Montana Lawmakers Reject Power Grab by Majority Republicans

Rule would have required majority leaders to break tie votes in interim committees, which are often split evenly across party lines

By Tristan Scott

HELENA — Montana lawmakers have rejected legislative rule changes that would have authorized majority leaders of the House and Senate to break tie votes in legislative interim committees, which are usually comprised of Democrats and Republicans in equal numbers.

The rule changes were proposed last month by the Joint House and Senate Rules Committee, chaired by outgoing Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville. Members of the House and Senate were polled and voted them down, according to results presented to the Rules Committee on Monday.

Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, accused Republican lawmakers of proposing the rule change in order to overturn an emergency declaration made by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The declaration gave the governor authority to distribute coronavirus relief funds and establish public health regulations.

Thomas said after the meeting that Dudik’s accusation was “baseless.”

“These rules that we proposed have nothing to do with that,” he said. “If we wanted to do that, we have other means to do that.”

Dudik and other Democratic lawmakers have said the committee’s meeting was illegitimate because it was held outside of a legislative session, and several of the committee’s members — including Thomas and Dudik — would end their tenure after the November election.

Some Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in opposing the timing of the rule changes.

Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, wrote: “I feel that while there is merit in some of the proposed changes, the timing is ill advised.” He said the rules should be considered when the Legislature is in session.

Thomas said trying to pass the rule change before the 2021 session convenes was an attempt to address a contentious issue. He said Democrats have abused their position on interim committees, where they hold 50% of seats despite being in the minority in both the House and Senate.

“The Democrats have something they don’t want to give up,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Well, do it outside of the session. Let’s just do it now and get it behind us.’”

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