Legislative Council

Legislative Council on Wednesday discusses the possibility of reducing the size of the Legislature to fund pay increases for lawmakers.

Key state lawmakers convened in Bozeman on Wednesday to discuss reducing the number of state representatives and senators to help pay for raises.

The Legislative Council also considered two other options such as pursuing a third-party compensation commission that would set the pay rate for the Legislature. The other option was creating a mechanism like tying the pay to the average weekly wage in Montana.

The Legislative Council is one of four administrative committees within the state’s legislative branch. It is made up of members from both the state’s House and Senate chambers. The council gives direction to legislative services for the efficient operation and improvement of the legislative branch.

Executive Director for the Legislative Services Division Susan Fox presented the three options to the council. The conversation, though, seemed to focus around saving money by reducing the size of the state’s governing body.

According to the Montana Constitution, the Senate cannot have more than 50 members or fewer than 40. And the House cannot have more than 100 members or fewer than 80.

Fox said the constitution says “the size of the Legislature shall be provided by law.” The legal aspects, she said, aren’t anything the legislative body couldn’t get over if they wanted to reconfigure.

Fox said she came up with a timeline and what the Legislature would have to do to make the reduction happen. She said legislation would have to be passed in 2019 that states the size of the Legislature and addresses the transition periods.

A commission to redistrict Senate and House boundaries would work in 2021 with the census numbers. That information would then be presented to the 2023 Legislature with a plan for the 2024 election for the next year’s legislative session.

Fox’s plan would start the reduction in the 2025 session and eventually reduce the size of the Senate and House by 20 percent before 2027. That translates to 40 members in the Senate and 80 members in the House.

“You’d have to discuss the legal arguments, but I think on a practical level, I think you could do it,” she said.

Bozeman Republican Sen. Scott Sales was the first to express admiration for the reduction. He said he’d like to pursue the proposal and that he doesn’t see any downsides.

“I think there’s some real efficiencies to be gained here,” Sales said.

He said he sees more cohesion working with a smaller group of people. The reductions, Sales said, would have a positive effective and make the Legislature more efficient.

“It’d be less legislation,” he said. “I think it would just get rid of a lot of chaos.”

Joliet Republican Rep. Seth Berglee countered, asking if anyone had looked to any other states as examples.

“I think the argument is you’re going to lose representation, especially for some of the rural areas,” he said.

Other members of the council raised concerns regarding political breakdowns of districts and tying pay increases to the reconfiguration of districts.

Missoula Democrat Sen. Tom Facey said he believes it’s worth looking at, but sees making districts bigger a downside. In an urban area, he said, candidates can run a legitimate campaign for not much money because the constituents are close together.

“I do like that aspect in the Legislature that you don’t have to have that much money, you do have to have a lot of shoe leather and the like,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Jenny Eck said it would be a shame to kill the proposal right out the gate without thinking about it. Most members agreed that the discussion should continue with more public comment.

Republican Sen. Fred Thomas asked Fox to develop a plan that they could vet at their next meeting.

Freddy Monares can be reached at 406-582-2630, or by email at fmonares@dailychronicle.com.

Reporter

Freddy Monares covers politics and county government for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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