Montana Legislature Mulling Reporter Access

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – A committee of state lawmakers has begun looking into legislative rules governing the media, suggesting they might consider changing or perhaps limiting access reporters have to floor sessions, meetings and partisan caucus sessions.

The Legislative Council — a joint committee that handles administrative issues — received a report Tuesday from its attorney investigating how other state legislatures treat reporter access.

Attorney Greg Petesch said where reporters can sit and whether they have access to lawmakers on the floor varies from state to state. He said those decisions rest with the lawmakers themselves.

“It’s your process. You get to decide decorum,” Petesch said.

In Montana, reporters have access to seating areas on both the Senate and House floors. There are rules that govern dress code and when lawmakers can be approached with questions while they are in session.

“I think this is a very important subject,” said Rep. Dennis Himmelberger, R-Billings.

Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, said there have been no formal proposals and no decisions would be made without talking to media representatives.

“I think this is a discussion, just to see what options that we may want to have,” Cooney said, adding he does not believe any proposals would limit access.

Concerns expressed by some senators include not enough room to accommodate a media table on the floor and television cameras that can be disruptive during packed committee hearings, Cooney said.

The panel will look at the issue of open caucuses at its January meetings. Montana is relatively unique in that it allows the public into caucus meetings — separate gatherings of Republicans and Democrats where a number of issues can be discussed.

It was in one of those caucus meetings earlier this year that former House Republican Leader Michael Lange of Billings, and current U.S. Senate candidate, was heard using profanities regarding the governor. He was later ousted as leader by his colleagues.

Cooney said some lawmakers feel the caucuses, open to anyone from the public, can limit candid conversation. In addition, some lawmakers are upset the political parties occasionally send operatives armed with video cameras into the opposition’s caucus meetings.

The caucuses were the focus of a lawsuit brought by media groups in the 1990s that ended the decades-old tradition of closed-door caucus meetings.

Cooney said it was possible the lawsuit would have to be revisited. The issue was the topic of a recent legislative retreat, he said.

“Obviously, we know this is going to be controversial,” he said.

John Barrows, executive director of the Montana Newspaper Association, said his group will be watching developments.

“We feel that just not the press, but the public, has the right and duty to stay informed,” he said. “We would have grave concerns about any steps to close off these open meetings and sessions.”

The new legislative information officer told the panel that the media will be wary about any changes.

“I think they are going to be hypersensitive to that, it’s just something you need to be aware of,” Gayle Shirley said. “No one likes it when they get restricted more than they are accustomed to.”