Last October, Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown invoked the ethos of Teddy Roosevelt to inspire voters to get involved and educate themselves on the initiatives on the November ballot.
“I believe in the initiative and referendum,” said Roosevelt, “which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative.”
Many Montana citizen groups followed Roosevelt’s direction as they gathered signatures to put initiatives on the ballot and then campaigned to pass the proposed initiatives. Now, after watching the Legislature struggle to undo their hard work for half a session, these same citizens are wondering if Roosevelt’s words were actually words of warning.
Kristen Nei of the American Cancer Society spent the better part of a year crusading for I-146—an initiative to devote more of the state’s tobacco settlement money to smoking-prevention programs. Nei was ecstatic when the initiative was approved by a 65 to 35 percent margin, but her excitement was short-lived. Only three months after the initiative was approved, Senator John Esp (R-Big Timber) introduced a bill to reapportion the tobacco money and spend some of it on programs for the mentally ill that are on the budget chopping block—an effort Nei believes is disrespectful.
Esp disagrees. “It has nothing to do with disrespect for the voters,” says Esp. “I have great respect for the voters and they made a decision based on a certain set of facts. But because you voted on something at one point in time knowing a certain set a facts doesn’t mean that you’ll have the same result if you vote at another point in time with a different set of facts.”
Nei believes the voters were fully aware of the budget deficit in Montana, but also understood that the tobacco settlement dollars were intended to prevent kids from starting a noxious habit, not as a windfall to balance the budget.
“We really respect Senator Esp’s tireless advocacy for the mental health funding,” says Nei. “But he needs to find the money from a pot that isn’t already spoken for.”
While Esp’s opponents have some sympathy for his cause, there’s a host of other legislators also trying to overturn citizen initiatives who are finding little support from the groups who sponsored the initiatives. In addition to a series of bills that attempts to restructure the way the tobacco settlement is spent, this session has seen bills intended to change term and campaign contribution limits, remove a 1998 ban on use of cyanide in gold mining operations, bar local governments’ ability to ban smoking—like one approved by Helena residents last year—and overturn a ban on game farms. All of these bills contradict previous initiatives passed by the voters.
The Clark Fork Coalition is another citizen group which feels the Legislature is overstepping its bounds. Executive director Tracy Stone-Manning takes offense with Senator Debbie Shea (D-Butte) and her bill to remove the ban on cyanide heap-leach mining. Stone-Manning says that Shea tried this same thing in 1999, but the Legislature supported the voters and upheld the ban. But Shea, like Esp, justifies her bill using the things-have-changed logic. Stone-Manning says that nothing has changed and the process is still dangerous and unpopular with Montanans.
“There are so many important things that we need to be working on in this state like fixing the deficit, figuring out how we’re going to take care of the land while taking care of people, and yet we’re going back to these old arguments,” says Stone-Manning.
While many of the bills counteracting the will of the voters will fail to win approval in the House or Senate, critics of the Legislature think that the broad attack is indicative of lawmakers caring less about voter intent. Mark Mackin, a citizen advocate for the initiative process, has been monitoring a few bills sponsored by Alan Olson (R-Roundup) that don’t target specific initiatives, but the whole process. The most damaging, according to Mackin, is House Bill 719, which has already passed the House and moved on to the Senate. One thing the bill would do is move the date that petitions for initiatives are due from June to April.
“The change in the filing deadline means you have to file your initiative petitions before the primary elections happen,” he says. “We’ve been filing them afterward, which means that we could be gathering signatures at the primary elections. Now we’re supposed to start the initiative season on April 21 when the Legislature has just gotten over and we don’t even know what the story is.”
Secretary of State Brown’s office has come out in support of the bill—partly because it makes their job easier and partly because it overhauls a process that hasn’t been tinkered with since 1977. Brown says he sees how people can be opposed to the bill because of the provision that changes the filing date, but says that Montana needs other of the bill’s provisions to streamline the system.
One aspect of the bill that carries Brown’s strong support would allow the Legislative Services office to add a note to the ballot explaining if it believes the initiative is legal. This may prevent voters from approving measures that will later be found illegal or unconsitutional, says Brown.
Mackin and other critics—like MontPIRG’s David Ponder—think the provision will allow legislative services to discredit legitimate proposed initiatives.
“The question here is, ‘Is the Legislature putting more power and control of what goes on the ballot through the citizen initiative process in their own hands and taking it away from the hands of the people?’” he says. “The whole system is meant to be a check on the legislative branch.”
Even with all the proposed changes and the complaints of critics, Brown doesn’t agree that the sky is falling.
“I don’t know what to say,” he says. “Maybe this hinders the process as much as it helps it.”
But if the end result is a stymied initiative process, the people can always tinker with it again to shift the balance, he says. Mackin agrees that some adjustments are necessary, but not if they make it more difficult to put initiatives on the ballot.
“Whose process is this?” he asks. “The Secretary of State’s process, or the people’s process? Is his duty to us or to make sure his work load is dandy?”