Deadlines, public notice and a raft of complex legislation is getting rushed, irking some lawmakers

Three days’ notice generally acceptable, but not required under current rules

By: - March 27, 2023 6:55 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

The hearing for a bill that could cost nonprofit hospitals roughly $35 million according to an estimate from an economist received less than 48 hours of public notice last week.

That notice is within the rules at this point in the legislative session, but according to the economist and former longtime legislator, and one current committee member, it gives the public short shrift and is a problematic way to craft thoughtful laws.

Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, said the short notice doesn’t align with the spirit of the Montana Constitution, which protects the public’s right to be informed and active in government.

She learned on Saturday afternoon about two hearings Monday morning, and the same night about a hearing at 8 a.m. Tuesday in the Senate Taxation Committee.

“It very well may be OK, according to the Republican-drafted, loosey-goosey rules, but it’s not OK in my book, Montana’s constitution, and the public’s right to know and participate in government,” Dunwell said in an email.

The hearing for the bill related to nonprofit hospitals, Senate Bill 513, was among at least a couple posted online around 1 p.m. last Tuesday for an 8:30 a.m. hearing last Thursday, according to the Legislative Services Division. Another was Senate Bill 511, related to local government levies.

Normally, notices need to be publicly posted “not less than three legislative days in advance of the hearing,” according to rules adopted by lawmakers.

However, the rules allow exceptions, including when the legislature is within 10 days of the deadline for the bill to move to the second chamber, or at this point in the session, the 67th day. Last Thursday was listed as the 58th day of the session, falling into the acceptable time period.

Chairperson Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said he thought the committee had good hearings with public participation, and he noted the hearings for SB511 and 513 were scheduled on March 21, “in line with the normal three business days practice,” according to a text message from a spokesperson.

“Chair Hertz encourages Montanans to keep reaching out and make their voices heard at the Legislature,” said Kyle Schmauch, communications and policy manager for the Senate Republicans.

But Democrats said complicated legislation should get more notice and have time to be amended if necessary. This session, they are also in the minority, and Republicans hold a supermajority.

Former lawmaker Dick Barrett, an economist from Missoula, said the short turnaround time for some complex taxation bills, including the one that would revoke the tax-exempt status from some hospitals, robs the public and legislators.

Senate Bill 513 was heard on the 58th day of the legislative session.

Barrett noted that means committee members need to hear out the public, talk with constituents, consider any amendments, vote on it, send it to the floor for a debate, and give it a thumbs up or down by the 67th day of the session, according to the legislative calendar.

“That’s a really, really compressed schedule, and it really doesn’t give anybody enough time to deal intelligently with these bills,” Barrett said. “ … Some of these bills are complicated. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on with them. Or they’re consequential.”

Barrett served for six sessions in the Montana Legislature, two in the House and four in the Senate, and he’s professor emeritus of economics at the University of Montana. He’s been providing analysis of taxation bills to current Democrats.

The Senate Taxation Committee has had a lighter schedule this session, he said, and then, it got busy as the deadline approached. Barrett said that’s unusual in his experience.

“I do not recall a time when I served on the tax committees when they did so little initially and then got so jammed up with bills when running up against the transmittal deadline. It’s a disgrace,” Barrett said in an email.

Last week, in correspondence with legislators, he noticed two complicated bills had popped up for hearings with little warning. And a legislative staff member noted the list of revenue bills being introduced “will grow.”

The one about hospitals alone takes a bit to evaluate, Barrett said. The fiscal note estimates it will cost some $4.3 million, but Barrett noted that’s only the cost to state coffers, and the total including money owed to local government could run an estimated $35 million.

“That’s a huge tax bill to pass onto those hospitals. That’s a lot of money,” Barrett said. “Who is going to pay that? We are because they’re going to have to build that into their rates.”

Other taxation bills also are complicated, and Barrett said the public should have ample time to look at them, decide whether they want to testify, and if so, prepare. And he said legislators should have time to consider amendments to make the bills better.

Barrett took note of the timeframe for public hearings in emails with Sen. Shannon O’Brien, who sought advice about the content of a couple of taxation bills.

O’Brien, also a Missoula Democrat, said the legislature is at a point where many bills are getting “pushed through the pipeline.”

She said too much time is being wasted trying to “eliminate health care privacy while attacking the freedoms of Montanans, particularly trans, nonbinary, Two Spirit and intersex Montanans.”

“We need to be focusing on the problems Montanans are facing — like housing, which we haven’t done anything substantial for, childcare, and the teacher shortage,” O’Brien said in a text. “And we really need to work at creating a tax system that is fair to all Montanans.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.