Front facade of the Montana State Capitol building, showcasing its neoclassical architecture with ornate detailing, large pillars, and the word 'MONTANA' engraved above the entrance, set against a cloudy sky.
The Capitol building in Helena, photographed Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Senate Bill 176, a proposal from Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, to change the membership of most interim committees to reflect the partisan balance of the Legislature, passed a preliminary vote in the House Tuesday with a pair of amendments, 66-34.

Interim committees meet between legislative sessions to study policy issues and draft bills for the future. 

Historically, the committees have featured members from the Democratic and Republican parties in equal balance. Regier has branded the measure as one of fairness: If voters sent 102 Republican lawmakers to Helena last November, then interim committees should reflect that ratio. His bill would change the proportion of most interim committees to three-to-one in favor of the majority party — in the current case, Republicans. 

“Democracy should not end at sine die,” he said during the Senate debate on the bill last month. 

But minority-party Democrats warned that the bill would erode a bipartisan institution in the state at a time when Republicans are increasingly attempting to inject partisanship in previously nonpartisan bodies at several levels of government. 

“This bill overturns the many decades of Montana legislative history, practice and tradition of bipartisanship during the interim,” Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, said on the floor Tuesday. 

Both the Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Audit Committee would keep their bipartisan balance under the bill, but the bill says the presiding officer must be of the majority party. Administrative committees like the ethics committee would also stay bipartisan. And thanks to an amendment added Tuesday by Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, the State-Tribal Relations Committee would maintain an even split between the parties. 

Regier’s daughter, Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, carried the bill through the House. “The minority party has a difficult time filling all the positions,” she said. 

That means an average Democrat serves on more interim committees than an average Republican, some of whom in the House didn’t serve on any interim committees after the session in 2021, Regier said. 

“This is a simple bill. Elections have consequences,” said Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, on Tuesday. “If the voters want even committees they’ll send a 50-50 House.”

Democrats opposed the measure, arguing that the bipartisan nature of interim committees produces more effective legislation. 

“I understand some freshmen didn’t get interim committees and they would like to and I understand that,” Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, said. “The will of the people or the will of the voters is we come up here and set good policy. The majority party may switch from session to session — it has, and it will again in the future — but over all this time the interim committees have been a stabilizing force.” 

Rep. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, was one of two Republicans to vote against the bill. He said serving on interim committees is rewarding, and appreciates their function as a filter for legislative ideas.

“My main rub is, I know fair when I see it. I like fair. And this just doesn’t feel fair.”

Rep. Neil Duram R-Eureka

“I come up with ideas,” he said. “I think they’re all great. I talk to my wife, and she reminds me that most of them aren’t. I talk to you guys, and you remind me that some of the other ones aren’t. But some of them are good ideas. And through that process some of those good ideas get across the finish line.”

“My main rub is, I know fair when I see it. I like fair. And this [bill] just doesn’t feel fair,” Duram added. 

Versions of the bill have come before past legislatures but haven’t succeeded, often due to opposition from within the GOP. Among those past opponents was Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, who voted for the bill in the Senate this session. 

“There was a bill last session and I voted against it, and the reason was it changed every interim committee to be partisan,” he said last month. “Things where we would have been hiring and firing staff and the ethics committee would have been partisan. I don’t want the admin committees to be partisan. I want to make sure our staff remains nonpartisan.”

Regier’s bill is different, he said, as it affects only policy interim committees. 

“We do have a large majority, and I don’t think it’s going to change in the conceivable future,” he said. 

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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.