The Montana Senate panel tasked with sorting 50 lawmakers into numerous standing and standby committees for the upcoming 2023 session completed its selection Tuesday after a series of unanimous votes.
Getting the big ones out of the way: Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, a key figure in the Legislature’s ongoing feud with the Montana judicial system, will retain his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Governor ran for Senate president for the 2023 legislature but lost the race in a pre-meeting vote last week to Senator Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton. Ellsworth was generally viewed as the less strict ideologue of the two candidates.
Chairman of the powerful Senate Finance and Claims Committee — the upper chamber version of an Appropriations Committee — will be Senator John Esp, R-Big Timber. Unlike most committee chairs, Esp was not a member of its new committee at the 2021 session. That year he was vice chair of the Senate Committee on Local Government, serving in the areas of ethics and justice. However, he is a very senior member of the legislature, having served at uneven intervals since 2001.
- Senator Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, will chair the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee.
- Senator Greg Hertz, R-Polson, architect of several Republican tax bills in the 2021 session, will chair the Senate Tax Committee.
- Senator Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, will chair the Senate Rules Committee, an influential position in the legislative politics metagame.
- Senator Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, will chair the Senate Education Committee.
- Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, will chair the Senate Local Government Committee, which could host a variety of housing initiatives this session.
- Senator Jason Small, R-Busby, will chair the Senate Committee on Business and Labor.
- Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, will chair the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
- Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, will chair the Senate Government Committee.
- Senator Mike Lang, R-Malta, will chair the Senate Agriculture Committee.
- Senator Walt Sales, R-Manhattan, will chair the Senate Energy and Telecom Committee.
- Senator Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, will again chair the Senate Fish and Game Committee.
- Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, will chair the Senate Roads and Transportation Committee.
- McGillvray will also chair the Senate Ethics Committee.
The Senate makes committee assignments in advance of each session through the Committee on Committees, a committee elected by the majority during the session prior to the session. As such, all members of that year’s Committee on Committees were Republicans. Led by McGillvray, the chairman, other members were Esp, Hinebauch, Welborn, Lang and Senator Daniel Zolnikov of Billings.
McGillvray, in an interview with Montana Free Press, said that he interviewed each senator to inform the committee’s decision and received input from both minority and majority leadership.
“The general philosophy is that we try to place people where their talents or passions lie and what suits their district,” he said. For example, someone from a county with an economic base in power generation or mining could well end up on the Energy and Telecom Committee.
“We try to favor older members over newcomers,” he added. “Obviously not everyone gets what they want, even senior members sometimes have to serve where they are more needed.”
It’s a more deliberative process, at least seemingly, than that in the House of Representatives, where the newly elected Speaker has final decision-making authority when it comes to appointing committees. As such, the selection of the speaker often reveals the internal political and personal rifts within the faction. In the Senate, this dynamic tends to be less obvious.
“There’s always political action — that’s the nature of things — but the decision ultimately rests with the committee,” McGillvray said.
The full list of Senate committee responsibilities, including readiness committees and budget subcommittees, can be found here.
A note: Senator Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, has been assigned to committees but tendered his resignation from the Legislature this week. McGillvray said one possibility is that his eventual successor will simply take his committee seats.
House GOP leadership finalizes committee assignments
The Republican leadership in the Montana House of Representatives has completed committee assignments for the 2023 Legislature, installing both relatively moderate and more staunch ideologues in the positions of committee chairs.