Capitolized is a twice-weekly digest that keeps an eye on the representatives you voted for (or against) with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday? Sign up here.

January 03, 2023

We’re about to begin on a great adventure for the next four months. I invite you all to look around for a second, look at your neighbors and realize this is as healthy and happy as you’ll be for the next four months. It’s all downhill from here.”

—Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, addressing his caucus during a press conference Monday morning.

The start of a legislative session in Montana must make some of the state’s more seasoned lawmakers feel young again. 

Legislators call it the “first day of school.” And for the 68th Montana Legislature, that first day was Monday. 

As with the beginning of any school year, the freshmen look agog at their new environs — the ornate ceilings, the stained glass, the giant Charlie Russell painting in the House chamber — as well as their new responsibilities. Veteran lawmakers saunter down the halls like seniors carrying confidence forged in the fires of sessions past. 

Like students, they eagerly await communal lunches and bathroom breaks. They pose for official photos. They make nervous introductions, sharing facts about their families, their jobs and hobbies. They roll around in their desk chairs — though these chairs are red leather with brass-colored studs, some draped with fur blankets, thrones for citizen legislators entrusted with the most adult of responsibilities. 

And unlike students, legislators make their own rules. Over the next 90 legislative days, bill drafts will be transformed into hundreds or even thousands of new laws, resolutions and ballot referrals. Many are technical and supported by broad bipartisan coalitions. Others are more far-ranging and debatable: major spending packages, election law reforms and constitutional amendments. 

Welcome to the first official edition of Capitolized, a new newsletter from Montana Free Press. From the first day of school to graduation, aka sine die, Capitolized will take you beneath the Capitol dome to track major legislation, illuminate back-room dealmaking, and even parse the occasional piece of gossip. 

While much of the first two days of the session has been devoted to orientation and introductions, lawmakers have already begun to address — and fight over — one major priority: legislative rules. 

Rules fights in the early days of session are something of a tradition, a biennial exercise in which lawmakers argue over the arcana of parliamentary procedure in pursuit of strategic advantage for their — and their allies’ — interests throughout the rest of session. 

This year, a familiar point of contention has taken on a new flavor.

Over previous sessions, the vote margin required to “blast” a bill onto the House floor — to salvage it from a committee where it was otherwise dead or stalled — has varied. Most recently, the threshold sat at three-fifths. 

That could change this session. On Monday, Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, successfully introduced an amendment to the House rules resolution, HR 1, lowering the total number of votes needed to blast a bill to 55. Buttrey framed the proposal as a matter of fairness and equity, an attempt to diffuse power across the state House of Representatives. 

“If the body says we should have this debate, we should have it,” Buttrey told the House Rules Committee Monday. 

Stated intentions aside, lowering the blast motion threshold is a tactical play. Buttrey, a veteran legislator, is among a group of comparatively moderate Republicans willing to broker deals with Democrats and occasionally vote against their own party line. In a situation where this group of cooperating Republicans and Democrats both support a bill that GOP leadership or hardliners on a given committee tried to kill, they can more easily marshall 55 votes to blast the bill to the floor for a vote than they could a 60-vote three-fifths majority. 

The 55-vote number derives from some vote-counting math, Buttrey told Capitolized. Since blast motions are often the result of a joint vote between Democrats and Republicans, Buttrey took the number of House Democrats — 32 — and added about a third of the Republican caucus, yielding 55. 

It also has a basis in practicality, he said. Fifty-five votes is more “palatable” to hesitant supporters of his amendment than a simple majority, Buttrey said. 

The amendment passed on a 12-10 vote, but not without drawing withering criticism from Republicans who accused Buttrey and other amendment supporters of undermining the newly elected supermajority and its leadership. 

“These motions are nothing more than an attempt to neuter the voices of the people of Montana who have sent conservative voices to serve in the Legislature,” said Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle. “It would allow a minority of the majority to collude with the minority party to become the new majority.”

That’s not the case, argued Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton.

“There have been assertions made over the past couple weeks that by passing an amendment of this nature, suddenly the Democrats are going to take control of the House of Representatives,” he told the committee. “I think the Democrats would be surprised to hear that.” 

Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, likened Buttrey’s motion (unfavorably) to the “silver bullets” of the 2015 session — procedural moves that allowed each party to blast a certain number of bills with a simple majority vote rather than a higher threshold. During that session, the silver bullets helped usher passage of the CSKT water compact and Medicaid expansion. 

“I have a lot of people that are really unhappy about that session because of things that came through because of silver bullets and a simple majority,” Sheldon-Galloway said. 

Democrats on the Rules Committee supported Buttrey’s amendment, though they urged that the threshold be further lowered. 

“Our caucus has supported changing the blast motion to a simple majority and generally a framework that understands the power of the body should be in the majority of the body, and we shouldn’t be delegating authority to smaller segments of the body in a way that blocks debate over things that could have a majority of the body’s support,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena. “Fifty-five isn’t where I want it to be. Our approach has been to try to get as many of our rules to acknowledge the reality of a simple majority as possible.”

The amended rules resolution will likely go before the full House for a floor vote on Wednesday. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

On Background

For Montana Legislature, the biennial work begins. See how the first day of the 68th Session kicked off. (MTFP)

Rules maneuvers hint at a potential hardline coup in the House. For some history on the tradition of early-session rules fights and their implications for partisan factions, see this story from the 2021 session. (MTFP)

Surplus, supermajority, shifts to the Constitution: MT’s legislative session starts Jan. 2. This story from the Helena Independent Record offers a handy primer on the supermajority caucus’ goals for the 68th session. (Independent Record)

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Eye in the Capitol

Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

House lawmakers pose for official group photos in front of the chamber’s C.M. Russell painting (and facing their red-leather chairs).