Should Legislature meet annually?

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During the week of Jan. 13, members of the legislature will gather in the state capitol at what is being billed: “Legislative Week: Budget and Policy Trends in Montana.” The purpose, according to the good folks at Legislative Services, is to “bring legislators together to cross pollinate and provide additional training and share information.” All the interim committees will be meeting. I serve on Local Government. (More on the working of this interim committee to follow.) There will be a day of seminars with titles such as, “How to Build a World Class Education System,” “State and Local Sustainability,” breakout sessions on the topics of pensions, human services, local trends, public safety and infrastructure. In addition, the gathering is held in conjunction with Senate Bill 310, a study looking into annual sessions.

Many people have asked for my opinion regarding a potential switch to annual sessions. I’ll have the chance to weigh in when I meet with the Steering Committee on Annual Sessions. The National Council for State Legislators (NCSL), in a recent article reminds us that up to the early 1960s a majority of legislatures met biennially. In the 1970s many states made the switch to annual sessions. Today only four states meet every other year including Texas, North Dakota, Nevada and Montana. The article presents compelling reasons for and against annual sessions. To cite a few, “The biennial session is unsuitable for dealing with complex and continuing problems that confront todays legislatures. The responsibilities of a legislature have become so burdensome that they can no longer be discharged on an alternate yearly basis.” To counter, “The biennial sessions may be put to good advantage by individual legislators and interim study commissions, since there is never time during a session to study proposed legislation.”

A change to annual sessions will require a change in the state constitution or lacking such a change, the necessity to call for a special session every other year, a burdensome and unpredictable method. Consideration to the maximum length of the sessions, topic matter (budget bills alternated with general bills), and the opportunity to carry over to the subsequent session will be possible components of such a change.

The Local Government Interim committee is composed of 10 legislators from the House and Senate, equal numbers from the two parties. The topic of particular interest for House District 5 include an environmental and cost analysis (who pays for clean water?) of septic systems, especially the cumulative effect of systems with high density development, a continuation of a study from the previous interim committee work seeking remedies to ease the affordable housing challenges for residents throughout the state, the continued study of fire service districts that would allow more flexibility and sharing of resources for fire and emergency services and the equity of the state the entitlement share a complicate system of tax collection (gambling and vehicle registration), redistribution to cities, towns and counties. If appropriate, the committee will seek statutory changes to address the barriers to remedies within current law. Those bills will then be presented by individual interim committee members in the 2021 session.

Despite there being only biennial sessions (or possibly because of such a structure), interim committees continue to take a deep dive into important subject matter facing Montanans. In a time of increasing toxicity at the federal level, interim committees exemplify bipartisan efforts to problem solve and build positive relationships. In lieu of such work, do we need annual sessions? I look forward to your guidance on this interesting topic along with other issues of concern.

Democrat Dave Fern of Whitefish represents House District 5 in the Montana Legislature.

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