House Rules Committee

Members of the House Rules Committee met Wednesday to prepare for the 2017 Legislative session that is scheduled to begin on Jan. 2.

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HELENA — Montana’s Senate majority leader said Wednesday that he wants to change the rules and extend the Republican Party’s majority onto committees that meet between legislative sessions, but he won’t push for the change right now.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, wants to change the make-up of interim committees, which are now each composed of four Democrats and four Republicans. The committees meet between Legislatures — which convene every two years for four months at a time — to study issues and sometimes draft legislation. The 4-4 split is specified in state law.

Fred Thomas

State Sen. Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, is the 65th Legislature’s Senate Majority Leader.

Thomas argues that the state Constitution and the Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure would allow such an internal rule change, despite that state law. He believes that it would strengthen the Legislature’s roll as a check on the executive branch.

In committee Wednesday, Republicans on both the Joint Rules Committee and the House Rules Committee passed a rules amendment proposed by Thomas. It struck out eight references to Montana statute in the legislative rules, though the amendment didn’t deal with interim committees.

“We left that alone on purpose,” he said. “Maybe it’s something that a future Legislature deals with. Our best analysis is to leave it alone for now.”

Several Republicans said the idea wasn’t popular among all party members.

Democratic state Rep. Tom Woods of Bozeman voiced his disagreement with Thomas, and all Democrats on the committees voted against removing statute references from the rules.

In a second hearing on the same amendment, Woods asked rhetorically if lawmakers could also adopt a rule that immunized him from speeding tickets.

Thomas’ thinking stems from a briefing two years ago by Brenda Erickson, a rules expert from the National Conference of State Legislatures, who said that rules normally trump statute.

However, staff in Montana’s Legislative Services Division told Erickson and lawmakers that, in Montana, the state Supreme Court has said that each Legislature is free to repeal or modify existing law, but lawmakers must also follow the existing laws. “Legislative rules are considered subservient to statute,” wrote Todd Everts, the Legislature’s director of legal services, in a 2014 email to Erickson.

Under that thinking, the Legislature would have to pass a bill to create partisan interim committees. Thomas disagrees but said he won’t introduce a bill.

“Any bill we would pass would have to be signed by the governor,” Thomas said. “But by doing that we’re abdicating our authority as a separate branch of government to a different branch of government.

Jenny Eck

State Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena, is the 65th Legislature’s House Minority Leader.

“If we do this at any point in time, whenever that might be, we’ll do it in the rules and we will ignore that statute or some statute that binds a future Legislature in the arena of rules and how we operate,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the vast body of law outside of the Legislature.”

House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, told the Chronicle that she’s concerned by Thomas’ logic and doesn’t support making interim committees partisan. She added that even if Democrats were in the majority she would want interim committees to stay as they are.

“Interim committees are an opportunity for us to work together and study an issue not from a partisan perspective but from a perspective of what is best for the state,” Eck said. “Interim committees produce some of the best legislation because of the way they’re formed.”

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Troy Carter can be reached at 582-2630 or tcarter@dailychronicle.com. He’s on Twitter at @cartertroy.

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Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

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