montana department of labor and industry
The Walt Sullivan Building, housing the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, in Helena on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

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The single highest-profile component of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s signature red-tape relief effort, his much-touted push to streamline Montana’s code book in the name of efficient government, has emerged from its initial brush with the Legislature in a much-reduced form.

As introduced back in January, House Bill 152 envisioned a sweeping overhaul of the state’s occupational licensing code, the section of state law that governs licensed professions such as doctors, electricians and accountants. Paired with two other measures, House Bill 87 and House Bill 115, the bill sought to apply standardized forms and procedures to the state’s 32 separate professional licensing boards, many of which operate under idiosyncratic statutes.

Standardizing the licensing code, Gianforte’s office and the state labor department argued, would both make licenses less of a headache for state administrators and make it easier for professionals from other states to get permission to work in Montana.

Licensed professionals and their lobbyists pushed back, raising myriad objections to the proposed changes. The bill languished for more than half the session in the House Business and Labor Committee. As the committee finally passed it March 24, it was amended to a shell of its former self — reduced from 234 pages to five. The sole remaining provisions offer temporary licenses to military spouses living in Montana and exempt licensees who are deployed to military service from renewal fees and continuing education requirements.

“This isn’t quite what I had in mind,” sponsor Bill Mercer, R-Billings, acknowledged on the House floor Wednesday. He added that he hopes the Senate will restore portions of the bill as it moves forward. 

House Business and Labor Chair Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, said during Wednesday’s floor debate that the bill had sought to prescribe a one-size-fits-all system for professions ranging from plumbers to dentists. His committee, he said, was ultimately unable to get administration officials and industry groups on the same page about the bill’s many provisions.

“It put the committee in the role of picking winners and losers between government and industry. And certainly we don’t have the skills to make sure we’re picking the right winners and losers in each circumstance,” Buttrey said. “And boy, if we screw it up, the Legislature’s going to get blamed and industry is going to be in trouble for at least two years until we can come back and fix it.”

Gianforte said at a press conference Thursday that he’s also “hopeful” lawmakers will add some of the struck provisions back in and acknowledged that the initial bill “was so big it was hard to digest.”

He also defended the administration’s work on the measure, saying Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras and others involved in drafting the bill had sent or received 1.7 million emails trying to solicit feedback and had made many changes in response to industry input. 

“We’ve probably put more effort into outreach on that bill than any of the other 187 red-tape relief bills. So it’s extremely important to us,” Gianforte said.

Those other bills have, by and large, had better luck in the legislative gauntlet, many skating through with broad bipartisan support. A bill that eliminated an unused Montana huckleberry purity law, for example, passed with negligible opposition, as did another repealing licensing requirements for what the bill calls “hucksters,” or door-to-door salesmen.

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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.