Another power grab from the Montana Legislature

Senate BIll 93 robs residents of the power to change their own laws

March 13, 2023 4:00 am

The Preamble of the Montana Constitution (Courtesy of Windy Mill Press).

In the 2021 session, the legislature imposed significant burdens on our rights to enact laws and amend our Constitution. These rights are guaranteed to each of us primarily at Article III, Sections 4,6 and 9, but also at Article II, Section 14;  Article IV, Section 7; Article V, Section 1; Article VI, Section 10; Article XI, Sections 7 and 8; and Article XIV, section 2, of our Constitution.

Though given the opportunity to do so, the present session of the legislature declined to undo the damage caused to these rights by the previous session.  In fact, this session is poised to impose even greater burdens on our use of the Citizens Initiative process.

The Constitution, itself, is clear and concise: Article III, section 4(1) provides that “The people may enact laws by initiative on all matters except appropriations of money and local or special laws.  Aside from a couple of administrative requirements, there is no provision in this guarantee that permits or requires involvement by the legislature or the attorney general. 

Bad enough that the people who are supposed to be representing us have now saddled our constitutional initiative rights with the involvement of legislative committees to review proposed ballot initiatives and vote to either support or not support the placement of the initiative on the ballot; the legislative council to do the same thing; and paid signature gathers to register with the secretary of state and pay a filing fee; the involvement of the attorney general with apparent unlimited power to approve or disapprove of a proposed issue; a requirement that the petition for the initiative advise voters that the legislative interim or administrative committee voted for or against the proposed measure; and that it contain a warning to potential petition signers if the attorney general “has determined the proposed ballot issue will likely cause significant material harm to one of more business interests in Montana.”  

But now, unbelievably, the supermajority/Freedom Caucus is going to charge us thousands of dollars to exercise our constitutional initiative rights—indeed, a nearly $4,000 non-refundable fee to exercise a fundamental right that the Constitution has given us for free!

And what’s the fee for?  Well, of course, to cover the costs and burdens imposed on the constitutional initiative process by the legislature and attorney general.  

Writing a non-refundable check for nearly four grand is not a big deal for the special interests, foundations and churches that want to use the constitutional initiative process to amend constitution and enact laws to limit or take away, altogether, our rights to privacy, to know and to have a clean and healthful environment, for example, but writing that check is a big deal for ordinary citizens and nonprofits that don’t have the sort of money to burn that the lickspittles of the right-wing legislature have.

So why is the supermajority/Freedom Caucus doing this?

They are deathly afraid of citizen involvement in government—notwithstanding that under Article II, sections 1 and 2 all political power is vested in and derives from us. We have the constitutional right to govern ourselves and they’re afraid that we may exercise our constitutional initiative rights to expand our fundamental constitutional rights and to protect rights that the supermajority/Freedom Caucus has and is taking from us.

The easiest way to ensure that we don’t exercise our constitutional rights is to make it too difficult, burdensome and expensive to do so.

We should not have to jump through hoops and pay to exercise a right the Constitution gives us for free!

This commentary was jointly written by Nancy Perry, Clare Kearns, Rebecca Johnson, Jim Smith and Ronnie Whitaker, all of whom live in the Helena area. 

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