HELENA — Republican legislators may borrow a page from their 2011 playbook and put some controversial issues directly on the ballot as referendums to avoid a governor’s veto.
In 2011, Republican legislative majorities avoided the Democratic governor’s veto by placing an unusually high number of five controversial bills directly on ballot as referendums.
Montana voters passed three of them by large margins, while courts struck the other two from the ballot.
That was a far greater number than usual. From 2000 to 2010, the Legislature put only three referendums on the ballot. One was the 6-mill university system levy that goes on the ballot once every decade.
Will the 2013 Legislature try that strategy again? To refer a proposal directly to voters takes a simple majority vote in each legislative chamber.
Republicans again have majorities in the House and Senate, but a Democrat once again sits in the governor’s chair, with Steve Bullock succeeding Brian Schweitzer.
Last fall, before he was elected Senate president, Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, raised the possibility of more referendums — if Bullock won.
Essmann, then majority leader but gearing up to run for Senate president, sent an email on Sept. 13 to some of his Republican colleagues. Essmann discussed how Republican conservatives could control the agenda in 2013 and pass conservative laws.
“We are reaching a decision point on what to do to advance conservative politics during the next legislative session,” Essmann wrote.
He discussed scenarios of what might happen if Republican Rick Hill or Bullock was elected governor.
“The decision will somewhat academic if Steve Bullock is elected governor as we will be left to our strategy of putting another four or five referendums on the 2014 ballot,” Essmann said in the email released by the Great Falls Tribune.
In the House, the presiding officer also said referendums are a possibility.
“I think there’s always that opportunity,” said House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers.
“Our primary goal is to work with the governor and see what we can get done with him. There are discussions about what we might try to put before the voters.’
Blasdel said a number of legislators have their own ideas about proposed referendums.
“Obviously a lot of them saw the successes last year," Blasdel said. “One of the discussions is if we’re going to this is to keep it limited and keep it to issues that matter to citizens.”
Blasdel said he wouldn’t like to see so many referendums that Montana would have a long ballot like some states.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said he believes Republicans do have a strategy to put more referendums on the ballot.
“I think they’ve expressed it,” he said, referring to the email. “It’s part of a troubling trend.”
Republicans made it easier in 2011 by changing the legislative rules to extend the deadline for lawmakers to introduce bills for referendums, Hunter said. That enabled Republicans to pass bills and see if Schweitzer would sign or veto them. If he vetoed a bill, Republicans could put it on the ballot instead.
That’s what happened with a bill to require parents to be notified if a girl younger than 16 was seeking an abortion. After Schweitzer rejected it, the Legislature put it on the ballot and voters approved it.
Hunter said he believes it should be made more difficult for legislators to put a referendum on the ballot.
“It’s being used following a governor’s veto and to circumvent the way the constitution sets up our lawmaking process,” he said. “I do think the referendum process exists for a good reason, but not to circumvent the checks and balances of the Legislature.”
Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, sponsored two controversial election bills last week that drew long lines of opponents at the hearings.
One would cut off voter registration at 5 p.m. the Friday before Election Day. At present, people can register and vote up to 8 p.m. on Election Day. The other bill required people to show Montana-issued identification cards, which they would obtain without charge from the state, in order to register to vote.
Asked if he planned to push the bills as referendums if they pass and are vetoed, Washburn said, “They could be, but referendums are tough. We want to see how the bills go. They’ve been trailered from the last time.”
As of last weekend, lawmakers had requested 15 bills to be drafted as legislative referendums. None has been introduced yet.
The issues the potential referendums cover the waterfront. Topics range from property taxes, elections, sex education in schools, illegal aliens, labor unions, eminent domain and agriculture.
In 2011, legislators put these referendums on the 2012 ballot, all of which voters approved:
-- Legislative Referendum 120 to require parental notification prior to an abortion for a minor. It passed, 71 percent to 29 percent.
-- LR-121 to deny certain state-funded services to illegal aliens. It passed 80 percent to 20 percent. This has since been challenged in court.
-- LR-122 to prohibit the state or local government from mandating the purchase of health insurance. It passed, 67 percent to 33 percent.
Courts ordered that these two legislative referendums not appear on the ballot because of legal problems:
-- LR-119, which would have required state Supreme Court justices to be elected from districts instead of running statewide.
-- LR-123, which would have provided refunds of surplus state government funds if certain triggers were met.