Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras addresses the House Business and Labor Committee as it hears bills from Gov. Greg Gianforte’s ‘red tape relief’ effort on Jan. 19, 2023. Credit: Eric Dietrich/MTFP

A trio of bills that constitute the most prominent thrust of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s sprawling red-tape relief push drew praise and pushback in their initial hearings before a legislative committee this week.

The three bills, heard by the House Business and Labor Committee Wednesday and Thursday, aim to overhaul the section of Montana law that governs occupational licensing. That’s the state government program that determines who can work in Montana as a doctor, electrician, accountant, massage therapist, or any other of the roughly 50 state-licensed professions.

Officials at the Montana Department of Labor & Industry and Lt. Gov. Kristin Juras told lawmakers that the licensing program, which involves 32 separate professional boards and several more administered occupations, protects the public from unqualified or incompetent practitioners.

But, they said, it’s time to standardize the rules that apply to different licensing boards, each of which currently occupies its own, often idiosyncratic corner of state law. In addition to standardizing board processes and application procedures to make licensing easier to administer, the red-tape reformers said their code rewrite includes provisions intended to make it easier for professionals from other states to get permission to work in Montana.

“The result will be that people will be able to get to Montana, get to work quicker, to help meet our workforce shortages,” Juras said Wednesday.

The red-tape relief effort, a sprawling initiative to streamline Montana’s code book in the name of efficient governance, is the product of a campaign pledge by Gianforte, who ran for governor promising a comprehensive efficiency review of state agencies. The initiative, which Juras is leading, has put a heaping pile of bills out for public debate as this year’s session of the Montana Legislature gears up.

Those bills, which have consumed much of lawmakers’ attention in the opening weeks of the session, are generally plodding through the legislative process with broad support from Republicans and Democrats. One red-tape bill eliminating an unused Montana huckleberry purity law passed a preliminary House vote Jan. 19, with one opponent (Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan). Another that eliminates jail penalties for littering passed the Senate unanimously Jan. 11. 

As of Jan. 20, more than three-quarters of the 159 red-tape relief bills included on a “non-exhaustive” list provided by the governor’s office this week have passed an initial committee vote, and more than half have also cleared either the House or Senate. (A list of those bills and their current status is available on MTFP’s digital Capitol Tracker.)

“We’ve gone through every line of code across all the [Montana Code Annotated] in every agency, we’ve been doing extensive stakeholder outreach from the last two years, meeting with industry groups soliciting their input — and many of those ideas are in the legislation,” Gianforte said at press conference on Jan. 19.

The catch? Slimming down state law is itself paperwork-intensive.

According to a MTFP count, the 159 red-tape bills include 1,259 pages of legislation for lawmakers to wade through.

The heftiest of the three occupational licensing measures heard this week, House Bill 152, is 234 pages. Its text repeals 400 sections of current law, amends 187 and inserts 47 new ones in its endeavor to standardize how professional licensing boards are authorized.

Among other things, those new statutes specify application procedures, provide for continuing education requirements, and allow temporary licenses for spouses of active-duty military personnel who are licensed in other states.

The two other bills are House Bill 87, which standardizes how state licensing boards are organized, and House Bill 115, which standardizes penalties for people who practice regulated professions without a license.

Gianforte administration officials told lawmakers this week that the occupational licensing bills have already gone through several drafts in response to feedback from industry groups.

Even so, several organized labor groups and industry associations lined up at the business committee podium this week to tell lawmakers they think there’s still a lot of devil left in those hundreds of pages of details.

Montana Medical Association CEO Jean Branscum, for example, told lawmakers Wednesday she worried changes that shift more administrative authority into the labor department bureaucracy would erode the authority of the Montana Board of Medical Examiners, which licenses doctors and some other medical professionals and reviews cases of alleged medical misconduct.

“The physicians really depend on the board to be a gatekeeper. To keep incompetent physicians out of the state,” Branscum said.

Jen Hensley, a lobbyist representing the Montana Optometric Association, criticized the process state officials used to solicit input on the revision from professional groups.

“The listening sessions were for us to listen to the department about what was going on, not for the department to listen to us,” she said.

Other professionals expressed concerns this week, too. Jeanne Rankin, a veterinarian, said she worried that switching to email as the department’s primary communication channel could be problematic for older practitioners. Additionally, several massage therapists said they believed swapping out their profession’s currently codified mission statement in favor of standard language would jeopardize their ability to bill health insurance companies. (Labor department officials disputed that interpretation of the law.)

Gianforte administration officials said they’d work with the bills’ sponsor, Billings Republican Rep. Bill Mercer, and other lawmakers in an effort to placate at least some of opponents’ concerns. For example, they said they planned to provide an amendment to HB 152 that would fix a “drafting error” that would apparently prevent eye doctors from treating glaucoma. They also said they’d strike a much-criticized provision of HB 87 that, in the current bill text, would give the governor power to remove members from professional boards without cause.

At Thursday’s press conference, the governor acknowledged that “better is always possible” with legislation like the red-tape relief bills.

“I guess this is a comment on human nature. Everyone hates red tape unless it’s their red tape,” Gianforte said. “So I think we have to apply common sense to the consideration of these bills, and, if there’s input from industry that can make these bills better, we ought to incorporate it, amend them and get these bills to my desk.”

Arren Kimbel-Sannit contributed reporting.

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Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.