HELENA – After the first half of the session was filled with a deficit of decorum and procedural hiccups, state lawmakers received a refresher course Tuesday to clarify the Montana Legislature’s often byzantine rules.
The clash between the Republicans’ dominating majority and the Democratic minority’s frustration has boiled over in rule-breaking outbursts on several occasions. Then there is the large number of freshman legislators this session puzzled by the esoteric procedure that governs rules for lawmakers.
House Speaker Mike Milburn said the rules review was prompted by the new lawmakers who might not be familiar with all the motions and intricacies of handling bills.
“We had some questions close to transmittal date, things always bunch up, and that’s when everything comes to a head right there both from an emotional standpoint and from the rules standpoint,” the Cascade Republican said.
At the review, legislators were handed lists of possible motions and verbal cues for making them. Legislative staff also clarified the rules of committee hearings and floor motions.
The rules regarding what you can do with a bill from committee or when a proposal needs a fiscal note are particularly complex and cause confusion even among seasoned lawmakers.
One point of clarification was given on the disputed issue of public testimony. Legislative Staffer Todd Everts said that people who come to testify at a hearing for a bill must be allowed to come to the podium to state their name for the record.
The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee previously ruled people’s signatures would suffice during a time-crunched hearing over gay-rights issues after a large number traveled to the Capitol to testify, stirring opposition from some legislators.
The Legislature follows the rules found in Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure as well as its own Montana specific rules. The required formalities are meant to allow bills to get a fair hearing and keep discussion civil over emotional topics.
Speaker Milburn has often had to play the role of counselor, at times innovating mediating exercises to deal with those emotional arguments. After one such heated exchange Milburn encouraged representatives with disputes to go to a time-out closet to resolve their issues.
“People are passionate about their issues and about their bills and sometimes there are differences of opinions and sometimes those opinions flair and emotions, and my job, one of my responsibilities, is to keep that all in control,” Milburn said.
One particularly heated House floor debate during the first half of the session came over health care, during which the discussion tensed and voices rose. Afterward House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, apologized and Milburn advised representatives to come back with a positive attitude and new focus.
It isn’t just in debates and speeches that things can become testy, some legislators have introduced amendments to bills that others felt were rule violations and meant as a political stunt.
When Rep. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, introduced an amendment to require men to undergo an electrocardiogram before receiving erectile dysfunction drugs — modifying a bill to require an ultrasound before an abortion — several Republican legislators rose protesting a decorum violation.
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