With few exceptions, Speaker of the House Wylie Galt picked those with experience for the jobs he assigned them when making standing committee chairmen and chairwomen appointments for the upcoming legislative session.
"If you were a chair (in the previous session), you kept your chair. If the chair was empty and you were a vice-chair, you moved up," Galt, a Republican from Martinsdale, said. "After that it went on seniority, without anyone having multiple chairs."
Rep. Llew Jones, a leader of the moderate faction of Republicans in the House, will lead the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He was vice chair of the committee last session.
Jones is also a longtime lawmaker who has twice chaired the Senate's counterpart, Finance and Claims, and is a major architect of the state budget bill.
"When Wylie Galt was running for speaker, he shared with us it was going to be all about merit," Jones said. "It looked like he did his best, and whoever was senior and had the most time or previous experience was the chair. I know there's lots of folks who would have liked to see something different, but he lived up to what he said he was going to do, and he has done as good as he could possibly do to try to treat both sides completely fairly."
One of the sides Jones referenced is the so-called "Conservative Solutions Caucus," of which Jones is a leader. That group has crossed the aisle in years past to advance major legislation, such as Medicaid expansion and bonding for infrastructure projects.
That's come at the ire of the other side, which sits farther to the right. In the House they've given themselves the name "38 Special," a reference to the number of lawmakers in their group last session, as well as a bullet caliber.
A major question of the upcoming session is how united Republicans will be. The party is coming off winning every elected statewide office in the November elections, strengthening their majority in the Legislature and recapturing the governor's office for the first time in 16 years.
Galt said Wednesday while he wants to build consensus as speaker, it's never possible to please everyone.
"I think it's like anytime you've got a big group, everyone's angry," Galt said.
State Rep. Kim Abbott, a Helena Democrat and House minority leader, said her party felt they got a fair shake in the appointments, which are made by the speaker on the House side. In the Senate, committees are voted on by the Committee on Committees.
Committee chairs hold the power over scheduling for bill hearings and votes in their groups. That means they have the ability to effectively kill a bill by not scheduling it for a hearing or vote before key deadlines. They also run their committees and set much of the tone for the work done in those groups over the 90-day session that starts Jan. 4.
The House committees where the chairs return from last session are:
- Rep. Llew Jones, Appropriations;
- Rep. Mark Noland, Business and Labor;
- Rep. Seth Berglee, Education;
- Rep. Dennis Lenz, Human Services;
- Rep. Geraldine Custer, Local Government;
- Rep. Denley Loge, Transportation.
The committees where the vice chairs became chairs are:
- Rep. Derek Skees, Energy, Telecommunications and Federal Relations Committee (past chair termed out);
- Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, Fish, Wildlife and Parks;
- Rep. Barry Usher, Judiciary (past chair termed out);
- Rep. Wendy McKamey, State Administration;
- Rep. Becky Beard, Taxation (past chair termed out).
Rep. Steve Gunderson, who was previously on the House Natural Resources Committee, moved up to become chair after the previous chair was termed out and the vice chair moved to the Senate.
Rep. Joshua Kassmier, who served on House Agriculture last session, moved up to become chair. There, the past chair was termed out and the past vice chair was elected speaker pro tempore this session.
The Senate committees where the chairs return from last session are:
- Sen. Mike Lang, Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation;
- Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, Business, Labor and Economic Affairs;
- Sen. Daniel Salomon, Education and Cultural Resources;
- Sen. Duane Ankney, Energy and Telecommunications;
- Sen. Ryan Osmundson, Finance and Claims;
- Sen. Gordon Vance, Highways and Transportation;
- Sen. Keith Regier, Judiciary;
- Sen. Jeffrey Welborn, Natural Resources;
- Sen. David Howard, Public Health, Welfare and Safety.
The Senate committees where the vice chair moved up to become chairs include:
- Sen. Steve Hinebauch, Fish and Game (past chair termed out);
- Sen. Terry Gauthier, Local Government;
- Sen Doug Kary, State Administration (past chair termed out);
- Sen. Brian Hoven, Taxation (past chair termed out).
Skees will also continue to run the powerful House Rules Committee, an on-call committee that will play a critical role in determining how the session runs this year in a pandemic. Sen. Cary Patrick became chair of the Senate Rules committee after serving on it last session, but not in a chair or vice chair role. The past chair was termed out and the previous vice chair remains on the committee. That committee is set to meet in early December to help determine how the upcoming session will function given the pandemic.