The 66th meeting of the Montana Legislature gavels in at noon Monday setting the 90-day timer for major state policy debates. An early conflict will be over a proposal to change to the rules of the House in way that could reset the political balance-of-power in the Capitol.
Over the next four months lawmakers will work to build a balanced state budget, the only task for the Legislature mandated by the Montana Constitution. But over 3,030 draft bills on all kinds of topics have already been submitted.
The session convenes with a divided state government. Democratic Governor Steve Bullock sits in the east wing of the Capitol, and Republicans hold majorities in both chambers in the west wing.
However, the Republican majority is struggling to march in sync as lawmakers arrive in Helena.
House Speaker Greg Hertz pitched party unity as a goal soon after taking on the leadership role this winter.
“It’s no secret that we’ve had our differences in 2015. We worked better in 2017. We were very united during the special session. And my goal is to carry that unity forward into the 2019 session,” Hertz says.
Some conservative leaders of the GOP are facing a challenge from their own party members, supported by Democrats, for a change in the rules of the House that could weaken majority leaders’ power.
The rule change is coming from an group of Republicans sometimes referred to as the 'Solutions Caucus'. Those mostly moderate members of the GOP want to make it easier for lawmakers to pull legislation out of committees and onto the House floor for votes by the whole House. That would strip party leaders of power to send bills they don’t like to so-called “kill committees.”
How this rules fight plays out in the early days of the Legislature could shape the debate for other big items on lawmakers’ agendas, such as whether to continue or amend the state’s Medicaid expansion program.
When Republicans abruptly tabled discussion of the rule change in a pre-session meeting in December, Democratic House Minority leader Casey Schreiner said the expiration of Medicaid expansion later this year brings urgency to the debate.
“I think that we know that the majority of people in Montana don’t want to see 96 — by the time this comes, 100 plus thousand people — kicked off their health insurance. So because of that, there is a definite urgency. It’s our responsibility to take care of the people of Montana and pass policies that do no harm. And if we don’t get this done, we’re doing harm to people,” Schreiner says.
Derek Skees, a Republican House whip who led the move to table the rules debate, says there is no way a Medicaid expansion bill will die in committee.
“We don’t want 100,000 people to lose their insurance," Skees says. "We don’t want all those other problems to occur. What we do have a problem with is paying for it.”
The rules lawmakers play by in the House could also frame the debate for how the state will pay for big public works projects across the state, and how to build the state budget now that revenues are coming back on track following the budget collapse of the last session.