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The Montana Senate panel tasked with sorting 50 lawmakers into numerous standing and on-call committees for the upcoming 2023 session finalized its picks Tuesday following a series of unanimous voice votes.

To get the big ones out of the way: Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, a key figure in the Legislature’s ongoing feud with the Montana judicial system, will maintain his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Regier made a bid for Senate President heading into the 2023 Legislature, but lost the race to Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, in a pre-session caucus vote last week. Ellsworth was generally seen as the less stringent ideologue of the two candidates. 

Chairing the powerful Senate Finance and Claims committee — the upper chamber’s version of an appropriations committee — will be Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber. Esp, unlike most committee chairs, did not serve on his new committee in the 2021 session. That year, he was vice-chair of the Senate Local Government committee and served on Ethics and Judiciary. He is, however, a very senior member of the Legislature who has served in uneven intervals since 2001. 

  • Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, will chair the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety committee.
  • Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, architect of several Republican tax bills in the 2021 session, will chair the Senate Tax Committee.
  • Senator Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, will chair the Senate Rules Committee, an influential position in the meta-game of legislative politics.
  • Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, will chair the Senate Education Committee.
  • Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, will chair the Senate Local Government committee, which could play host to a variety of housing initiatives this session.
  • Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, will chair the Senate Business and Labor committee.
  • Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, will chair the Senate Natural Resources committee.
  • Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, will chair the Senate State Administration committee.
  • Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, will chair the Senate Agriculture committee.
  • Sen. Walt Sales, R-Manhattan, will chair the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.
  • Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, will again chair the Senate Fish and Game committee.
  • Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, will chair the Senate Highway and Transportation committee. 
  • McGillvray will also chair the Senate Ethics Committee. 

The Senate makes committee assignments in the run-up to every session through the Committee on Committees, a committee that the majority elects during the pre-session caucus meeting. As such, all members of this year’s Committee on Committees were Republicans. Led by McGillvray, the chair, other members were Esp, Hinebauch, Welborn, Lang and Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, of Billings.

McGillvray said in an interview with Montana Free Press that he interviewed every senator to inform the committee’s decision and took input from both minority and majority leadership.

“The general philosophy is we try to place people where their talents or passions lie, and what fits their district,” he said. Someone from a district with an economic base of power generation or mining, for example, might well end up on the Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

“We try to give preference to senior members over freshman members,” he added. “Obviously not everybody gets what they want, even senior members sometimes have to serve where they’re more needed.” 

It’s an at least ostensibly more deliberative process than that in the House, where the newly elected Speaker has ultimate decision making power when it comes to committee appointments. The Speaker’s picks, as such, often reveal the internal political and personal divides within the caucus. In the Senate, that dynamic tends to be less obvious.

“There’s always politicking — that’s just the nature of things — but the decision is ultimately the committee’s,” McGillvray said. 

The full list of Senate committee assignments, including for on-call committees and budget subcommittees, can be found here.

One note: Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, was assigned committees but submitted his resignation from the Legislature this week. McGillvray said one possibility is that his eventual replacement will simply take over his committee seats.

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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.