An attack on direct democracy, straight from the Legislature

March 8, 2023 4:16 am

The Montana Capitol on a winter night (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The Republican majority has just flexed its muscle to pass Senate Bill 93, thereby limiting  the ability of Montana’s citizens to pass laws through the ballot issue process.

SB 93 is unbelievably restrictive in scope, including imposition of a $3,700 filing fee for ballot issues and affording agencies power to veto a citizen ballot issue. Undoubtedly, the citizen ballot issue process is deeply harmed by SB 93. 

There is a 100-year history in Montana of citizens writing and passing laws through the  ballot issue process. I have a long personal history with the ballot issue process. As a lawyer, I wrote the language of nine ballot initiatives. As a citizen I recall being politely asked by the postmaster to stop gathering signatures on the sidewalk in front of the Boulder Post Office as I sought the last few petition signatures necessary to qualify that legislative district. As a father, I watched with joy as my daughters dressed up as an initiative petition for their Halloween costume and with pride as they carried initiative petitions seeking signatures of fellow citizens. 

Even though I practiced law in Montana for more than 30 years, I still think of myself as a rural farm kid who made it through college by working at night in a flour mill and through a night law school by teaching 7th graders during the day. That is likely why I am so much more comfortable talking to fellow citizens about ballot issues than I am speaking before legislators,  something I had to do when I became a public official late in my career.

I believe many other  Montanans, whether liberal or conservative, share this disposition and belief in the judgment  for their fellow citizens. And they have worked!

Because of citizens and their ballot issues, we have lobbyist disclosure, a ban on revolving door lobbying, reasonable contribution limits to candidates, a tax on tobacco, a ban on payday lending practices and a ban on cyanide heap  leach mining. The people acted directly on these and other issues when the legislature could not or would not act. 

Montanans were able to act directly to pass laws through ballot issues because Montana’s Constitution, in its current and past form, reserves that role for citizens at multiple and overlapping constitutional clauses. But this legislature lacks respect for that role of  citizens and, certainly, lacks respect for Montana’s Constitution. The populist, conservative-oriented legislators, particularly in the Republican caucus, are gone, replaced by institutional conservatives who are hostile to the idea of another power base in the people, even though that power base is defined by our own Constitution.

The Senate is a foregone conclusion but SB 93 still must pass the House. 

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Jonathan Motl
Jonathan Motl

Jonathan Motl is a longtime Montana attorney and served as the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. He lives in Helena.