Citizens rally at Montana Capitol, demand lawmakers keep hands off state Constitution
GOP lawmakers have proposed 56 constitutional amendments this session
Dozens of people packed the Capitol rotunda in Helena on Feb. 1, 2023, to call on lawmakers to stop trying to amend the Montana Constitution. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
Montanans packed the rotunda at the state Capitol on Wednesday calling for lawmakers to “keep their hands off” the state Constitution — in part, they said, because Republican legislators this session have so far requested as many amendment proposals as have been referred to voters over the past 50 years.
“To make America great again they’ll trash the Constitution,” the crowd sang along with the Montana Logging and Ballet Company to end the rally, whose keynote speakers included former Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, and longtime lawmaker Dorothy Bradley, a Democrat.
Racicot said since the 1972 Constitution was ratified, 50 constitutional amendments have been referred by the Montana Legislature to voters – 29 of which have passed.
As of Wednesday, lawmakers have proposed 56 constitutional amendment drafts, though only two have thus far been introduced. All of the proposals come from Republicans. One would establish a right to hunt in the Constitution and another says the Board of Regents cannot exercise power that conflicts with the Constitution or state law.
People in the crowd and the speakers at the rally, which was organized by the Northern Plains Resource Council and a dozen other organizations, said they considered Montana’s Constitution – and the means by which it was created – sacred, and the numerous proposals to change it a threat.
Tom Tschida, with Northern Plains, said the group did not have any specific proposals it was for or against, but more broadly the organization is against the numerous constitutional amendments in the works by lawmakers. Northern Plains has a mission to protect water and air quality and Montana farms and ranches.
Bradley, who was a lawmaker before and after the new Constitution was created, lauded the 100 residents from different parties who “rose to the occasion” to both write Montana’s 1972 Constitution and get it approved by residents across the state.
The Constitution was ratified by just 2,532 votes and upheld by the Montana Supreme Court in a 3-2 vote.
She said the current political division in society and among some in the legislature needed to go in order for Montana to move forward.
“If we fail to come together, we will squander our Constitutional heritage and our environmental heritage,” she said. “It is so disheartening to see the stream of harmful proposals coming out of this Capitol every week. But look around yourselves, at this beautiful hall. This is our place too. We belong here too.”
Racicot said events of the past few years – the Jan. 6 insurrection, public verbal attacks on the public by elected officials, increasing threats of political violence and efforts to water down constitutions – had worried him. He said there were “unmistakable warning signs” the nation and its democracy were “confronting moments of uncertainty and peril.”
“I have sadly come to question whether or not our reliance on the presumed invincibility of our constitutions and our democracy may have been mistaken,” he said.
Racicot detailed the work of the founding fathers in crafting the U.S. Constitution and their efforts, as he said, to saturate it with protections of freedom, faithfulness to the country and preservation of the union and rule of law.
He said the manner by which the framers of the U.S. Constitution crafted the document was similar to Montana’s – groups gathering together for months in spirited discussions and good faith to write a Constitution for the people they represent.
“Not coincidentally, the same miraculous accomplishment occurred during the Montana Constitutional Convention in 1972.”
Racicot said the separation of powers among the three branches of government laid out in the state Constitution was one of the most important facets, which he said some of the dozens of proposals might attempt to undo as they are finished and introduced.
Racicot’s point, and those of others in the audience, was that Montanans should go back 50 years to try to find the common ground the 100 people who wrote Montana’s Constitution did.
“We should begin our constitutional vigil in the same way the delegates to the convention over 50 years ago began their historic work: by presuming the best of one another and remembering that people who cannot talk or listen to each other, who will not sincerely consider the thoughts of each other, who do not trust each other, and who cannot reason with each other cannot long live in freedom,” he said.
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