Week 9 —  Transmittal log jam

As of midday Friday, Feb. 26, 1,128 bills had been introduced, and Gov. Greg Gianforte had signed 28 into law. 

Lawmakers who want to pass general policy bills have until Wednesday, March 3, to transmit them from the House to the Senate, or vice versa.

This week, we’re keeping an eye on the key bills hanging in the balance. If these bill don’t make it past their first chamber before the mid-session break, they’re likely dead. 

Ahead of transmittal, policy committees have held marathon hearings in order to move bills along in the process. Lawmakers leading committees in this work have at times shortened public comment because of time constraints. Also, votes have been taken immediately following a bill’s first hearing — an unusual step, since lawmakers usually get a few days to think about a bill before voting to pass or table it. 

A total of 303 bills were introduced in the two weeks preceding transmittal this year, about 100 more than in the same time period in the 2019 legislative session, according to an analysis by Montana Free Press. More than three-quarters of the non-appropriation bills introduced in that time came from Republicans.

This logjam of bills heading into the transmittal deadline includes some policy that could be impactful to the state. That includes proposals to protect the government from COVID-19-related litigation (House Bill 435) and changes to firearm laws to restrict local governments from regulating concealed carry in government buildings (House Bill 436). Another policy revived last week could regulate health care for transgender youth (House Bill 427). Lawmakers are also considering a bill to expand the verification process the state uses for aid programs like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, or CHIP, (Senate Bill 100). 

The House Judiciary Committee, where a majority of members are Republicans aligned with the party’s hardline wing, has been particularly busy. It heard 20 bills in a single day last week, compared to just a handful per day during the earlier weeks of the session. 

There’s some debate between lawmakers about this policy bottleneck. 

Republican Speaker of the House Wylie Galt says the chamber is limited by rules that call for bills to be heard by committees that deal with specific sorts of of policy. 

“We kind of have our hands tied where certain stuff has to go in committee,” Galt said. “About the best we can do is what we have now.”  

Democrats dispute that characterization. 

“There’s too much in the Judiciary [Committee] that doesn’t need to be there,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said. “So my proposal would be, if you can get it out of Judiciary to a committee that deals with the subject matter that’s part of the bill, you should.” 

In the final days before the transmittal deadline, expect more lengthy debates and lots of votes on the House and Senate floors. 

The Session airs Monday mornings on Montana Public Radio at 7:50 a.m., and on Yellowstone Public Radio at 5:47 a.m. and 7:47 a.m. It’s also available online here or wherever you get your podcasts.