Lawmakers reflect on Legislative Week, annual sessions

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A sun set illuminates the sky over the Montana Capitol in Helena on Tuesday, Jan. 17. (Sam Wilson/Daily Inter Lake)

Local politicians have plenty to ponder coming away from Montana’s first-ever “Legislative Week.”

Montana legislators gathered, received training and met with interim committees Jan. 13-17. Many legislators still feel Montana should move to annual legislative sessions. Only four states – Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas – still do biennial sessions.

According to Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, Legislative Week had something an actual session does not offer: a “collegial environment.”

Garner said that without the pressure of the duties of a legislative session, he “was impressed with how much you can learn from people around you.” He said there was a lot of “good information for people who have to make decisions.”

He was able to get an update on state-government revenues – “the news is really good,” he said – and sat in on a discussion about chronic wasting disease management. He said the committee discussion was “about standing room only.”

Garner maintained his opinion that Montana should still “definitely consider” annual sessions, saying it is a “real hardship” for legislators to leave their job or business for a 90-day session, which usually lasts around four months.

“I think if we’re gonna do it we have to do it through normal legislative process,” he said.

An annual session would require an amendment to the Montana Constitution, which currently states in Article V, Section 6 that “the Legislature shall meet each odd-numbered year in regular session of not more than 90 legislative days.”

The legislators could convene a special session with majority request in even-numbered years, but according to a recent report by the Montana Free Press, “a 2014 legal analysis by the Legislature’s chief legal counsel was skeptical that routine use of the special session power would survive a court challenge.”

Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, who has served in the Legislature since 2007 and was Speaker of the House in the 2013 session, agrees with Garner on this issue.

Blasdel said annual sessions would “definitely help strengthen” the legislative branch versus the executive branch, as the Governor’s Office currently goes 20 consecutive months “without checks and balances” from the legislative branch.

In addition, there would be “a lot more interest in running for office,” since the current biennial sessions require spending four consecutive months away from a job, business and/or family.

But Blasdel believes the legislators would have to put in “a lot of work to gain the trust of the public” to make an annual session happen.

“We meet 90 days every two years; the reality is some of them [the people] would like us to meet two days every 90 years,” he said. “You have to create a product you can sell to the Montana public.”

Blasdel thought Legislative Week was a good way to get Montana’s legislators in the same location to dispense knowledge and discuss important issues.

“Over these 20 months we’re not in session, all us legislators go back to our day-to-day lives,” he said. “This allowed for some networking … camaraderie-building and team-building.”

He said that with a “35-30% turnover” rate between sessions in the Montana Legislature, the week was a good alternative to annual sessions in helping spread knowledge and see interim committees.

But it still is not a substitute for an annual session.

“Quite frankly … we just condensed a lot of these interim committees into a week,” he said.

Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, appreciated this chance to meet with a number of interim committees. He was able to testify about property taxes to the State and Local Tax Policy study committee.

While he said he is “rather agnostic” about moving to an annual session, he wants to maintain interim committees, as they provide an opportunity to discuss issues in depth and bring bills ready to go into a legislative session.

“We need to figure out a way to preserve that,” he said.

If Montana did not move to annual sessions, he recommended the Legislature “try and maintain a week or so [every year] when we’re all together.”

Sen. Debo Powers, D-Columbia Falls, especially benefited from Legislative Week, though her circumstances are unique. She has not participated in a legislative session – she was appointed to the seat last October following the resignation of Zac Perry – and will have to win the election in November to be at the 2021 session.

She was happy with her experience at Legislative Week, as it showed her “just how hard legislators work.”

“I didn’t realize that until I was in there, how hard they study,” she said, and “how much they listen to testimony” from both the public and experts.

Powers could not get on an interim committee because she said it would “upset the [bipartisan] balance”, but the week gave her the opportunity to sit in on committees and learn valuable information.

“I spent the whole week in committees listening,” she said, adding it was a “pretty overwhelming amount of information.” But she was given the opportunity to learn about more unfamiliar topics such as the state budget and infrastructure.

Powers said she was not sure about annual sessions. “My question was: can we go through the whole bill-making process if we have less than 90 days?” she said.

She thought the current process was fine and that the work done in off-years is “very helpful.”

She called the Legislature “a fine group of citizens that were devoting a whole lot of time, not because they’re making money ... or for the gratitude,” but “because they care.”

Rep. David Dunn, R-Kalispell, wrote he did not attend Legislative Week, and said he does not support annual sessions.

Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or cgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

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