Senators vote during the 2019 legislative session. Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

HELENA — Montana lawmakers gathered in the state Capitol Tuesday to discuss the possibility of annual legislative sessions, and held a hearing to solicit feedback from the public.

As it turned out, nearly everyone who stepped to the microphone was a sitting legislator. While most agreed that Montana’s Legislature, which meets every other year, is a relatively weak branch of government compared to the year-round executive branch overseen by the governor, they expressed little agreement over whether replacing their biennial sessions in Helena with annual meetings would give Montanans a more effective government. 

Some lawmakers said they think splitting their work into shorter but more frequent stints could make it easier for citizen legislators to balance legislative service with day jobs, while others disagreed. Lawmakers also differed about whether more frequent sessions would give them more or less opportunity to learn the ins and outs of state government.

“We would better serve the people of Montana if we came here every year for a shorter time,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber.

“I don’t think annual sessions make it easier for everyone to run and hold office,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena.

Esp and others said they think annual sessions of a couple of months each, perhaps alternating between budget and policy sessions, would give lawmakers better opportunities to build relationships and delve into the intricacies of the state’s roughly $10 billion biennial budget. They said 45-working-day sessions could be an easier lift for lawmakers who have to set aside day jobs or businesses to meet in Helena for the current 90-day sessions held in odd years.

“We’re trying to recruit candidates right now, and it’s hard. You try to tell someone they’ve got to leave for four months, and it’s tough,” Esp said.

“I don’t think the public’s up for getting rid of [term limits], despite the fact that everyone who’s been up here a session or two knows how detrimental they’ve been to the authority of the Legislature.” Sands said. 

—State Sen. Diane Sands

Several lawmakers, though, worried that annual sessions could eat into work that’s already done during legislative interims, when topic-focused committees meet to study specific issues and develop bills for consideration in the next session. Multiple lawmakers in the Legislature’s Democratic minority specifically said they appreciate how interim committees are split evenly along party lines, creating a bipartisan setting where lawmakers can dig into complex topics without in-session time constraints.

“I do think that having annual sessions would disempower and make it more difficult to have the kind of institutional memory we’re creating in interim committees,” said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula.

Most states have shifted to annual legislative sessions in recent decades. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, Montana was one of 31 states with biennial sessions in the early 1960s, but is currently one of only four alongside Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas.

To meet annually, lawmakers would likely have to amend the state constitution, a process that involves submitting an amendment to voters. Alternately, the Legislature can call itself into a special session with a majority request. Lawmakers could conceivably use that power to add additional sessions to their biennial calendar, but a 2014 legal analysis by the Legislature’s chief legal counsel was skeptical that routine use of the special session power would survive a court challenge.

Montana has had every-other-year legislative sessions for most of its history since statehood in 1889. The framers of the state’s current 1972 constitution instituted annual sessions, but that provision that was struck down by voters with a 1974 constitutional initiative, according to legislative staff. Constitutional amendments that would have shifted the state to annual sessions failed in 1982 and 1988.

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At Tuesday’s hearing, several lawmakers referenced Oregon, which tried adding even-year sessions to its odd-year calendar in 2008 and 2010 before voters approved annual legislative sessions in 2010. Oregon currently holds 160-day sessions in odd years and 35-day sessions in even years.

Other the ideas discussed Tuesday included adding more year-round legislative staff and starting sessions later in the year than January to give newly elected legislators and new governors more time to prepare following November elections. Lawmakers also discussed repeating this month’s Legislative Week, when legislators are convening for interim committee meetings, budget updates, and training sessions without officially gaveling in to pass new laws. 

Another option for building up the Legislature’s institutional strength would be to repeal legislative term limits, which veteran legislators said have made the legislative branch weaker than it was before term limits were instituted in 1992, when lawmakers could spend decades in office building expertise.

“I don’t think the public’s up for getting rid of them, despite the fact that everyone who’s been up here a session or two knows how detrimental they’ve been to the authority of the Legislature,” Sands said. 

The reality, Sands said, is that new lawmakers will inevitably face a steep learning curve in their first session.

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.