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Proposal would insert Legislature into ballot initiative process

Proposal would insert Legislature into ballot initiative process

Montana State Capitol

Legislators are in an unprecedented clash with the judiciary as the 2021 session nears its end.

Lawmakers on Thursday debated a proposal to insert the Legislature into the ballot initiative process, with the Republican bill sponsor arguing it would create more transparency in the process and Democrats countering it adds new barriers to a constitutionally protected right.

House Bill 651 would require a hearing before a legislative interim committee for proposed ballot initiatives before a group backing the initiative can begin collecting the petition signatures needed to place it on the ballot. The committee would then vote on whether to support the initiative, and place the result of that vote on the petition.

“Montana is a cheap date when it comes to putting a ballot measure through the system,” bill sponsor Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, told the House State Administration Committee. “It’s very easy for well-funded, out-of-state entities to come to Montana and run a special-interest ballot initiative. They usually hire a few local folks to be the face of the initiative, but there isn’t much sunlight or a full vetting of the issue.”

Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy

Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy

Along with the Legislative Services Division, the Secretary of State’s office and the Attorney General are already tasked with reviewing the language for proposed initiatives before they can go out for signatures. HB 561 would add the legislative committee as the next step in that process.

It would also require that anyone paid to gather signatures register with the Secretary of State’s office. Those who employ paid signature gatherers would also have to register, and would have to pay a $100 fee, although they could also seek a waiver.

Katjana Stutzer, a lobbyist for the Montana Public Interest Research Group, argued that lawmaker review runs contrary to the reason the state Constitution allows citizens to bring forth ballot initiatives in the first place.

“The concept of a citizen ballot initiative is for Montanans to have the means to directly participate in creating policy that reflects their values and visions without interference from the Legislature,” Stutzer said. She added that printing the committee’s vote on the initiative petitions “undercuts that ability by unfairly swaying, potentially, the opinion of voters on these ballot initiatives that are supposed to be representative of citizens’ values.”

The bill also explicitly bars ballot initiatives from directing revenue anywhere other than the state’s general fund.

Last year’s successful Initiative 190, to legalize recreational marijuana in Montana, had specified about $18 million in resultant tax revenue be directed to public lands and conservation easements. That funding language is currently being challenged in court as unconstitutional, as only the Legislature has authority to appropriate money.

Ella Smith, program director for Montana Women Vote, argued against that provision, however.

“We do believe that it is important for voters to express an opinion about how money should be spent,” she said, while acknowledging that the final say still rests with the Legislature.

The committee did not take any action on the measure.

Two bills aiming to require a higher signature threshold to place initiatives on the ballot are also in the works. House Bill 384 would increase the number of legislative districts that statutory ballot initiatives need to get signatures from, as well as the minimum percentage of voters from each district. House Bill 385 would raise the minimum for constitutional amendment initiatives.

Both passed the House last week on mostly party-line votes.

Granting new authorities to interim committees is in line with similar legislation pushed by Republicans this session. Still advancing through the process are bills creating interim budget committees, giving the majority party the ability to cast tie-breaking votes in the otherwise bipartisan panels and requiring that interim committees get a 30-day advance notice prior to public notice of proposed rules.

A pair of bills that would have required that interim committees sign off on administrative rules failed to meet the transmittal deadline, as did a proposal to make the membership of interim committees proportional to the Legislature’s partisan makeup.

Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate. Democrats haven’t held a majority in either chamber since 2007.

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