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Whatever else you might say about Montana Democrats, you can’t accuse them of trying to hoodwink the voters.

The hiring spree that has put nine sitting state legislators — eight of them Democrats, the other a convert — in state jobs over the past three years has been conducted in full public view, openly, blatantly, brazenly.

And in each case, the people who did the hiring — for the most part elected Democratic officeholders themselves — have issued assurances that everything is perfectly legal and aboveboard and that the lawmakers just happened to be the most qualified people available.

I believe the phrase “perfect fit” was used several times.

It’s really pretty amazing when you think about it. Here we are in a state of nearly a million people, during tough times when a good job with the state would be especially coveted, and a very small pool of 150 legislators, about half of them Democrats, happens to produce nine people perfectly suited for high-profile state jobs.

The Gazette State Bureau’s Chuck Johnson reported last week that neither political party in Montana has indulged in any similar hiring spree in at least 40 years.

Nationally, we also appear to be a trend setter. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the number of state lawmakers holding state government jobs nationwide averaged 1 percent in 2007.

First in the nation

Of the nine Montana legislators hired to work in state government since 2006, two resigned from their legislative seats immediately and one has since been term-limited out of office.

That leaves six, which translates to 4 percent of our 150 legislators, well ahead of Maryland, with 2.7 percent, the state with highest percentage in 2007. And in Montana, those six are only the legislators in high-profile state government jobs. At least two other Democratic legislators hold lower-level state jobs.

You don’t have to be a political scientist or a Republican to find this troubling. Although the hires don’t seem to violate any ethics laws, they are in conflict with a basic component of the American system of government, which is a separation of powers.

Hiring members of the legislative branch to work in the executive branch just can’t be a good idea, can it? Even if it didn’t affect the legislative process, can’t the Democrats see how bad it makes them look? They come off like arrogant, patronage-trading pols schooled in the big-city machine politics of places like Chicago.

We may never know what conflicts of conscience this will cause when legislators are casting votes, but the problems and ethical tightrope-walking we’ve already witnessed is bad enough.

Former Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, a Glasgow Republican, was hired as a management analyst in 2006 by Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s revenue director, Dan Bucks, then switched parties after the November 2006 election, giving the Democrats a Senate majority. The stink from that mess still lingers.

Then there was Rep. Art Noonan, D-Butte, hired as deputy director of Fish, Wildlife and Parks by Director Joe Maurier, who happened to have been Schweitzer’s college roommate and longtime friend.

Cronyism’s headquarters

State Auditor Monica Lindeen, a former Democratic House member, hired Sen. Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda, as a staff attorney last June, and last month she hired Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, as a policy adviser. Lindeen’s deputy auditor is Walt Schweitzer, the governor’s brother.

Lindeen could hang out a new shingle: Department of Securities, Insurance and Cronyism.

Rep. Dave McAlpin, D-Missoula, was hired by Attorney General Steve Bullock, a Democrat, as administrator of the state Crime Lab last spring. Because of obvious conflicts, McAlpin decided the Crime Lab couldn’t be involved in investigating the boat crash last August involving Republican state Sen. Greg Barkus and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.

On top of everything else, the AP reported last week that very few of the legislators hired by the state took the trouble to comply with an ethics law requiring them to report how much they are paid in each state position.

State Sen. Mike Cooney, hired as an administrator of a division of the Labor Department, was among those who said they were unaware of the law.

When Maurier hired Noonan, there was an outcry from sportsmen who pointed out that Noonan had never hunted, hadn’t bought a fishing license in 20 years and had no training as a biologist.

“I’m not hiring him to measure bear scat,” Maurier responded.

OK, fine. But maybe the state Democratic Party needs to hire a bull scat detector. He would have his work cut out for him.

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