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The Associated Press

LIVINGSTON (AP) — Rep. Michelle Lee, D-Livingston, says she and Rep. Chris Harris, D-Bozeman, will press ahead despite severe time constraints with their petition referendum to nullify the major energy bill of the 2001 Legislature.

“Efforts are already under way,” Lee said after a judge cleared the way for the petition drive this past week. “A lot of people from all walks of life came forward and said they would help gather petitions.”

The two Democrats have until Oct. 1 to gather at least 20,510 signatures on petitions to put the question to a statewide vote in November 2002. State law requires 5 percent of the registered voters in each of at least 34 House districts, and at least 5 percent of the total number of votes for governor, sign the petition for a ballot referendum.

“As a practical matter, they need at least 35,000 signatures,” said Rob Natelson of Missoula, who led Montanans for Better Government’s successful 1993 petition campaign to suspend a tax increase.

The extra signatures are needed because of “slippage,” those signers who are discounted because they don’t meet the requirements of being registered voters and signing in their home county. Natelson said generally about 20 percent of signatures are “slippage.”

MBG gathered more than 90,000 signatures in 1993.

In addition, Natelson said, the requirement to get votes from around the state is a real challenge.

“You have to have a fired-up grassroots organization, and you probably have to have an air (media) war as well,” Natelson said. “They have formidable obstacles in front of them.”

The challenge facing Lee and Harris is a big one, but it can be done, said another veteran of the petition trenches, Rep. Joe Balyeat, R-Belgrade. He orchestrated a successful 1998 constitutional initiative petition campaign, also coordinated by MBG.

“We spent every spare minute out there as volunteers,” Balyeat said. “We just pounded the pavement and got it done.”

In that campaign, MBG gathered the bulk of 50,000 signatures from April 16 to June 20, roughly the amount of time Lee and Harris have, Balyeat said.

“But we had a statewide grass-roots organization,” he said.

Lee and Harris’ want to overturn House Bill 474, which passed on the final day of the session and authorized the state to spend up to $100 million from an energy support account to ease the cost of higher energy costs. But the Legislature did not fund that account.

Lee and Harris’ campaign was stalled when Attorney General Mike McGrath said in June that the proposed referendum involved an appropriation of funds, and therefore did not comply with constitutional requirements for ballot measures.

A district court judge disagreed, ruling the absence of funding meant that the bill did not involve an appropriation and therefore could be referred to Montana voters.

The last legal obstacle fell Friday when McGrath announced that he would not appeal the court decision.

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