HELENA – Montana’s state Senate careened into partisan chaos Friday, as minority Democrats pounded their desks and shouted protests, trying to shut down the chamber to block a pair of Republican proposals to change Montana voting laws.
But as Democrats protested — and scores of supporters pounded, shouted and clapped in the public gallery ringing the chamber — Senate Republicans ignored the din and calmly voted without the Democrats to pass the bills that sparked the protest.
“It will be very hard for them to make an argument they couldn’t vote, when they were standing at their desks and pounding the tables,” House Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, said afterward. “I’ve never heard of anything like this happening.
“What you saw today wasn’t order, it was disorder.”
If the bills couldn’t pass the Senate on Friday, they would likely be dead, because they would miss a procedural deadline that could be overcome only with a two-thirds vote of the House. Democrats there would certainly block such a vote, if it occurred.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, told reporters after the protest Friday that the Senate votes taken Friday are not legitimate, and Democrats would take legal steps to declare them invalid.
“We had to do everything we could today to stand up for Montanans and their right to vote,” he said.
Sesso said the tactics employed by Republicans to hear bills earlier this week, with little notice, and to place referendums on the 2014 ballot to change voting rights and procedures, are “unprecedented and not right, on something that important to the people of the state. … Enough is enough with that stuff.
“Using the referendum to do legislation is not the right approach. We decided we had to put our foot down.”
The bills that caused the uproar are Senate bills 405 and 408, sponsored by Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup. They are among several contentious issues where Republicans at the 2013 Legislature are choosing to send the issues to voters to decide, bypassing a possible veto by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
SB405, heard and approved in a Senate committee Wednesday, would place a referendum on Montana’s 2014 general election ballot to end voter registration on Election Day. SB408, heard and approved in committee Tuesday, is a referendum that would ask voters to change Montana voting law so the top two vote-getters in the primary election, regardless of party, advance to the general election.
Senate Republicans, who control a 29-21 majority, endorsed both measures on mostly party-line votes Thursday and were preparing to pass the bills with a final vote Friday.
Yet shortly after the Senate convened Friday at noon, Democrats asked for a recess to meet in a party caucus, where they revealed they were preparing to ask for a “call” of the Senate, a procedural step that would block all action Friday until all 50 members were present — and one Democrat was missing.
Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, apparently left the Capitol on Friday and didn’t plan to return. Sesso said Augare was “disgusted” at how the voting referendums were presented and passed, and left to return to Browning.
Blocking any Senate action would block final votes on the disputed bills, forcing them to miss the procedural deadline and probably killing them.
As word spread about the Democrats’ plan, Senate Republicans were meeting in their own caucus in the west wing of the Capitol. Their leaders, including Wittich and Senate President Jeff Essmann of Billings, huddled with a handful of members and the Legislature’s chief legal counsel, Todd Everts, to discuss the rules.
“This is to burn the day,” said Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City. “They’re trying to burn a transmittal day.”
Everts told them a Senate majority could change the rules to sidestep the Democrats’ ploy but that the House needed to change its rules as well, and that takes a two-thirds majority — and Republicans hold only a 61-39 majority in the House, six votes short of two-thirds.
Shortly before 1 p.m., House Speaker Mark Blasdel and other GOP House leaders got wind of the crisis and rushed out of their chamber, which was on the verge of convening for the day.
Top Republicans leaders then met in private for nearly two hours, discussing their options. The House and Senate stood in recess, as members milled about the chambers and halls, waiting to see what would happen.
At 3:12 p.m., Republicans strode back onto the Senate floor and Essmann took his position at the rostrum. He gaveled the session back into order, and began going through the “orders of business” that start each day’s session.
But when he reached Order of Business Number Six, when members can stand for motions, he refused to recognize Sesso, who had stood to make the motion for a “call” of the Senate. All of the chamber’s 21 Democrats then stood up and began to pound their desks and shout, demanding to be recognized.
A few brandished copies of the rules and the state Constitution up high as they shouted, saying a member of the minority “can compel attendance of absent members.”
But Essmann ignored them, proceeding on to “third reading,” which is the final vote on the agenda of bills of the day, including SB405 and SB408. Both passed on 28-0 votes, with all Republicans but Essmann recording their votes. The Democrats were listed as “absent” on the vote count — and kept up a steady drumbeat of shouts and pounding on their tables with hands and glasses for the 15 minutes of voting.
Once the voting stopped, Essmann finally recognized Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, who moved for the call of the Senate. Once a call is made, no action can be taken — except to adjourn the session.
A half-hour later, Essmann adjourned the Senate for the day and Republicans left.
Sesso, speaking with reporters afterward, said the state Constitution says members of the Legislature have a right to be recognized on the floor, and that the votes taken Friday and the transmission of the bills to the House are not legitimate.