Amending Montana’s Constitution thoughtfully
The grand staircase in the Montana Capitol in Helena (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).
2022 was the year of celebrating the 50th birthday of Montana’s Constitution – its visionary provisions and the unique bipartisan approach adopted by the citizen delegates who wrote it. Our perspective is from a combined total of more than 30 years of legislative experience under both our current Constitution, as well as the one that preceded it.
We see Montana’s Constitution as a truly glorious document. It has honorably served our citizens as well as our landscape for half a century, and we are dismayed that, out-of-the-blue, this 2023 legislature finds the need to consider 57 fundamental changes to it.
As we celebrated the anniversary of the Constitution last summer, there was never a mention that 57 changes would improve our foundational document. As pointed out by former Governor/Attorney General Marc Racicot, this number of amendment proposals exceeds the entirety of proposals referred to the people during the last 50 years. And amending the Constitution is a far weightier task than amending statutes.
Constitutional watchdogs could not help but notice that the recent election resulted in overwhelming one-party control of the legislature, and that every one of the proposed Constitutional changes is being proposed by a member of that party.
Certainly, one document cannot be so perfect that it can withstand the ever-accelerating changes taking place in our society without occasional tinkering. And, of course, the original delegates understood the need for amendments when they created a multi-step process, including a super-majority vote count of the Legislature and subsequent referral to a vote of the people. However, it is doubtful those citizen delegates ever anticipated handling 57 amendments in the pressure-cooker of a single legislative session.
Hopefully, we all can agree that the present pressure-cooker approach cannot, between mid-February and late April, accommodate thoughtful deliberation on 57 proposals. There may well be merit in some of the proposals. Not only do legislators need more time for thought and discussion, but more important, the people of Montana do, too. Ask any person on the street if they are aware that 57 Constitutional changes are under consideration for them to possibly vote on in the next general election, and chances are you will see an astonished face.
Today’s Constitutional issues are too big and too important to merely arm voters on their way to the ballot box with little more than the Voter Information Pamphlet.
In Montana, legislative interim committees have been established to study complex issues that deserve more time and information than provided by a 90-day session. A politically balanced interim committee might be the perfect vehicle, with bipartisan composition and cooperation (like the 1972 Constitutional Convention itself), for thoughtful consideration of all proposed Constitutional amendments. These proposed Constitutional amendments could be assigned to appropriate existing interim committees where staff would be available and tasked with gathering historical background and legal analyses.
Most important, the public would be allowed access and time to weigh in as called for in the Right of Participation section in the Declaration of Rights of Montana’s Constitution.
We believe the public interest would be better served if legislative action on any amendments was deferred for a mere two years thereby allowing for thorough consideration by appropriate interim committees and simultaneously welcoming public discussion of such important matters.
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