HELENA – Two proposed rules adopted by a House committee last week would dramatically affect the rights of the minority party, Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said.
But incoming House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said one proposed change would make one rule consistent with other House rules. He said he’s willing to take a second look at the other rule that Hunter and other Democratic leaders oppose.
The rules will be debated and be put up for a vote on Jan. 5, the first day of the 2015 Legislature. Republicans will have a 59-41 majority over Democrats in the House
The most controversial change would come into play if legislators want to block the House speaker from re-referring a bill that has already won House debate-stage approval to the Appropriations Committee to examine its fiscal impact. These bills for the most part already have been approved by other House committees before being debated on the House floor.
Over the years, House speakers often have re-referred these bills to House Appropriations Committee for the purpose of having the panel kill the measures because of their costs, even after the full House endorsed them on a preliminary vote.
Under the long-standing previous rules, a majority of the representatives –51 if all 100 are present – can override the speaker’s attempt to re-refer a bill to the Appropriations Committee.
The proposed change would make it more difficult to block the speaker’s effort to re-refer bills to the Appropriations Committee. It would require three-fifths of the House members – or 60 members if all 100 representatives were present – instead of a simple majority to do so.
“The leadership of this House is trying to make it much harder for a majority of the members to make decisions on the vote,” Hunter said.
He said in cases where a majority of House members favor the bill, requiring a three-fifths majority would empower the speaker and minority of total House members to block the effort.
“The makeup of the Appropriations Committee is more conservative than in recent years,” Hunter said. “It will be much harder to move bills.”
Knudsen said the rules already provide for a three-fifths majority to overturn the speaker’s decision to re-refer a bill to other policy committees except Appropriations after it has won debate-stage approval.
“It was a matter of harmonizing the rules,” Knudsen said,
He said are a number of other House rules and those in Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, which the Montana Legislature and most other state legislatures use when their own rules don’t apply to certain parliamentary issues, that require three-fifths votes.
“I don’t think this infringes on the minority,” Knudsen said.
The other proposed change would affect a parliamentary tactic known as “a call of the House.”
“The thinking behind this one was the prevention of mischief with the sole purpose of stalling and preventing passage of bills” before a deadline, Knudsen said.
The new speaker, however, said he’s willing to talk to Hunter about it take a second look at it.
Under current rules, if not all representatives are on the floor of the House, a legislator can make a motion for a call of House. The motion brings business to a halt until all representatives are present. It takes a two-thirds majority to end a call of the House.
Senate Democrats tried a “call of the Senate” in 2013 to block passage of two Republican election referendums and prevent them from meeting a key deadline. They did so when Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, went missing without explanation at the time.
However, the Republican majority rammed the bills through anyway, over the angry shouts of Democrats, who pounded their desks in protest. Republicans were able to pass the bills to meet the deadline.
“The thinking behind this one is we conduct business when there is a quorum,” Knudsen said. “If you have a quorum, why would you need a call of the House.”
Hunter questioned why House Republicans would want to eliminate this parliamentary tool.
“It dramatically affects the minority,” Hunter said. “As a minority, we might want to make sure everyone is there to vote.”
While Knudsen believes the rule change is needed to prevent mischief, Hunter said the call of the House rule should remain in place for the same reason.
“I believe the purpose of it is being used is as a preventative measure from other mischief being made,” Hunter said.