How to Read and Understand a Bill Before the Montana Legislature

It’s not difficult once you know the conventions used, trust me.

Not bills.  A Resolution may be introduced in either the Senate or the House.  These only express the opinion of the Legislature, if they pass, and do not require the signature of the Governor.  A Resolution does not make law or have the force of law.  A Resolution might be Senate-only (SR#), or House-only (HR#), or a Resolution to be considered by both chambers (called  “Joint Resolution”) but introduced in the Senate (SJ#) or introduced in the House (HJ#).

Referenda.  A few bills will be to put a measure on the ballot for a vote of the people.  A bill that does this is called a Referendum, and does not require the Governor’s signature.  A referendum may be to establish or amend an existing statute (law) and is spoken of as a “statutory referendum,” or it might seek to amend the Montana Constitution and is spoken of as a “constitutional referendum.”  If passed by the Legislature, referenda (plural of referendum - Latin, don’t you know) do not change law, but only put a proposed change on the ballot for a vote of the people.  Whatever law is the subject of a Referendum won’t be changed unless a majority of the people voting on it at the ballot vote in favor of it.

Bills.  All bills will have a Title, which is supposed to express the general purpose of the bill.  The Title will be all in UPPER CASE.

Most bills are to amend existing laws in Montana’s body of Legislature-enacted laws, called the Montana Codes Annotated (M.C.A., for short).  Some bills will establish new law in the M.C.A.  Many will do both add new law and amend existing law.

New Law

In a bill, any portion that establishes new law will begin with “NEW SECTION.”  The language following the NEW SECTION designation is all new for the M.C.A.

Amended law

Most bills, however, are adding language to existing law, deleting language from existing law, or both.  In a portion of a bill doing this, that part will begin with:

Section X.  Section X-XX-XXX, MCA, is amended to read:”  The first mention of “Section” here is the numbered section of the bill.  The second mention of “Section” is the Section of the M.C.A. being amended.  The Xs used here are in lieu of numbers just as an example.  Suppose the bill were to amend a particular Section of the M.C.A. having to do with fish and wildlife, all of which is in Title 87 of the M.C.A., then the first Section of the bill might begin with:

Section 1.  Section 87-6-401, MCA, is amended to read:

Then, any language to be deleted from the existing M.C.A. will be indicated with a strikethrough.  Any language to be added to the existing M.C.A. will be indicated with an underscore.

Some bills can be very long because they must amend a lot of existing Sections of existing M.C.A. in order to accomplish the bill’s purpose.

It’s that simple.  Well, it gets a bit more complicated with amendments made to introduced bills, but this is the basic scheme.

One uninformed person recently commented that an MSSA bill was a very bad bill, because there was an existing Section of the M.C.A. being amended in the bill.  The critic didn’t like the existing section of the M.C.A., and he didn’t understand that the only thing to be changed in this existing Section was the underscored language that was to be added by the bill - that the bill was not creating this existing Section.  Of course, the critic simply didn’t understand how to read a bill, as you do now.

The good news is that Montana bills are pretty simple to read and understand compared, for example, to bills before Congress.  So, don’t be intimidated about trying to read and understand Montana bills.

Sometimes bills may refer to other sections of the M.C.A. not in the bill.  If you want to know what those are, just go to the Legislature’s Website
then go to the link on the left for Laws and Constitution, to Current Laws, and look up the existing statute referred to in the bill.

Just this much information is 95% of what you need to know to be able to read bills introduced into the Montana Legislature.