There is a fight brewing in the Montana Legislature over how much power House leadership should have to keep bills they don’t like from going forward. It’s revealing lines between conservative and moderate factions in the Republican caucus; and how it plays out could determine the way high-profile policy is made.
“There’s a lot at stake in this game,” says Derek Skees, a Republican party whip in the House.
Skees chaired a meeting of the House Rules Committee Tuesday morning that ended abruptly when Republicans voted to not debate a proposed House rules change further until the start of the 2019 legislative session in January.
The proposed change would lower the bar to vote controversial legislation out of committee and onto the House floor for debate.
It’s called “blasting,” and, at present, it requires a super majority of votes, 60 out of the 100 House members can vote to “blast” a bill out of a committee and onto the floor.
The proposed rule change would allow bills to be blasted out of committee with a simple majority vote of 51. This could make it easier for the minority Democrats to team up with moderate Republicans to pass legislation without the support of the Republican party leadership.
“Why does members of the majority caucus want to pass rules that weaken the majority caucus," Skees asks.
Skees accuses an “oligarch group” within the Legislature of trying to sway the political balance of power currently in place between the Republican majority and Democratic minority. He said this group was within the Republican party, but did not say who he was referring to specifically.
“I’m not going to discuss that,” Skees says.
Republicans have 58 seats in the House. Democrats have 42.
With this control, Republican leadership can effectively kill legislation they don’t like by sending it to a committee where they know it will be voted down. And then, because of the current super majority rule on reviving killed legislation, leadership can be confident that it will stay dead.
“The rules that we have in place, they look like they are adequate and they’ve done the job for decades here in the Montana House,” says Republican Greg Hertz, the newly elected speaker of the Montana House of Representatives.
“It should be difficult to pass legislation," Hertz says. "And with that process we come out with better legislation.”
However not all Republicans in the House are on board with super majority rules.
Llew Jones is coming back into the House this session after four terms in the state Senate, which operates under simple majority when blasting legislation onto the floor for debate. And he says he prefers those rules.
“I would like it to be the most equitable system possible," Jones says. "And the more closer it is so that ... nobody is disenfranchised. Ideas should live and die on their merit.”
One the most contentious political fights coming up in the 2019 session where this rule could come into play is over the future of Medicaid expansion. More than 95,000 Montanas have health coverage through the law and it is set to expire next year if lawmakers don’t re-authorize it.
The expansion of the state’s medicaid program narrowly passed in 2015, when moderate Republicans joined Democrats to pass it.
Democratic House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner says the sunset of the health care law is spurring some of the urgency in his support for the rule change.
“Fifty-one percent of the folks should actually be able to make a decision on how to move forward. Because those represent the majority of the people of Montana,” Schreiner says.
However Republicans argue Montanans put a conservative GOP majority in the state Legislature, and changing the rules will reduce the power of the ruling party voters elected.
The rules for the 2019 legislative session will be finalized soon after lawmakers convene, January 7.