Legislators Reach Deal on House Rules

Controversial procedural debates dominate first week of Legislature

By Tristan Scott
Montana State Capitol. Beacon file photo

A proposed change to state legislative rules overshadowed the first week of the 64th Montana Legislature, with Democrats accusing the GOP leadership of trying to hijack control of the session by allowing the House Speaker to kill measures at will.

The proposed rule changes emerged in the weeks leading up to the 2015 session, and would have made it easier for House Speaker Austin Knudsen to kill legislation by burying it in the House Appropriations committee, where measures are sometimes punted at the behest of majority leadership to quietly wither away without seeing debate on the House floor.

But Democrats complained that the changes proposed by the GOP leadership were designed to give the party an unprecedented amount of power, calling the changes undemocratic.

The major point of contention centered on a rule that would have given Knudsen the power to effectively kill a bill by referring it to the House Appropriations committee when it came to the House floor for final debate. The change would have required 60 votes – known as a super majority – to overturn his decision. The old rule, on the other hand, required 51 votes, or a simple majority.

The change was thrown out in the House Rules Committee before the measure made it to the floor after the parties worked out a deal that allowed each caucus six “silver bullets” to save their bills from dying in committee, which Democrats will need if they hope to get bills like Medicaid expansion to the House floor for debate.

Minority Leader Chuck Hunter also called for an amendment allowing a simple majority on a “blast” motion, which can rescue a dead bill from committee and “blast” it back to the floor. However, the amendment failed in committee.

Knudsen and Hunter cut a deal before the proposed rule change was scheduled for a floor session. Knudsen said they worked out a deal because he and his party wouldn’t be able to obstruct certain amendments after moderate Republicans pledged to support them alongside Democrats.

A faction of conservative Republicans voted against the deal, saying the Democrats would use the exceptions to the rule to force their agenda through the Legislature.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, accused a group of self-named “Responsible Republicans” of splitting with the party and forcing Kundsen to accept the deal.

Last session, a group of moderate Republicans joined with Democrats to pass major legislation, such as a school funding bill, pension reform and a state employee pay plan.

The vote on the proposed rules change is evidence that the division still exists.

Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, serves on the Houser Rules Committee, and called the GOP’s proposed rules “undemocratic.”

“Under current rules, a speaker can redirect practically any bill that comes out of a committee to the Appropriations Committee. Some speakers tried to use this as a weapon, referring bills they did not like to this committee for quiet disposal, but as a check to this power, the legislature could override the speaker with a simple majority vote,” Woods said. “The GOP leadership faction is trying to change the override requirement to a super majority (60 votes). This will allow the speaker to kill bills he doesn’t like regardless of majority opinion. That’s undemocratic in that it negates a basic principle of our legislature – that the majority of members decide an issue.”

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