HELENA – The Senate backed a constitutional referendum Monday to move the Montana Legislature from biennial meetings to shorter sessions every year, giving the measure 33 of the 100 votes needed from both chambers to pass.
The measure carried by Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann calls for voters to decide if lawmakers should continue meeting for 90 days every other year or for 80 days spread over two annual sessions.
Essmann said the proposal would make the Legislature more efficient by letting lawmakers focus on a few of their lawmaking responsibilities at a time. He also said the yearly sessions would increase the power of the Legislative branch by letting lawmakers have yearly input into government affairs.
Bill supporters said the annual meetings would also let more Montanans run for office, in particular business people and women with families who could make time for short lawmaking periods but not lengthy ones.
“This strikes me as a more friendly approach for a citizen Legislature,” said Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo.
Those opposing the measure came from both sides of the aisle. Critics said the annual sessions would expand the role of government against the wishes of Montanans and could make it more difficult to focus on legislation because each session would be rushed.
“I think a lot of Montanans out there would prefer we met two days every 90 years,” said Republican Sen. Joe Balyeat of Bozeman.
Democratic Sen. Mitch Tropila opposed the measure, saying reducing the overall number of legislative days would undercut the power of the body.
“We are the weakest branch of government right now. Why take 10 days away from us?” he asked.
Similar measures have come before the body for many sessions in the past but were defeated. After the proposal’s 33 votes Monday, it will need 67 votes from the House to pass. It may be a doable task given the bill’s bipartisan support from the majority and minority leadership in both chambers.
If passed, the measure would be added to the 2012 general election ballot for voter approval. The proposal would leave the decisions about number of days for each yearly meeting and the subjects addressed in each session up to future lawmakers.
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