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Montana 2021 Legislature
The campaign rhetoric, struggles for political power and results of the 2020 election converge in the 67th meeting of the Montana legislature. Join us Monday mornings for The Session -- a breakdown of the latest action we’re watching in the statehouse, produced by Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Free Press.

The Session Week 9: Transmittal Log Jam

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As of midday Friday 1,128 bills had been introduced and Gov. Gianforte had signed 28 into law.

The legislature faces a Wednesday, Mar. 3 deadline for general policy bills from the House to make their way to the Senate, and vice versa. Bills that appropriate money can still be introduced.

This week, we’re watching bills ‘in the balance:’ They need to get across to the other chamber to stay in play.

Ahead of transmittal, policy committees have held marathon hearings in order to move bills along in the process. Lawmakers leading committees in this work have at times shortened public comment because of time constraints. Also, votes on policy have been taken immediately following a bill’s first hearings -- an unusual step, as lawmakers usually get a few days to think about a bill before voting to pass or table it.

A total of 303 bills were introduced in the two weeks before transmittal in 2021, about 100 more than the same time period in 2019, according to an analysis by Montana Free Press. More than three-quarters of the non-appropriation bills introduced in that time came from Republicans.

This log jam of bills ahead of the deadline includes some policy that could be impactful to the state. This includes proposals to protect the government from COVID-19 related litigation (House Bill 435) and changes to firearm laws to restrict local governments from regulating concealed carry in government buildings (House Bill 436). Another policy revived last week could regulate health care for transgender youth (House Bill 427). Lawmakers are also considering a bill to expand the verification process the state uses for aid programs like Medicaid and the Child Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, (Senate Bill 100).

The House Judiciary committee, where a majority of members are Republicans aligned with the party’s hardline wing, has been particularly busy. It heard 20 bills in a single day last week, compared to just a handful a day during the earlier weeks of the session.

There’s some debate between lawmakers about this policy bottleneck.

Republican Speaker of the House Wylie Galt says the chamber is limited by rules that call for bills to be heard by committees that deal with that kind of policy.

“We kind of have our hands tied where certain stuff has to go in committee,” Republican Speaker of the House Wylie Galt said. “About the best we can do is what we have now.”

Democrats dispute that characterization.

“There’s too much in the Judiciary that doesn’t need to be there.” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said. “So my proposal would be, if you can get it out of Judiciary to a committee that deals with the subject matter that’s part of the bill, you should.”

In the final days before the transmittal deadline we can expect more long debates and lots of votes on the House and Senate Floor.