Friday, March 22, 2013

Bills stacking up in the Senate

Bills that passed in the House and in Senate committees are stacking up on Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann’s desk.

In some cases the bills that passed the House aren’t being assigned to Senate committees. In other cases bills that passed Senate committees aren’t being scheduled for 2nd reading.

Of the 30 bills awaiting second reading in the Senate, a third passed in committee more than a week ago. All of those bills  passed unanimously or with bi-partisan support.

The word in the Capitol is that Democrats may raise the issue on the Senate floor today.

But it isn’t just Democrat bills getting hung up in the process.

As of the start of the week Essmann had held-off on assigning to committees more than 20 bills sponsored by House Republicans.

Many of those passed the Republican-controlled House by large margins – and about half were transmitted weeks ago – yet Essmann held-off on assigning them committees where they could be scheduled for hearings. The sponsors of many of those bills also happened to be Republicans who voted against HB315, Republican Rep. Austin Knudsen’s charter school bill that unexpectedly died on 3rd reading in the House last month.

Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad , is one of the Republican lawmakers who had bills on Essmann’s desk.

“It certainly appears from the feedback of the Senate leadership and a quick review of the bills that are presently pocket vetoed that the House vote on the charter school bill is the causal link,” Cook said.

The charter school bill was a priority for conservative Republicans in the House and Senate, and as Mike Dennison of Lee Newspapers recently pointed out, was backed by wealthy special interest groups including the Montana Family Foundation and Bozeman technology mogul Greg  Gianforte, former CEO of RightNow Technologies.

Gianforte is also a major Republican donor to Republican campaigns and causes.

Rep. Christy Clark, R-Choteau, was one of the Republicans who switched her vote on third reading to help kill HB315 on the House floor. Clark said Wednesday that she met with Essmann earlier this week to ask him why HB464, a measure that revises the state’s prevailing wage laws that passed the House 89-9, had not been referred to a committee.

“He said specifically that he wanted to express his disappointment in my vote on the charter school bill,” Clark said. “He was clear that he wanted to visit with me before he scheduled the bill.”

Republicans Roger Hagan, of Great Falls, and Steve Gibson, of East Helena – also “no” votes on the charter school bill – said they, too, met with Essmann individually to inquire about bills that weren’t being referred to committees.

Hagan and Gibson declined to comment on the specifics of their conversations with Essmann, but both men said Essmann expressed a desire to visit with them before scheduling their bills.

Essmann said Wednesday that he held the bills in order to encourage Republican sponsors who voted against the charter school bill to talk to him about their votes. Essmann said the practice of holding on to a bill in order to encourage a conversation “is something that has gone on forever.”

“I was curious what was going on with those votes on that charter school bill,” Essmann said. “It seemed curious.”

Essmann said he was concerned about the appearance of coordination between some House Republicans and Democrats and public education lobbyists who opposed the charter school bill. He pointed to a Jan. 27  letter Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, wrote that was signed by six Republicans and six Democrats from the House and Senate and four public school lobbyists.

The letter was sent to the Districting and Apportionment Commission and urged the commission to assign a Senate district to Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. The commission’s plan left Jones without a Senate district he could run in in 2014. Essmann said the redistricting commission made a change to their plan that “threatens Republican control of the Montana Legislature.”

Jones is the architect of the major school funding bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support after a lengthy floor debate that pitted Democrats and moderate Republicans against conservatives in Republican leadership. Jones’ bill is now in the House where it is awaiting committee assignment.

Essmann said he didn’t know if there was coordination between the letter and the votes on the charter school bill.

“That’s why I wanted to have the conversations,” Essmann said.

Essmann said once House lawmakers spoke to him about the issue he assigned their bills to committee. He said not all of the people who voted against charter schools have come to talk to him.

“I don’t believe in retribution, I believe in conversation,” Essmann said.

Stay tuned for more. I’ll write later about the rumored “kill list” that a Republican leader in the House purportedly sent to the Senate.

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