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March 17, 2023

A flurry of parliamentary motions in the last two days have sought to re-refer major pieces of legislation to new committees with varying degrees of success. 

In the Senate Thursday, Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, moved to re-refer Box Elder Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy’House Bill 317 — better known as the Indian Child Welfare Act — from the Senate Judiciary Committee to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee without objection. And in a later motion, he moved to re-refer House Bill 234, a bill banning dissemination of materials deemed obscene in public schools sponsored by Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, from the Senate Education Committee to the Senate Judiciary Committee. That motion failed 18-32, with many Republicans voting “no” along with Democrats. 

“You heard the word ‘laws’ in the short title [of HB 234],” Senate Judiciary Committee chair Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, said in support of the motion. “That’s what judiciary deals with. A lot of laws there. I think it’s a good move.”

“We consider laws all the time,” added Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux

HB 234 — titled “Revise dissemination of obscene materials to minors laws” — would criminalize public school employees who distribute material that meets the state’s definition of “obscene” to minors. Republican supporters of the bill often accompanied their arguments on the floor with references to the graphic novel-memoir “Gender Queer,” the subject of a nationwide book-banning effort in school libraries

Opponents of the motion to re-refer the bill said it belongs in the education committee. 

“Education bill, school libraries, we’re happy to hear it,” said Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Salomon, R-Ronan

Fitzpatrick, despite making the motion, was among the “no” votes, as was Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton. Fitzpatrick said he made the motion at the request of Phalen, the bill’s sponsor. The request to re-refer HB 317 came from the minority party, he added.

“I do a lot of those motions. It’s a little easier if I just do it,” Fitzpatrick told Capitolized. “People come to me, they want to reconsider a bill, and I just do it as a courtesy.”

Bill committee assignments in the Senate are the ultimate purview of the Senate president, with input from other members of leadership. The House has an appendix that guides where bills are supposed to go based on subject matter, but leadership still has latitude to treat that guidance as suggestive. 

“We’re usually willing to accommodate people on most of these as long as it’s still in the general topic area,” Fitzpatrick said. 

Bill assignments are also often political. Committees can be influenced by the individual politics of their chairs and members, and certain committees — often judiciary — can be used to pass or kill potentially controversial legislation. 

To illustrate: HB 234, a bill carried by Freedom Caucus member Phalen, passed the House despite 14 Republican defections. Regier, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, is an overt hardliner. Salomon, the Senate Education Committee chair, is well-known as comparatively moderate. The bill might fare better before Regier’s committee. HB 317, similarly, passed the House with unanimous support from Democrats and a 33-35 split in the GOP. 

Another example is Senate Bill 99, a bill banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth sponsored by Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell. That bill passed the Senate and was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, Keith Regier’s daughter and sister of House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell

On Friday, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, moved to re-refer the bill out of the Judiciary Committee and to the House Human Services Committee. On paper, there are more Republicans who might be amenable to voting against the bill in Human Services than there are in Judiciary, including Rep. Gregory Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, a consistent “no” vote on his party’s LGBTQ-related legislation. 

“Senate Bill 99 is explicitly about health care, the way the providers in the state provide health care, and by the appendix of our rules it should have been referred to the Human Services Committee,” Abbott said.

The motion to re-refer ultimately died on a 33-63 vote, with three Republicans breaking ranks. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Bill Report

House Bill 445, sponsored by Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, narrowly passed an initial vote on the House floor Thursday, 53-47. The bill allocates $1 million to the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to establish a statewide mentorship program for starting teachers in K-12 public schools. Romano argued HB 445 would help improve educator retention, particularly in rural districts that currently lose roughly one-fifth to one-fourth of their teaching staff each year — “more than double the national attrition rate,” she added. Several Republicans spoke against the bill out of concern that, in light of ongoing disagreements about authority over higher education policy, the money might not be used by OCHE as intended. However, 21 Republican lawmakers sided with the full House Democratic caucus to advance the proposal, with Rep. Lee Deming, R-Laurel, attributing his support to the success of a local mentorship program at a school in his district.

Senate Bill 458, a bill to define sex based on how a person’s reproductive system functions, passed out of the Senate chamber Friday on a 28-22 vote, despite briefly seeing a much closer margin due to fleeting Republican opposition. Proponents cast the bill as an attempt to clarify the definition of sex in light of public mainstreaming of “gender fluidity, gender transition, gender expression, transgenderism,” as the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, argued during a Thursday floor debate. Opponents say the bill would strip legal recognition from transgender people and many people with intersex conditions, linking it to a continued tide of anti-trans and LGBTQ+ bills nationwide. It will now proceed to the House. 

Vote Viz

Several Republicans joined with Democrats in opposition to Senate Bill 458, which nonetheless passed the upper chamber on third reading Friday, 28-22. 

Heard in the Halls

“We are growing government, but in a good way.”

Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, explaining her support for House Bill 2 on Wednesday. The $13.4 billion budget bill passed out of the House Appropriations Committee on party lines this week, with Democrats opposing the spending plan based on their assessment that it doesn’t fund enough services for the working class and elderly. “I don’t see some of the major priorities of my constituents in this,” said Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings.

On Background

House rules, including the committee assignment appendix

Reading Between the LinesFor more on the book-banning debate in Montana, see this story from the Flathead Beacon. 

Lawmakers eye deep changes to K-12 education: For more on big potential changes to the education system that lawmakers are eyeing this year, see this story. (MTFP)