Lawmakers on the House State Administration Committee Tuesday morning discussed the creation of a commission to study the economic impact of the state suspending regulations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The commission would be established under House Bill 158, carried by Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade. Hinkle told the committee that the goal is to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the various temporary regulatory changes enacted to help businesses, health care professionals, child care providers and others navigate the public health crisis.

Throughout 2020, then-Gov. Steve Bullock issued executive orders to temporarily lift or ease more than 100 administrative rules and statutes. Those changes included allowing pharmacists to administer vaccines to children 3 and older, enabling certain retired or inactive health care professionals to reactivate their licenses without having to meet current requirements, and empowering select retailers to sell alcohol by phone or online. Regulations governing telehealth were similarly relaxed, a point mentioned several times during discussion of HB 158. 

Bullock’s orders stipulated that such suspensions continue until the declared state of emergency ends. Gov. Greg Gianforte has since extended that emergency declaration. 

The commission would be charged with determining which of those changes should become permanent and proposing measures to amend or terminate regulations accordingly. In introducing HB 158, Hinkle said that such a review is a step toward reducing regulatory red tape.

“Montana’s 2019 administrative rules contain over 60,000 restrictions and 4.7 million words,” Hinkle said, referring to agency-specific regulations that are not codified in state law. “It would take a single person nearly seven weeks to read through it entirely. This red tape added on to numerous statutes in law combines to hinder our businesses and stifle our economy.”

The bill also appropriates $50,000 to fund the commission, which would meet quarterly.

Proponents of HB 158 included the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Coin Machine Operators Association and the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. Bridger Mahlum, government relations director for the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said the state’s response to the pandemic presents an opportunity to reconsider long-standing practices in Montana that may burden small businesses. Kendall Cotton, president and CEO of the conservative policy nonprofit Frontier Institute, testified along the same lines. 

“Excessive red tape harms Montana businesses, stifles economic growth and makes us less competitive than our neighbor states,” Cotton said in an email to Montana Free Press. “HB 158 asks lawmakers: If regulations had to be waived during an emergency to promote public health and welfare, were they really necessary in the first place?”

No one testified in opposition to the bill.

As the committee deliberated, Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, questioned whether the bill guaranteed bipartisan representation on the commission. Of the 14 members Hinkle’s measure calls for, six would be appointed by the governor — three representing private industries impacted by the regulatory suspensions and three representing state agencies that have been similarly affected. The House speaker and Senate president would appoint three legislators from their respective chambers, as well as one member of the public each. All of the offices in charge of those appointments are currently held by Republicans. Nothing in the bill requires that bipartisanship be reflected in those appointments.

In response to the question, Hinkle said he would leave the matter to the discretion of House and Senate leaders. 

“I believe that they’ll bring all parties to the table, as this bill is intended,” Hinkle said.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...