Montana Senate approves keeping bills’ legal reviews offline
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana senators on Friday approved a rule change that would make it more difficult for lawmakers and the public to learn when legislative attorneys flag potential legal problems in a bill.
The rule would prevent legal review notes from being posted to the Legislature’s website unless the bill sponsor requests it. It passed the Senate on a 29-18 party-line vote and now goes to the House.
Legal reviews accompany bills that legislative attorneys find have potential constitutional problems.
Links to legal review notes have been included on the website since 2013, making them easily accessible to lawmakers and the public.
Republican Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell, who proposed the change, said Montana law requires all legislation to undergo a legal review but does not require that the opinions be readily available or even put in writing. He also said legal review notes have been inconsistently applied to bills.
“Legal reviews are an opinion, and I feel they can bias legislators on a bill,” Regier said Jan. 8. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that bill wouldn’t survive a court challenge.”
Regier said Friday that he proposed the change after legislative attorneys issued a legal review note on one of his bills. The measure would have required Montana colleges and universities to provide financial literacy workshops to students who borrow money to pay for college.
The legal review questioned whether lawmakers could impose such requirements. Regier softened the bill’s language from a requirement to a request in order to remove the legal review note, he said.
Democratic Sen. Dick Barrett of Missoula on Thursday unsuccessfully proposed allowing more lawmakers to request a legal note be posted to the website.
“We should pay reasonable attention to the expert and well-informed opinion of our own attorneys,” Barrett said.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte said it shouldn’t be up to just the bill sponsor to decide whether the entire Legislature has access to its legal staff’s work.
“This is a step backward for our Legislature to not post it,” Sesso said.
Regier said people would still be able to go the Legislative Services Division and ask for copies of any legal reviews that might have been written.