One constitutional amendment lives, the other narrowly dies

Skees’ bills would have changed term limits for lawmakers; changes how vacancies are handled

By: - March 31, 2021 8:05 pm

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, gives a speech in favor of a constitutional amendment that would change term limits for Montana lawmakers. (Montana Public Access Network)

In an evening session of the Montana House, two of Rep. Derek Skees’ constitutional amendments were debated. One passed, the other was narrowly defeated.

Skees’ second constitutional amendment, House Bill 635, would require the governor to appoint a vacancy among the state’s top elected officers with a candidate from the same political party as the person who was originally elected to the position. The bill passed the House on second reading by a 64-36 margin.

Though that amendment passed and will move on to the third reading, constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to be put before the voters.

Currently, if the Secretary of State, Auditor, Superintendent of Public Instruction, or attorney general leave office, the governor has the power to appoint a replacement. However, the governor’s pick does not have to belong to the same political party as the elected official who left.

Skees, a Republican from Kalispell, gave the example of former auditor and current U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican, who held the statewide office. Rosendale ran against U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for the Senate position and lost. Had Rosendale defeated Tester, the governor at the time, Steve Bullock, a Democrat, would have likely appointed a Democrat to replace Rosendale.

Skees said the constitutional amendment, if passed and approved, would require the governor to replace the person with a candidate from that party’s state committee and “honor the will the voters.”

Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, called Skees’ proposal another “solution in search of a problem.”

“This injects more partisanship into government,” Kelker said.

Meanwhile, Skees had also proposed to modify the term limits of lawmakers by allowing lawmakers to serve longer in the Legislature and granting them the ability to split time between the two chambers. The proposal failed on second reading, 49-to-51.

Currently, the state’s constitution only allows Montana members of the state’s House and Senate to serve no more than eight years in a 16-year period. Skees’ proposal would have allowed service in either chamber of no more than 16 years in a 32-year period.

Skees’ measure would have ostensibly stopped the bouncing between chambers that happens when members term out in one, then run for election in the other. Skees argued that it would allow members to serve longer in the legislative bodies, gaining more experience, without having to bounce.

He told fellow members that term limits have hurt citizen legislators gaining critical and sometimes complex understanding of legislative issues and how state government works. He said lawmakers are often at the mercy of the lobbyists, who work at the Legislature for years.

“Term limits have castrated this chamber,” Skees said. “It has damaged our ability to govern.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.