Montana Lawmakers Study Annual Legislative Sessions

Jan 14, 2020

Montana lawmakers have yet to find consensus about moving the state toward annual legislative sessions. Lawmakers debated the issue on Tuesday.

Montana and North Dakota are the only two states in the country with part-time legislatures that meet once every other year to approve a budget and pass policy. Instead of meeting once for 90 days every other year, state lawmakers are now studying whether to move to 45-day meetings every year.

Republican state Senator Ryan Osmundson carried a bill during the 2019 legislative session to study and consider changing that process. That bill was, “focused around how do we strengthen the legislative branch,” Osmundson said.

Some lawmakers are concerned that the authority of state Legislature is not as strong as it once was — losing institutional knowledge through term limits, and ceding power to the always present executive branch. There’s no consensus among Montana lawmakers whether annual sessions would improve the Legislature’s work.

“In my world I think it makes more sense to have annual sessions where you don’t have to commit to four months away from your business, four months away from your ranch or farm,” says John Esp a seven-term Republican from Big Timber. 

Diane Sands, a seven-term Democratic legislator from Missoula, isn’t in favor of annual sessions. Sands says the Legislature should focus on increasing bipartisan work during the interim period between existing sessions, and offer more training for lawmakers.

Sands says annual sessions is not a new idea in Montana, and she doesn’t expect it to get traction this time around, either.

“I mean I don’t think the public is going to allow us to have annual sessions, no matter how we frame it."

The Montana Constitution says lawmakers shall meet each odd-numbered year in regular session for no more than 90 legislative days and the Legislature may increase the limit on the length of any following session.

Specific costs associated with the potential change were not discussed during Tuesday's hearing. Lawmakers studying the issue will report any recommended changes in November.

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