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A ray of hope

Initiative reform offers a good bill for all

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Few would deny the upcoming legislative session appears set for a partisan blood-bath between the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate and governor’s office. But hey, just when you think none of the more than 2,000 bills already requested are going to pass, suddenly a ray of light breaks through the darkness. That ray of light, for the time being anyway, comes in the form of a bipartisan effort to reform Montana’s initiative law being pushed by Democrat Attorney General Mike McGrath and Republican Secretary of State Brad Johnson. And it’s a welcome Christmas present for Montana’s voters.

Most Montanans will recall the problems that arose with the initiative process during this year’s election cycle. For one thing, big out-of-state money discovered just how cheaply they could buy an election issue in Montana. Under the guise of a shadowy group called Montanans in Action, New York real estate mogul Howie Rich dropped about a million bucks to qualify three initiatives for the ballot.

One of those initiatives, CI-97, would have amended Montana’s constitution to institute a cap on state spending. The other, CI-98, would have allowed the recall of judges for any reason whatsoever. And the third and most egregious, I-154, would have put into law a measure to supposedly protect citizens from government’s power of eminent domain, but in truth would have neutered virtually all of our environmental and planning safeguards as “takings” and created a horrendous debt burden for city, county and state governments.

Montanans treasure their initiative process, and well they should. When a recalcitrant or politically hogtied governor or Legislature refuses to take action, Montanans can and have passed initiatives to do what they think is necessary. Several notable cases, such as banning nuclear waste storage in the state, the phasing out of game farms and prohibition against new ones, and prohibiting new cyanide heap leach gold mines, have more than proved their worth, saving not only Montana’s environment and wildlife, but also millions of citizens’ dollars in toxic cleanups.

So it is not lightly that anyone wades into fooling around with the initiative process. But this year, thanks to Howie Rich’s underhanded efforts, the need to change the process to protect Montanans became undeniably clear. The whole story is complex, but the nutshell version is that District Judge Dirk Sandefur ruled the three initiatives invalid and ordered that any votes cast for them not be counted.

Judge Sandefur based his decision on a number of factors, but chief among them was the fraudulent methods used by paid, out-of-state signature gatherers who routinely misinformed Montanans about what the initiatives would do, duped them into signing all three initiatives saying they were duplicate copies, and then disappeared, leaving no way to track down or recall the nonresidents for questioning before the court. As noted in the decision, testimony provided by a disgruntled signature gatherer in a similar case clearly stated that these underhanded techniques were standard operating procedure for what Sandefur termed the “migrant signature gatherers.” When appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, Sandefur’s decision was unanimously upheld.

Comes now Attorney General Mike McGrath and Secretary of State Brad Johnson, both with significant interests in the initiative issue. As McGrath noted: “There were six different lawsuits challenging seven ballot measures. Frankly, that’s just too many.”

McGrath’s dissatisfaction is seconded by Johnson, who called the legal wrangling over this year’s initiatives “a logistical and organizational nightmare,” adding: “Elections should be decided at the ballot box, not in court. If the laws had been clearer, initiatives from all ends of the political spectrum might have had less difficulty getting an up or down vote [from] the people in the last cycle.”

The bill they’ve drafted seeks to remedy the problems noted by Judge Sandefur in a number of ways. First, it will require that signature gatherers be Montana residents. This makes sense because, after all, these are Montana laws and the Montana Constitution being changed, and Montanans should be the ones to do it—not out-of-staters who won’t have to live with the consequences.

Second, it bans the spurious “paid-by-the-signature” method commonly used to compensate professional signature gatherers. As McGrath told reporters in announcing the bill, the paid-by-the-signature process “is an open invitation to fraud.” Among other things, the measure would also prohibit “abbreviated ballots” and require the same 100-word explanatory statement on the purpose of the initiative on both petitions and ballots.

Democrat McGrath and Republican Johnson have also chosen well in their pick of legislators to carry the bill, sticking to the theme of bipartisanship that may help the measure avoid an ugly and sudden death in the session. Sen. Carol Williams, the Missoula Democrat who will make history when she becomes the first woman elected Majority Leader of the Senate, will carry it in that Democrat-controlled body. Rep. Alan Olsen, a Republican from Roundup who lost his bid to be Speaker of the House by a single vote, will carry it in the Republican-controlled House.

Both Williams and Olsen are popular with their respective caucuses, experienced legislators, and, if anyone can do it, these two are likely to carry the measure to a successful conclusion and have it signed into law by session’s end. Certainly the support of both Secretary of State Johnson and Attorney General McGrath will help speed their effort.

It’s the season of “good will toward men,” and we should applaud this attempt to lay aside the vicious party politics that are likely to consume much of the rest of the 2007 session to promote a measure that’s good for all Montanans. There’s certainly no guarantee the measure will make it through the legislative process. But this good faith effort to work together is, in itself, a great Christmas present for Montana.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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