Newly elected Republican leadership in the Montana House of Representatives finalized committee assignments for the 2023 Legislature Monday, placing both relative moderates and more stringent ideologues in committee chair positions.
The House Republican caucus selected Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, as Speaker of the House in a secret-ballot vote last week, kicking off days of lobbying and backroom negotiations as lawmakers jostled for assignments to the committees of their choice. As with the 2021 session, the big question before the new speaker was how to allocate chairmanships in a way that meshed with his own criteria but also reduced friction between himself and the various factions in the GOP, namely the bipartisan-oriented Conservative Solutions Caucus, which backed Regier’s opponent in the speaker’s race, Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta.
Regier, generally seen as aligned with the Republican caucus’ right wing, made a few clear concessions to that comparatively moderate subgroup. First and foremost, Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the de facto chief of the Solutions Caucus, will keep his chairmanship of the influential House Appropriations Committee. A longtime architect of legislative spending bills, Jones chaired the Appropriations Committee in 2021 and the Senate Finance and Claims Committee in successive terms in the upper chamber before that.
Regier also appointed key Jones ally Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, as chair of the House Business and Labor Committee, on which Buttrey had previously served as vice chair, and Knudsen as chair of the House Rules Committee, often a venue for internecine caucus fights in the run-up to session. Knudsen, who was vice chair on Rules in 2021, strikes a dramatically different profile than his predecessor, former Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, one of the 2021 Legislature’s most vocal hardliners.
Other committee chair assignments generally hew closer to ideological right. Regier named his sister, Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, to the powerful House Judiciary Committee, where she served as vice chair in 2021. Last session, Judiciary was home to several proposed bills that would have limited the rights of transgender Montanans, and this year, the first openly transgender and nonbinary legislators in the state’s history, Democratic Reps. Zooey Zephyr and S.J. Howell, both of Missoula, will serve on the committee.
Regier also named Rep. Jen Carlson, R-Manhattan, who in 2021 carried Montana’s uniquely broad ban on vaccine-based discrimination, as chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee.
Legislative committees are the first stop for proposed bills, where committee members hear testimony and take up-or-down votes on legislation before sending it to the floor. Chairs of big committees like Appropriations and Judiciary often have outsized roles in the agenda-setting and internal politics of the session. But the chair is not all-powerful, even in their own committee. In the upcoming session, for example, Jones may chair Appropriations, but he’ll also have to work with several committee members from the Regier-wing of the caucus, including the speaker-elect himself, Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, and others.
Solutions Caucus members said they were hoping for appointments based primarily on seniority and expertise. Regier previously told Montana Free Press he was considering seniority as one criteria, but not the only one.
“My perspective is it’s going great, but nobody gets everything they want, there’s always going to be some disappointments as part of the process,” Regier told MTFP of the appointment process Friday. “It’s a big puzzle to put together.”
Regier could not be reached for additional comment Monday.
Democrats and Republicans serve on committees in rough proportion to the overall balance of the chamber — in this case, two-thirds to one-third in favor of the GOP.
The Senate’s Committee on Committees will announce its committee picks in a public meeting Tuesday, according to Senate majority staff.