Lawmakers to Buttress Authority Over Executive Agencies

Leaders on Legislative Council agree lawmakers could do more to communicate with departments in the executive branch

By Alison Noon, Associated Press

HELENA — Montana’s highest-ranking lawmakers decided on Friday they need to reinforce their authority over state agencies, beginning with teaching legislators how to supervise them.

Republican and Democratic leaders on Legislative Council agreed lawmakers could do more to communicate with departments in the executive branch and keep tabs on their rulemaking procedures.

Republican Sen. Ed Buttrey, in his third term representing Great Falls, said it was only recently that he learned the Legislature can delay implementation of an agency rule.

“We really want to get serious about how what we legislated gets implemented,” Buttrey said.

Senate President Debby Barrett helped introduce the topic, saying the legislature has delegated too much power to the state’s numerous agencies. The Dillon Representative questioned Bullock’s move this session to put into the budget a $250,000 Native American collateral support program that, as a stand-alone item, was killed twice by lawmakers.

“We’re supposed to set the policy and he’s doing it through the budget,” Barrett said. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Bullock’s Deputy Communications Director Mike Wessler said the funding item was vetted and ultimately passed by the Legislature just like every other budget item. He said the governor worked with legislators from both parties to ensure it was included.

“It is troubling that Sen. Barrett, the president of that body, wouldn’t even take the time to review the budget before casting her vote on the most important bill of the session,” Wessler said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said he got behind the idea of bolstering legislative oversight to alleviate the frustration he’s seen from legislators and agency administrators during the budget process.

Hunter said legislative oversight is a fundamental aspect of checks and balances, but “the process could be improved on both sides.”

The educational tactic will rely largely on legislative staffers passing their institutional knowledge to legislators.

Once lawmakers better understand their role, Buttrey said, it may be appropriate to dedicate more interim committee time to oversight.

Dave Bohyer, director of research and policy analysis at Legislative Services, said any expansion to oversight efforts could depend on more funding for interim committees and staff capacity.

The council and legislative staff participated in team-building exercises and brainstorming sessions during their two-day meeting at Barrister Bed and Breakfast in Helena. At the retreat, the group decided to focus its efforts this interim on legislative authority, additional procedural training for lawmakers during legislative sessions and the state’s public broadcasting service.

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