HELENA — Senate Democrats accused Republicans Saturday of trampling their legal rights during a tumultuous standoff at the Legislature the previous day, but GOP leaders insisted they had operated fully within the law and rules.
The partisan battle continued Saturday, without the shouting and table-pounding seen Friday, as opposing leaders tangled over the legality of the Republican majority’s actions that denied Democrats their attempt to block action on some key bills.
Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, refused to recognize Democrats on the floor Friday afternoon and instead conducted final votes on bills as Democrats stood and shouted their protests and pounded tables.
Democrats appeared to be laying the groundwork to a legal challenge of the Senate action Friday and to nullify the votes, but Republicans defended their actions.
Senate Republican leaders also said Saturday they are launching an investigation, with subpoenas, into the Friday absence of Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning.
They believe Augare’s absence was a “coordinated effort” with Democratic leaders “to intentionally obstruct the business of the Senate,” said Brock Lowrance, spokesman for the Senate president’s office.
“If it was a ruse, if it was deceit, we will find out about it,” Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman said Saturday.
Democrats on Friday tried to issue a “call of the Senate,” which can shut down all action if a member is absent. Augare had been absent when Democrats made their procedural ploy to block votes on two controversial bills.
The bills had to pass the Senate by Friday or they would miss a procedural deadline and probably be dead.
Democrats were trying to block two late-introduced bills proposed by Republicans to put on the 2014 ballot referendums affecting voter registration and primary elections. Democrats strongly oppose the measures.
Augare told reporters he had returned home to conduct tribal business as a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the governing body of the Blackfeet Nation.
He later denounced the Republicans’ action as “dead wrong,” saying they had ramrodded the election referendum through the Senate.
Senate Bill 405 is a referendum to end voter registration on Election Day and cut it off the previous Friday at 5 p.m. SB408 is a referendum to change Montana primary elections by putting all candidates – Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians – on the same primary ballot, and having the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, even if they are from the same party.
On the Senate floor Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, argued that Senate votes Friday should be nullified because Essmann refused to recognize the Democrat trying to make the motion. Sesso cited the Montana Constitution, legislative rules and Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure.
“The failure of the president to recognize the senator’s call for of the Senate makes any action that took place subsequent to the call of the Senate invalid,” Sesso said.
At a later news conference, Sesso said Democrats are trying to “stand up for Montanans.”
“That’s what we tried to do yesterday, to use every means possible, within the rules of our legislative vote … that we could, to preserve the public’s right to vote,” he said.
Wittich defended the GOP leaders’ action as legal under the Montana Constitution and the legislative rules.
“The Montana Constitution is very clear,” Wittich said. “We make our rules, and if the minority believes we did something wrong, the place to do (appeal it) is in the courts…. Everything that has been done in this chamber has been lawful.”
Turning the tables on the Democrats, Wittich said, “If we want to look at the rules, there was behavior done yesterday that was not consistent with the decorum of this body. And it will also be looked at in the next few days.”
Essmann said it is the presiding officer’s decision whether to recognize a member of the Senate, and that any senator must rise and respectfully address the presiding officer.
“It was the decision of the chair that no member of the Senate had risen respectfully and asked to address the session,” Essmann said.
Republicans announced a Senate Rules Committee for noon on Monday to continue the discussions.
The Senate on Saturday debated a separate measure, House Bill 30, by Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, to end voter registration the Friday before Election Day. It is an ordinary bill that would go to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature or veto if it passes, not directly on the ballot as a referendum.
It passed on a straight party-line vote of 29-21, but not before a lively debate. Democrats contended the bills and referendum were Republican attempts to suppress the vote of those who register on Election Day, while Republicans said those wanting to register to vote can do it the Friday before the election and end long lines on Election Day.
Sen. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, told how American Indians, such as her grandfather, had fought in the U.S. military forces during wars, but were not allowed to vote. Her father fought in World War II, she said, “even when there were signs in the store that said ‘No Dogs or Indians Allowed.’ “
“Since 1492, we have defended this country, and we will continue to defend this country, but you cannot disallow the right to vote,” Stewart-Peregoy said.
Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said life is full of deadlines, whether for registering to vote or filing taxes. People who want to register to vote will learn to meet the new deadline if the bill passes, he said.
“Life is full of consequences for behavior that is not timely,” Sales said. “Whether it be Election Day or three days prior, people are intelligent. They might make that mistake (of not registering on time) once. They won’t make it twice.”