Montana Lawmakers Seek to Strengthen Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Montana lawmakers who say term limits have reduced their effectiveness looked Wednesday to other states for ideas on how to strengthen their branch of government.

The Legislature is supposed to be equal to the state’s executive and judicial branches, but it has been weakened by eight-year term limits on lawmakers, Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann of Billings said.

That frequent turnover in legislators results in the entire body lacking a deep knowledge of government agencies, issues and problems.

In addition, the Montana Legislature holds sessions only once every two years. Those sessions begin two months after elections, creating a compressed time for legislators to draft bills, since the sessions are 90 working days, usually spread over four months, leaving a 20-month gap before lawmakers can act on bills again.

Democratic Rep. Chuck Hunter of Helena used a sports analogy to illustrate the disadvantage the lawmakers have compared to the governor’s executive branch.

“You have an executive branch team that practices 12 months a year and a legislative branch team that practices four months out of 24,” he said.

The Legislative Council met Wednesday to examine the structures of other legislatures that also meet once every two years and those in states similar to Montana — a large, predominantly rural area with a small population.

The council laid out a yearlong plan to study whether adopting any of those other states’ practices would bolster its own. That includes looking at the benefits of annual sessions versus biennial sessions, the start date and length of those sessions, term limits, the timing of bill drafts and limits on legislators introducing bills.

Issues such as term limits, the length of the session and the biennial schedule are written into the Montana Constitution and would require a voter referendum to change.

Essmann and Hunter are split on whether Montana voters would lift or lengthen term limits: Hunter said voters are becoming more informed of the problems with term limits, while Essmann the public has already spoken in favor of limits.

That left lawmakers to look first at the three other states — Nevada, North Dakota and Texas — that also meet every other year to see what those legislatures are doing.

Nevada has 12-year term limits, begins its session a month after Montana and has a 120-day calendar that is bolstered by a strong orientation and training program for lawmakers, said Legislative Council executive director Susan Fox.

North Dakota’s sessions lasts 80 days every two years, while Texas’ biennial sessions last no more than 140 days.

Oregon’s legislature, which had met every other year, switched to an annual session in 2011 after creating a public commission to study the matter years before asking voters to approve the plan. Oregon lawmakers also called themselves into special session twice in off-session years to show the public how it would work, Fox said.

That kind of communication and public involvement is important to build trust in what the Legislature is doing, Hunter said.

Republican Sen. Fred Thomas of Stevensville suggested breaking Montana’s current session over two years — two months in the first year to pass a budget and key bills and two months in the second year for budget cleanup and other bills.

Hunter said that idea has a number of drawbacks, and the shortened sessions would make it more difficult for legislators to understand and come to consensus on complicated bills.

Essmann, the chairman of the council, stressed that this is only the beginning of the process.

“I don’t think there’s a predetermined answer,” he said. “We’re going to wander in the weeds for a while and see if there is something there worth picking up.”

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