HELENA — Between them, Montana’s 100 representatives and 50 senators took more than 1,300 swings at creating law during the 2021 Legislature. With the session ended April 29 and Gov. Greg Gianforte nearly finished with his review of the bills passed to his desk, just over 700 of those are headed into statute.
A relatively small number of lawmakers had a disproportionate impact on the contents of those successful measures. Those heavy hitters, mostly experienced Republicans, each ushered more than a dozen bills through the legislative process, while less-prolific peers, Republicans and Democrats alike, sponsored only a handful — in some cases returning home from the Capitol with their attempts mostly or entirely unsuccessful.
With commanding GOP majorities in both legislative chambers and a Republican in the governor’s office for the first time since 2003, GOP lawmakers typically sponsored more bills than Democrats in 2021 and, on the whole, also had better luck getting their bills passed.
Republicans introduced a total of 994 bills and resolutions, an average of 10.1 per GOP lawmaker. About two-thirds of those measures, 610, made it through the legislative process.
Democrats, in comparison, introduced 319 bills and resolutions, an average of 6.1 per Democratic representative or senator. Just under a third of those, 98, passed.
There are other positions to play on the legislative ball field, and other ways individual legislators can pursue their constituents’ interests in Helena, not least by the votes they cast on other lawmakers’ bills.
Additionally, legislators serving in top leadership positions often sponsor relatively few bills, given the other demands on their time, and have other ways to shape what’s happening in the Capitol. During the 2021 session, Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, sponsored only two bills. House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, the top-ranking Democratic, sponsored none.
Legislators who serve on budget committees also often spend much of their time focused on negotiating line items that end up in the state’s single budget bill, House Bill 2. And, lawmakers point out, not all bills are created equal. Complex measures like the budget or this year’s adult-use marijuana implementation bill take far more work to shepherd through the Legislature than, say, a memorial highway designation.Even so, sponsorship scorecards do provide a hard-numbers look at what individual lawmakers accomplished at the Legislature. They show, for instance, that a few Republicans were particularly busy.
Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, introduced a whopping 57 bills and passed 45, more than twice as many as any other lawmaker on both counts. Sens. Dan Salomon, Keith Regier, Greg Hertz and Doug Kary also passed more than 15 measures each, as did Rep. Bill Mercer.
All six of those Republicans are seasoned political veterans. The senators are each longtime lawmakers who served in the House before winning their seats in the Senate. Mercer, now in his second term in the House, served as Montana’s U.S. attorney under the George W. Bush administration.
Fitzpatrick, who has served in the Legislature since 2011 and is the son of longtime lobbyist John Fitzpatrick, pointed to his experience as the key factor in his record for the session. He said in an interview that he knows the legislative process and the people within it well enough to have a sense for what proposals will get traction in the Capitol.
For example, Fitzpatrick said that with a Republican in the governor’s office this year he brought more conservative bills than he did in prior sessions under a Democratic governor, passing landlord-tenant and tort reform bills that he would have expected to run afoul of former Gov. Steve Bullock’s veto pen.
That sort of political calculation, he said, is essential to effective lawmaking. And even minority party lawmakers, he added, can find issues where they have common ground with enough colleagues to get bills passed.
“A good legislator is going to be able to pass bills whoever the governor is — it’s just that the type of bills are going to be different,” Fitzpatrick said.
He also noted that some of his successful measures were resolutions to confirm Gianforte nominees for an array of business-related positions, routine measures assigned to him because he chaired the Senate Business, Labor And Economic Affairs Committee this session.
At the other end of the spectrum, 15 lawmakers ended the session without having sponsored a single successful bill. Most were Democrats, such as Rep. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, who sponsored 21 bills and resolutions without fielding a winner. Three, however, were Republicans: Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, and Reps. Ed Hill, R-Havre, and Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls.
Rep. Kelly Kortum, a freshman Democrat from Bozeman who saw all seven of his bills voted down, said it was clear as early as election night last year that the 2021 session would be a tough one for Democratic proposals. As such, he said, he didn’t necessarily expect his bills on prepaid postage for mail ballots and publicly owned broadband to make it to the governor’s desk.
“I was really more focused on making sure other bills didn’t pass that would harm my constituency,” Kortum said in an interview.
Kortum also said he’s realized that he has to lay the groundwork for future bills in the interim between sessions by building support for new ideas outside the pressure-cooker environment of the Capitol if he’s going to sell a critical mass of fellow legislators on his proposals.
Fitzpatrick, though, faulted lawmakers who struggled to pass their bills as ineffective.
“You need to be able to show that you’re passing bills,” he said. “If you as a Republican are struggling to pass bills in a Republican Legislature with a Republican governor, it means you’re not doing a very good job. … If you’ve got a Democrat who can’t pass any legislation, it means you have a person who isn’t living in the real world.”
“Anyone can pass a bill,” he said.
In a Wednesday appearance billed as the first in a series of events announcing policy priorities for next year’s legislative session, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he wants to raise the exemption threshold for Montana’s business equipment tax.
This fall, 20 school districts across the state are exploring a new approach to standardized testing. The Office of Public Instruction-led pilot, backed by $3 million in federal funding, seeks to replace Montana’s year-end exams with incremental tests throughout the school year.
Despite Montana’s unemployment rate of 2.8% as of August and an above-average labor force participation, Montana’s workforce can’t keep up with the sheer number of unfilled jobs. In Missoula, that means a battle to attract employees.