In a previous column (How Bills Pass the Montana Legislature) we outlined the various steps a bill has to go through to become law.
As part of First Reading, the leadership of the two chambers, House and Senate, assign each bill to one of two-dozen legislative committees that in turn hold hearings that allow for discussion, amendment and public testimony. The committees schedule the bill for a vote during an executive session after the public hearing. If a majority of the committee votes in favor of the bill, the bill gets a do pass recommendation from the committee, and the bill is sent to the full membership of either the House or the Senate for Second Reading. If the majority of the full House or Senate pass the bill at Second Reading, the bill goes to Third Reading. A majority of the members of the full House or Senate must again pass the bill at Third Reading, after which it is transmitted to the other chamber to go through this process again.
The 2021 Montana Legislature is considering 3000 bills. In order for each chamber to have enough time to consider all the bills coming from the other chamber, the Legislature sets a deadline for transmittal. For most bills in this legislative session, that deadline was March 3. Bills that did not complete the process outlined above by March 3 are dead. They cannot be reconsidered and become law in this session.
The transmittal deadline always intensifies the Legislature’s work the last two weeks before transmittal as the House, Senate and committees try to address all the remaining bills under consideration. Imagine a large school of minnows in a tank, all trying to get to a second tank. The passage between the tanks is a funnel with a very narrow point and all the minnows are trying to get through the funnel at the same time. Some minnows are not going to make it before the funnel is closed. Some bills are not going to make the transmittal deadline.
Committee chairs announce the order bills will be considered and when public hearings will be. Normally, hearings go for 3-5 hours. When the number of bills considered increases as the transmittal deadline looms, there is no way to predict how long a hearing will take or when it will take place. The League of Women Voters was signed up to testify at a hearing February 19 that started at 7:00 am in the morning; there were so many other bills scheduled for hearing by this Committee, it was 4:30 pm when we finally testified.
This rush to have hearings and pass bills before transmittal can shortchange the deliberative process of lawmaking. Committees rush hearings on bills, limit testimony to one minute per person and sometimes limit how many people can testify at all. The House and Senate Chambers rush floor votes and miss the opportunity to have careful consideration and debate of each piece of legislation, simply to get some bills through the process in time for transmittal.
Is there a better way to do this? Montana’s Legislature meets for 90 days every two years. Having a short session every other year saves Montanans tax dollars and allows Montana to elect citizen-legislators--representatives who are not professional politicians but earn a living in their communities. Each chamber needs to have time to consider bills from the other chamber, so having a deadline for transmittal makes sense. How chaotic this is in any one session depends on the leadership of the House and Senate and how many bills they want to rush through. This, in turn, affects whether every bill can receive adequate public comment and a thorough review by legislators.
Which bills died in the 2021 transmittal process and which ones made it through the chaos? We will review some of the survivors in the next column.
The League of Women Voters has been registering voters and providing non-partisan voting information for over 100 years. Membership is open to men and women, citizens and non-citizens over the age of 16. For more information about the Missoula League, go to our website: lwvmissoula.org