HELENA - Note to lawmakers: If you break any of the hundreds of rules dictating how legislators should behave, how bills are assigned, even where placards may or may not be placed in meeting rooms of the Montana Capitol, Sen. Mike Cooney has his eyes on you.
Cooney, D-Helena, a former secretary of state and president of the state Senate in 2007, has introduced a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for Montana's 150 lawmakers to break their own rules.
"I've been thinking about this bill for a couple of years now," Cooney said Tuesday morning at his Capitol office.
The bill, Senate Bill 1, is up for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 9 a.m. today.
As Cooney tells it, lawmakers vote to pass their own rules, but there are no consequences when the rules are broken. Some of the rules are fairly obtuse.
If the governor vetoes a bill, that veto must be announced on order of business No. 5.
Not No. 4 or No. 6 or any other number. Those are the rules.
Most of the rules lay out how leaders deal with bills and mandate that every bill gets a fair hearing.
Cooney said his bill isn't directed at any party or particular leader. But he said he's seen occasions when a House speaker might keep a bill to himself for a while, using it as a way to get a favor out of the opposing party.
That's against the rules, Cooney said, but when that happens, there's no recourse.
"I think if this passes, legislators will be much more mindful," he said.
A misdemeanor, by Montana law, is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to six months in the county jail.
Cooney said he didn't think anybody would be serving hard time or even paying steep fines. He said the very threat of real consequences is all that would be required to get everybody playing by the rules.
After all, Cooney said, lawmakers pass bills all the time that lay out how Montana citizens should behave. Many of those laws include hard prison time as a consequence. Shouldn't lawmakers follow their own rules, Cooney said, as they're busy making rules for everybody else?
Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, disagrees.
He said the bill is a "statement," but doesn't stand much of a chance. Furthermore, he said, lawmakers don't need to be dragging the courts into their petty fights over the rules. Story said he thought the bill probably wouldn't become law, but if it did: Would monitoring rule violations at the Capitol be a high priority for the Lewis and Clark County Attorney's Office? Would investigators with real crimes to look into really want to spend time making sure a legislative leader assigns a bill to a committee in a timely fashion?
"I don't think it would be a high priority," he said. And then the law would mostly be used as a political weapon. Any lawmaker who didn't think a colleague was following the rules could demand a criminal investigation into the matter.
"Senators ought to disciplining ourselves," he said. "We don't need to be going to the courts."
He also said the Legislature has so many rules that it's entirely likely someone could break one of them unwittingly.
"I expect this will have an interesting hearing and that will be the end of it," Story said.