Some folks think it’s scary that the Montana Legislature meets at all. Others, like Sen. John Bohlinger, think state lawmakers should get together more often.
Bohlinger, a moderate Billings Republican, wants Montana to join the 43 other states that have annual, instead of biennial, legislative sessions. His proposal, which passed the Senate and is now being considered in the House, marks a milestone—so far it’s this year’s only constitutional amendment bill to make it out of a committee. For some, trying to alter the state’s Constitution has become an act of desperation against perceivably wicked Supreme Court decisions, successful ballot campaigns waged by environmentalists, and an inability to otherwise control what they see as unsound governmental actions.
For others, such as Bohlinger and Rep. Dave Wanzenried, (D-Missoula), constitutional changes are seen as a way to reduce legislative sloppiness and better manage the state’s finances. Wanzenried, for example, wants to trim the number of state agencies from 20 to 12 and eliminate constitutional mandates for the departments of agriculture and labor.
In all, 14 proposals to alter the Constitution have been introduced this legislative session, and nearly a dozen more are pending. But several members of the 1972 Constitutional Convention, which transformed the state’s original frontier document into perhaps the most progressive in the nation, say they’d generally prefer their work wasn’t tinkered with—by Democrats or Republicans.
“I’m very proud of our Constitution,” says Bozeman resident Dorothy Eck, a Constitutional Convention delegate and Democratic state senator from 1981 to ’99. “I think it’s doing well. I think we have a lot of strength in our Constitution. Most of the amendments that come forth would weaken it.”
“Right now, I don’t see any place it needs amending,” adds delegate George Harper, a retired Methodist minister and father of veteran Democratic leader Hal Harper. “The word to the Legislature is that you swear to uphold the Constitution. They should do that without trying to change it.”
Unlike typical bills, constitutional amendments require a minimum of 100 votes from the 150-member Legislature to be approved. Once given the go-ahead by lawmakers, voters must then evaluate the measures in a general election. As in past years, Rep. Bob Davies, a Bozeman Republican and arguably the most conservative member of the Legislature, wants to invoke a constitutional rampage. He’s sponsoring bills to have the Legislature override disagreeable Supreme Court decisions and have district court injunctions rendered moot while constitutional challenges are being appealed. Other court-stripping bills have been advanced by Sen. Jerry O’Neil, (R-Kalispell), who also wants to give criminal defendants the right to argue against the laws they’re charged under and question the “appropriateness of any potential sentence.”
One of the most far-reaching amendments is expected to be introduced in coming days. Sen. Duane Grimes (R-Clancy) has drafted a bill that would exclude abortion from the constitutional right to privacy. Helena attorney Bob Campbell, a Constitutional Convention delegate and author of the privacy clause, doesn’t think that’s a good idea.
“It’s hard for me to believe Montanans would really believe the right of privacy would not extend to a woman and her doctor,” Campbell says. “I don’t see any reason to dilute that protection.”
“In a broad way, it would make women second-class citizens in Montana,” adds J.J. Straight, spokeswoman for the Reproductive Rights Coalition, which is shoring up opposition to Grimes’ bill. “This, of course, is the first step toward changing the Constitution to fit a small number of peoples’ ethical or moral ideals and applying them to everybody.” Grimes also wants the Constitution to mandate that parents or guardians of minors seeking abortions be notified before the procedure is done.
Meanwhile, progressive activists charge that Sen. Lorents Grosfield (R-Big Timber) will weaken the rights of citizens to pass ballot measures if his three amendment bills are approved. The proposals, being marketed as a way to improve citizen participation, would actually diminish that right, says Patrick Judge, an environmental lobbyist. “Clearly, they’re attempts to exclude the public from lawmaking and participating,” Judge says. “Ballot issues have always been important to be sure the government is responsive and to mitigate the corporate dollars.”
Rep. Joe Balyeat, a Bozeman Republican and statewide tax-revolt leader, wants the Legislature to approve an amendment that would abolish the Constitution’s promise of equal education opportunities for all citizens, which has been upheld by the courts. Detractors say Balyeat’s amendment, if approved, would allow urban schools to amass more funding than their rural, property-poor counterparts.
Rep. Gail Gutsche (D-Missoula) and Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty (D-Great Falls) accuse the ruling Republicans of promoting an ad hoc Constitutional Convention in the midst of the legislative session.
“Not every challenge is a negative one,” says Gutsche, but moves to tear down the separation of powers are especially onerous. “I think it’s unwise and unwarranted and not the place of the Legislature to make such decisions.”
“The tendency of the majority to deal a death blow to the rights of the minority is suspect,” Doherty adds. “A legislative session is particularly not well suited to give the careful deliberation that changes to the Constitution require.”
“I use the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” says Rep. Bill Eggers, a Crow Agency Democrat who sits on the House Judiciary Committee with Gutsche. “The constitutional amendments I’ve seen so far attempt to mess with due process and monkey with separation of powers. When you try to have the Legislature be the final body over the judiciary, that turns the whole constitutional process on its head.”