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Montana Senate

Historic murals adorn the ceiling of the Montana Senate at the Capitol in Helena.

If you citizen of Montana voted for legislators believing they would be your voice in the statehouse, odds are they’ve been frustrated in that attempt. Unless your elected official is one of a small number of favored people with access to the powers that be, the lawmaking process excludes them and, therefore, you. They, and you, are being patted on the head and told “just trust us,” while this small cabal leverages deal-making and vote-trading for the outcome it wants. You are supposed to be OK with that because they know better.

What happened on April 13 with House Bill 685, Hannah’s Act (House Bill 21) and a DUI bill created and pushed by special interests illustrates this. Hannah’s Act and Senate Bill 312, both designed to help address the plague of crime against native women, were passing through the process successfully.

Not the DUI bill, Senate Bill 65, which the attorney general supported. While it passed the Senate, the House Judiciary Committee tabled it on a 15-4, bipartisan vote April 12, for good reasons, including mandatory blood draws, lack of discretion for local judges and lack of flexibility in treatment programs and technologies.

No public input

Typically, the next step would be for the attorney general to convene stakeholders, get input from opponents to this overly rigid bill, and see if there was a path forward. (Contrary to the attorney general's recent statement, opponents did in fact  propose amendments to SB65 that addressed the problems and even shared them with the AG’s office and other supporters. They were ignored.) Or its proponents could attempt to have it “blasted” from committee onto the House floor. That requires 58 votes, which they knew they couldn’t get because of its flaws.

So, lobbyists for the supporters opted to ignore the House and its work, attach the bill to Hannah’s Act and SB312, and cram them as an 81-page amendment into a one-sentence bill, HB685, pending in the Senate that appears to have been created just for this maneuver. No hearing on the amendment. No public input whatsoever prior to voting to put the amendment on the bill.

The cynicism of this ploy is breathtaking. The ugliest problem is the cynical exploitation of a native population reeling from disappearances and homicides by attaching a dying DUI bill to two desperately needed bills. Some have suggested the political genius who cooked this up must have been racially insensitive.

But the deeper problem that renders your legislators – and you — impotent is the perversion of the legislative rules and disdain for the Constitution, as well as the Legislative majority, that allowed this slimy process in the first place.

'Contingent voidness'

That small cabal of legislators and lobbyists devised ways to circumvent the work and decisions of committees by passing innocuous one-page bills like HB685, called “companion bills,” then putting language from previously-rejected bills into them and forcing it back through the process.

Worst of all, they link these zombie bills to more desired bills through so-called “coordination language” and “contingent voidness” provisions. By doing so, if they don’t get their way, then bills others want and need — like Hannah’s Act — will die as well.

This violates the spirit and letter of our Constitution and democracy. If you want to maintain a real democracy, one where your voice and vote count and your representative’s voice is heard, tell your senator and representative to reject this slimy process and any bill that comes of it. Only when these underhanded tactics are rejected will such undemocratic maneuvering stop.

As the 2019 Legislature draws to a close, these maneuvers will be attempted at the most important time, during conference committees. You need to act now to prevent it.

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Jon Metropoulos has been an attorney and lobbyist in Helena for three decades. He testified in opposition to SB65.

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