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The Session Week 3: Relationships in the Capitol

The life cycle of legislation is just getting started. The mechanics of public power are sorting and sifting policy, and much of that work starts with the building of relationships. Listen now for a preview of the policy and politics inside the Montana statehouse.

Montana Public Radio's Corin Cates-Carney speaks with Eric Dietrich of Montana Free Press and MTPR's Ellis Juhlin.

Corin Cates-Carney As we get deeper into the session, we'll spend more time looking at the week ahead, previewing bill hearings and debates on the chamber floors. But while it's still early, we're going to take a step back and do some meaning-making of the process for how legislators come from all across the state with ideas and try to turn them into laws. So let's bring in Eric to do his best Schoolhouse Rock impersonation and explain the life cycle of a bill in the state Capitol.

Eric, how would you describe this point in the process? We're on legislative day 16 out of 90.

Eric Dietrich So, I don't think we want me to sing, but here's a metaphor. So, getting a bill passed is kind of like running hurdles at the track meet. You know, we're a few seconds after the starting gun went off. The first leg of the race is review by committee. Kind of the first hurdle bills have got to get across. That's where bill's come in for public comment. And then if they get past that hurdle, then they go to floor debate and then preliminary and final votes there. And then if a bill gets that far without getting knocked down, falling on the track, then it'll have to run around the bend and jump those same hurdles in the other legislative chamber. And of course, as you're coming towards the finish line, that's the governor's signature pen that signs the bill into law or vetoes it. And if you get vetoed, then you got to run the bonus lap and get the two-thirds majorities you need to get the veto override passed in the House and Senate.

Corin Cates-Carney Ellis, what are you seeing as bills go through their first hurdles?

Ellis Juhlin So, lawmakers are spending a lot of time in committees, which means that I'm spending a lot of time in committees as well. These meetings are really where legislators introduce their bills and make the case for why this given piece of legislation is worth passing in the first place. The meetings are open to the public, and after a bill gets presented, anyone who is in support of the bill or against it can get up and give their public testimony. So these meetings are really where you see how the general public or individual folks feel about a bill.

Corin Cates-Carney Let's get an example going. During the campaign season, we often hear big, broad ideas about how people want to change the state if they're elected. But now's the time when those campaign talking points have to get into the really nitty gritty of state policy. One of those efforts underway is Governor Greg Gianforte's red-tape relief program. That's based on his campaign promise to do a top to bottom regulatory review of all state agencies and then cut regulations that are found to be unnecessary or out of date.

Eric, what does that process look like as these bills go before the Legislature?

Eric Dietrich So as it turns out, Corin, cutting red tape is actually taking a pile of paperwork itself. There are more than 150 bills that are before the Legislature right now that are various aspects of this red-tape relief initiative. So many in fact, I asked the governor's office for a list because I couldn't count them all, and it took them more than a week to do it themselves to get me something.

Corin Cates-Carney Can you give us an example?

Eric Dietrich So, one of the big pieces of this push is that the Gianforte administration wants to redo how the state licenses professions. That's jobs like doctors, engineers, realtors. Intent there is that the state licenses those professions to make sure that the people doing them know what they're doing and aren't a threat to consumer safety. There are a lot of these. There are 50 licensed occupations, about, and 32 separate licensing boards. So that's everything from the Board of Medical Examiners, which of course licenses doctors, to boards for plumbers, dentists, accountants, a bunch of others, too. And currently all these boards sound like they have different rules and procedures, and that makes for an administrative nightmare. It's hard for people that are trying to figure out how to apply in the appropriate way. And so what the governor's folks are doing is they're proposing, repeal all the existing rules and replace them with a common set of standardized stuff.

Corin Cates-Carney That makes sense. What's hard about it?

Eric Dietrich Well, there's just a lot of regulations there to go through. The primary licensing cleanup bill they're running has 234 pages. And it has full pages that are just lists of all the statutes they want to strike. In theory, they're taking everything that actually matters there and putting it back in and not really changing the way the world works at all. But a lot of professional groups are in worrying that they're going to miss something or worrying that some policy change that's going on is the part of the standardization push is going to make things harder for that profession.

For one example, that is the State Optometrists Association or eye doctors, came in this week at a committee hearing and told the legislative committee that, 'hey, you know, this bill draft that we're looking at, we think it keeps our people from being able to treat glaucoma.' And the state officials kind of respond with a 'woops, well, that's a drafting error. We'll get that fixed in an amendment.' So there's just a lot of nitty gritty stuff like that that everybody's got to sort through.

Corin Cates-Carney That sounds like a real grind.

Eric Dietrich Yeah. And I think it's worth making a point that, like, a lot of the work that the Legislature is doing up here is like this. It's not so much debating abortion policy on the floor. There's a lot of that too. Most of the work, and oftentimes not the work we in media are covering, is this down in the details, trying to sort out what sort of rules should govern eye doctors and how you set up that sort of regulation.

Get a recap of this week's action at the Montana Legislature with news and analysis from Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels. Online Friday afternoons. On air Saturdays at 9:44 a.m.

Corin Cates-Carney So there's all this really nitty gritty work being done in committee rooms. And then there's also all these conversations that are going on in the hallways, in luncheons, evening receptions and dinners. Lawmakers are gathering at the bars and restaurants around Helena. Ellis take us out of the public hearing rooms. What are you hearing from lawmakers as they start their time working together?

Ellis Juhlin Well, as a lawmaker, you're one of 150 votes. So you really can't do this job alone. The dynamics are more complicated than just voting along party lines. Having these personal connections can really help you get the votes you need to get your bill over each and every one of these hurdles. I think there's a lot more respect and camaraderie in this building than people might even realize. This week I talked with Pat Flowers, a Democratic leader in the Senate, about his experiences with these kinds of relationships and working together and what that all involves for him.

Pat Flowers I love the opportunity to find solutions among differing opinions. It doesn't seem like that happens if you're on the outside looking in. But day to day, in lots of small ways, and sometimes bigger ways, I see that unfold.

Ellis Juhlin But make no mistake about it, this friendliness is also a political strategy. When you're one vote in an argument, it's really good to have other people on your side. I spoke with Republican Representative David Bedey about this relationship and how he views his colleagues in the Capitol.

David Bedey We don't always agree on things. I will say that I don't consider my colleagues across the aisle, the Democrats, to be my enemies. I consider them to be my neighbors and my friends, but they're just wrong.

Ellis Juhlin One thing that makes Montana really unique and influences policy is the fact that we have a citizen Legislature. Our lawmakers aren't doing this full time and they have day jobs that they go back to during the interim. Corin, Can you talk more about this?

Corin Cates-Carney Sure. So there's a survey done of lawmakers occupations outside of their work in the statehouse each session, and this year there are farmers, ranchers, attorneys, health care workers, retirees, small business owners, a taxidermist, a boilermaker, a member of the clergy and a firefighter. And that's not a full list. So as systematic as the legislative process can be, there's these relationships between these people with different backgrounds that's not an insignificant part of how laws are made. And that comes with hard conversations and traditions and quirks. Like, there's this one where lawmakers whistle and pretend to kill some non-controversial bill brought by a freshman lawmaker. They say 'no' and then change it to 'yes' real quick.

I was curious about these workplace dynamics and relationships between lawmakers, so I called former state lawmaker Frank Garner. He's a Republican from Kalispell, and he spent four terms representing House District 7.

Frank Garner First, important to understand that relationships are a currency in the legislative process. It is really one of the key factors that determines the success or failure of policy and of individuals.

Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Corin Cates-Carney Garner says this isn't special to the Legislature. This is just like any other workplace where people gather together to get things done. Trust plays a big role and it forms as they work together.

Frank Garner It's part of our nature as humans, right? And so we find that, for instance, legislators that are seatmates develop closer relationships because they're sitting next to each other so often. Your committee relationships, because often there's 20 of you, right, in the room instead of a hundred. Committees is where a lot of the really hard work of making sausage occurs. And so, you know, those are places you tend to have closer relationships with people.

Corin Cates-Carney Garner says the House is sometimes described as a room full of class presidents. It's crowded with a lot of people from across the state who all think they've got good ideas.

Ellis Juhlin But not everyone's good idea is going to become law. For that, it needs 26 votes in the Senate, 51 votes in the House, and that signature from the governor. Corin, what did Garner have to say about that?

Corin Cates-Carney I spoke to Garner for about a half hour, a lot longer than we can get into here. But my takeaway is that the currency he talks about between lawmakers, it doesn't necessarily buy a green light that a bill will be passed.

Frank Garner Regardless of how good your idea is. You're not going to have much luck executing if you're not able to convince this diverse group of people of its merits and its value.

Corin Cates-Carney But that currency of relationship can buy you a seat at a crowded table where the conversation can begin.

Eric, Ellis, thanks for coming on this week.

Eric Dietrich Thanks for having us.

Ellis Juhlin Yeah, thanks, Corin.

Corin Cates-Carney Before we go, Governor Greg Gianforte is scheduled to deliver his second State of the State address this Wednesday evening. That starts at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on MontanaPBS, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio.

This week is the deadline for lawmakers to request bills that outline changes to state spending. And lawmakers are diving further into the debate over how to address the affordable housing crisis in the state.

This has been The Session, a preview of the policy and politics inside the Montana State House. The Session is produced by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. Join us next week for a new episode or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.