MT Legislature 101
The 2021 session of the Montana Legislature begins on January 4, 2021, and is scheduled to end on Day 90; May 11th. For a complete calendar of the session, visit: Session Calendar.
Because most folks do not understand how a law is made, we thought it valuable to give a simple step-by-step (Stage) description of the process:
Montana operates under a bicameral system; House of Representative and Senate. The House has 100 members, and the Senate 50 members. Each Senate district includes 2 House districts. The House and Senate convene in separate chambers in the capitol. Each chamber have visitor galleries. The Republicans sit on the left side of the aisle (if you are standing in the back), the Democrats on the right.
The leader of the House is called the Speaker of the House. The leader of the Senate is called the President. The majority party (whichever party has the most elected) control the leadership positions, and select all the committee chairman. The percentage of democrats v. republicans on each committee is generally the same as those serving in the Senate or House.
The House and Senate run their business totally separate from each other. The Senate is referred to the ‘upper house’ and the House is referred to the ‘lower house’. (There has always be a rumor that the House is technically 1” higher than the Senate, but no one has provided proof)
As a citizen, you are permitted to walk onto the floor of either the House or Senate, EXCEPT if the ‘2 hour rule’ is in force. The public is not allowed to enter unescorted during that time (2 hours before the House or Senate convene, and 2 hours after they are dismissed).
The legislators operate during the session under rules that they create for each session. These rules spell out the detailed procedures and deadlines. The House has a set of rules, and the Senate have their own. The rules are under the authority of a Rules Committee. They must conform to the Montana Constitution, and current Montana statute (MCA). It is not uncommon to see the legislature vote to suspend the use of the rules in special situations.
Every bill has at least one public hearing. In Montana, anyone can testify at a hearing. There is a signup sheet at the door, but that is only a record of attendance. It is not an indication of testifiers or an order of testimony. Testimony is strictly ‘first-come first-serve’.
Often there are several bills presented at every hearing. The bill order is declared at the very beginning of the hearing period. The presentation is the same for every bill. The legislator sponsoring the bill introduces it and describes it. He basically must ‘sell’ it to the committee. Next, the chairman of the committee will open up the hearing for those supporting the bill (proponents). After all the proponents speak, the chairman will open ask for any opponents.
After all testimony is completed, the chairman will allow the committee members to ask questions of anyone that testified. After all questions have been asked, the chairman will ask the sponsor for any closing remarks. The legislator will generally address some of the opponents’ testimony (still trying to convince the committee to support the bill). The chairman will close the hearing on the bill, and move to the next one.
The length of time for each side, and individuals is totally at the discretion of the chairman. If there are many bills to be heard, and many people planning to testify, the chairman may decide to restrict testimony in time. There is occasion where time will run out and the chairman will simply allow remaining testifiers to come forward and state their names and addresses. A hearing on a single bill may take 30-45 minutes.
The Bill Stages
As a bill moves through the system, it passes many stages. Along the way it will change shape and size. We have divided a bill's route into four stages. The higher the stage number - the closer to the governor's desk. (i.e. Stage 1 = bill draft requested, Stage 4 = waiting for the governor's signature). Below are the details on each stage (as well as how the whole thing works):
Bill Stage 1
Prior to the beginning of each session legislators fill out a simple form that describes the title of the bill they want to introduce. This form is given to a special department located in the capitol building; The Legislative Services Division. It is this department’s responsibility to work with each legislator in drafting the bill in ‘legal-ease’.
Most people do not realize that many bill requests are submitted months before the session begins. By September , there are often over 500 bill requests submitted (months before the session even began). These requests were submitted by Senators that were in office (they serve 4 year terms – thus running every other time), and Senators and Representatives that were running unopposed.
After all the dust settles there is usually over 3000 requests submitted during a session. Not all of these requests are introduced. And it is not unusual to see some cancelled for various reasons. All bill requests are assigned a reference number with a ‘LC’ prefix (i.e. LCxxx). This is not the official bill number, only a reference number.
Generally, drafting must be completed on these bills no later than the 30th day of the session (the session is 90 days total). The only exception relates to appropriation bills. These bills can be drafted at any time.
Bill Stage 2
When the bill draft is complete, the bill is assigned an official bill number (HBxxx – House bill, SBxxx – Senate bill, etc) and officially introduced. (Under current rules, a bill may be given an official House or Senate bill # BEFORE 'Day 1' of the legislative session.)
If a bill is sponsored by a Senator, it becomes a senate bill (SBxxx). If by a House member, it becomes a house bill (HBxxx).
Every senate bill has a 1st reading, public hearing, 2nd reading and 3rd reading on the Senate side. The same bill (if not killed) is passed to the House for 1st reading, public hearing, 2nd reading and 3rd reading. (A house bill follows the same path, BUT starts in the House and heads toward the Senate.)
A bill can be ‘killed’ by a committee vote after the hearing, full floor vote after floor debate during 2nd reading, or full floor vote during 3rd reading.
To achieve support, it is common to see the original language of a bill altered with ‘amendments’ during its travel through the process. It is rare for a successful bill to end up exactly as it started.
(Open debate on any bill will only occur during the public hearing or 2nd reading.)
If a bill succeeds all the way through third reading, it is ‘transmitted’ to the ‘other side’.
This MUST happen BEFORE the halfway point (45th day) of the session. Any bill (except appropriation bills) that does not cross over by this deadline will automatically die.
Bill Stage 3
This stage is the ‘other side’. If the bill was a house bill, it now will be considered by the Senate (if it was a senate bill, now it is in the House). The bill number stays the same. The Senate gives the bill a 1st reading, public hearing, 2nd reading and 3rd reading.
So once again, the public is given opportunity to speak for or against the bill. But this time it may be changed in language through amendments.
Many people assume that there is only one hearing on a bill. They show up for the first one, but never come back. It is very important to return to Helena for the second hearing. None of the committee members hearing testimony will know anything about what happened in the previous hearing.
Bill Stage 4
Any bill succeeding in 3rd reading in Stage 3 is then sent to the governor for final approval. The governor can sign the bill or veto the bill. If the governor decided not to sign the bill, it becomes law anyway. If the governor vetoes the bill, the legislature is given opportunity to vote to override the veto. It requires 2/3 of the legislators to vote for override. If the bill passed by a slim margin, generally the veto stands (2/3 is a lot of votes).
Approved bills are then officially added to Montana’s law books. The new law books are typically ready for purchase by the following October.
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