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Gazette opinion: Senate out of bounds with bill ordering investigation of environmental groups

Gazette opinion: Senate out of bounds with bill ordering investigation of environmental groups

Duane Ankney

Montana state senator Duane Ankney talks about his race for Senate District 20 at the Speedway Cafe in Forsyth in this 2014 file photo.

The Montana Senate has officially jumped the shark.

We understand that the Legislature's dominant Republican majority is feeling empowered and validated. They should. Republicans received what could only be considered a mandate from the state's voters, who doubled down in November on the GOP majority in a statewide "red wave."

But too often this session, we have been forced to ask, "Really? Is this what voters were 'waving' about?"

Late last week, Senate Republican successfully inserted an amendment into a House appropriations bill that orders the Justice Department to investigate "environmental groups" in the state. The bill then passed the Senate.

You have to give Duane Ankney, author of the amendment, credit for effrontery if not good sense. Ankney took exception when outraged Democratic Sen. Ellie Boldman called the amendment "something out of the McCarthy era."

Well, Sen. Ankney, if this isn't right out of the McCarthy era, it'll do until something more McCarthyesque comes along. Ordering the attorney general to investigate nonprofit groups the Legislature doesn't agree with is a staggering misuse of power.

The amendment specifies that the Department of Justice "shall investigate electioneering and related political and lobbying activities or environmental organizations operating in Montana," including but "not limited to":

- whether organizations are meeting their tax-exempt purpose;

- the "composition" of environmental organizations operating in Montana and the number of Montana residents "actively signing" annual memberships;

- "funding structures" used to provide revenue, and the percentage of that funding that comes from "out-of-state sources, out-of-country sources, or both;"

- "potential failure to register as a corporation or business entity ... while soliciting monetary or other support and potentially misleading Montana residents";

- Engagement in political speech, lobbying and other politically motivated activities;

- and "interplay" between environmental organizations and “affiliated funding sources."

While we recognize the majority's "mandate," we do not believe that mandate includes attacks on free speech. Membership in a nonprofit and/or volunteer organization is absolutely a form of free speech and the freedom to assemble. Those basic rights are precious to Montana voters.

Not one elected legislator ran on a platform of investigating Montana citizens and the groups they belong to.

Surely the House will not approve an amendment that will open the state to lawsuits, protests and national opprobrium. The fact that the Senate has done so is concerning enough.


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