Blackfoot Communications. It will meet at 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, in Room 137.

CHECKING UP ON MEDICAID EXPANSION 

Renewal of Montana’s expanded Medicaid program, which provides subsidized health-care coverage to 85,935 people, was the highest-profile action of the 2019 Montana Legislature. As the Department of Public Health and Human Services implements the Legislature’s changes to the program, including new work requirements for some beneficiaries, it’s responsible for reporting back to lawmakers.

According to briefing materials, the department will tell the Children, Families, Health, and Human Services Interim Committee it’s still waiting for federal Medicaid administrators to give the revised program a thumbs-up. So though the renewal bill called for implementing the work requirements Jan. 1, the health department says it hasn’t yet begun enforcing them.

The interim committee will meet for most of the day Thursday, Jan. 16, and Friday, Jan. 17, in Room 137, and will also discuss a study on the state’s child protective services system. The Medicaid expansion update is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday. 

HOW YOU CAN KEEP TRACK

More details on the Legislative Week events, including briefing materials, an official calendar, and a schedule of of interest-group-hosted social events, are available at https://leg.mt.gov/legweek/. Members of the public who want to follow the proceedings without making it to the capitol can watch online meeting broadcasts via the legislative website.

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.