Overview of Legislative Process
In Montana, as in all states, the state government is modeled after the federal government. It has three parts:
- The executive branch, headed by the president at the federal level and the governor at the state level;
- The judicial branch, which encompasses the court system; and
- The legislative branch, which is Congress at the federal level and the Montana Legislature at the state level.
This system was designed by the nation’s founders to have "checks and balances." Each branch has specific powers, but each also has specific limits on its powers.
The Legislature is the branch of state government responsible for making the laws needed to maintain public order and ensure the basic security of state. The executive implements the laws passed by the Legislature, and the judiciary interprets the laws and settles any differences of opinion about what they mean and how they should be applied.
But even if the Legislature passes a law, the Governor can veto it. The Governor may veto a law, but the Legislature can override the veto with a two-thirds vote. The Governor and the Legislature may agree on a law, but the courts may find it violates the state or U.S. Constitution.
These checks and balances are meant to ensure that no single branch ever gains too much power.
The Montana Legislature is a bicameral legislature. That means it has two chambers -
the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each meets in separate rooms to consider bills, or proposed laws. Every bill that becomes law must first be approved by both chambers.
The Senate and House are each responsible for organizing and establishing rules for their respective chambers. At the beginning of each legislative session, the members from each political party in each chamber have a meeting, or caucus, to elect officers.
The political party with the most elected members is considered the majority party. The second-largest party is the minority party. Sometimes legislators are elected to represent other smaller parties. If no one party has a majority, the party to which the governor belongs becomes the majority party.
In the Senate, the majority caucus elects a president of the Senate to preside over proceedings and decide the order of business. House members elect a speaker of the House to do the same in that chamber.
Other legislative leaders are:
- President pro tempore (or pro tem)
A senator who presides over the proceedings of the Senate when the president is absent.
- Speaker pro tempore
A member of the House selected to preside over House proceedings when the speaker is absent.
- Majority leader
The leader of the party that has the most members in a legislative chamber.
- Minority leader
The leader of the party that has the second largest number of members in a legislative chamber.
- Majority whip
A legislator selected by the majority party to help the majority leader and make sure party members are present for important votes.
- Minority whip
A legislator selected by the minority party to help the minority leader and make sure party members are present for important votes.
Each chamber also has a sergeant at arms who is appointed to keep order in the chamber. The sergeant is not a member of the Legislature but is part of the legislative staff. Other key staff members are the secretary of the Senate and the chief clerk of the House.
The Montana Senate has 50 members, and the House of Representatives has 100. But that hasn’t always been the case.
The first state Legislature met shortly after Montana joined the Union in 1889. It had 45 House members and 16 senators. The size of the Senate reached its peak from 1925 to 1965, when there were 56 members. The House was largest from 1967 to 1971, when it had 104 members.
In 1972, Montana voters adopted a new state constitution. It set the size of the Senate at 40-50 members and the House at 80-100. Ever since, the Legislature has had 150 members.
To ensure that every Montanan is equally represented in the Legislature, the state is divided every 10 years into geographical House and Senate districts. This process is called redistricting. Each district must have about the same population. Each Montanan is represented by one senator and one representative. Senate districts are made up of two adjoining House districts.
A county with a small population may share House and Senate districts with other counties. Counties with large populations may contain several districts within their boundaries.
One senator is elected from each of 50 Montana Senate districts to serve a four-year term. Half of the Senate members are elected every two years.
House members are elected to two-year terms. Each one represents one of Montana’s 100 House districts.
In 1992, Montanans voted to limit the number of terms that legislators and other state officials may serve. As a result of these term limits, an individual may serve as a state representative or senator for no more than 8 years in a 16-year period.
In both chambers, it is customary for Democrats to sit on the right side of the aisle and Republicans on the left.
The Legislature meets in regular session for 90 working days in every odd-numbered year. It is required to do so by state law and the state Constitution. Each session begins, or convenes, at noon on the first Monday in January, unless that is New Year’s Day. In that case, the session convenes on the following Wednesday.
In addition to its regular sessions, the Legislature also may meet in special session to deal with emergencies. Only the governor or a majority of legislators can call a special session.
Since 1889, the Legislature has met in special session more than 30 times. All were convened by the Governor. Legislators have never successfully petitioned to call a special session.