GOP and business groups stifling voters’ voices

April 10, 2023 4:56 am

A poster urging people not to change the Montana Constitution (Courtesy of Northern Plains Resource Council; Poster art by Windy Mill Press).

In contravention of the Montana Constitution, the supermajority Republican legislature and a series of business lobbying groups are placing themselves above the voice of the Montana people. Our 1889 and 1972 Constitutions not only limit the legislature to the legislative function, but clearly place the people above the legislature.

In both its original 1889 form and again as re-written and adopted in 1972, Montana’s Constitution starts with the words “We the people…”  It doesn’t start with “We, the Legislature” or “We, the business lobby.”  In our democracy, in our state, as with most, it is the people who are supreme.  Our state Constitution empowers the people.  Among the reasons it was rewritten in 1972 was to remove the 83-year “copper collar” of business domination from our governmental processes.

Our Constitution not only outlines our governmental structures, it provides rights and protections to the people, often to protect the people from governmental overreach.  Probably because the GOP supermajority is “feeling their oats,” this session of the Legislature has advanced dozens upon dozens of bills that empower the Legislature at the expense of our system of checks and balances and at the direct expense of the people.

Senate Bill 93 is a direct assault on the voice of the people – an assault on the Constitutional primacy of the people when it comes to making laws.  The people are constitutionally supreme when it comes to initiating laws via the initiative process or voting to pass or reject laws submitted to them.

In 1906, the following was inserted into the Legislative Article of our Constitution by a positive vote of 84.6% of the voters: “…the people reserve to themselves power to propose laws … and also reserve power, at their own option, to approve or reject at the polls any act of the legislative assembly … The first power reserved by the people is the initiative … The second power is the referendum.”  

This supreme power of the people in the Constitution cannot be usurped by the Legislature no matter how large a majority a single political party might have.

And, beyond the Legislature, it is patently obvious that no special legislative privilege is constitutionally given to business organizations which happen to have the financial resources to become a lobbying force in the state capitol advancing their financial interests. 

SB 93 is adding to the constraints imposed by the business lobby in HB 651 in 2021.  These efforts were called “modernizing the ballot measure process” by the Montana Chamber of Commerce, two local chambers and eleven business lobbying groups.  In a step back towards the business dominance of the “Copper Collar” of Montana’s past, HB 651 granted the “business lobby” a special privilege that no other Montana group has.  As brazenly prepared by special interest lobbyists and in contravention of the power of the people to propose specific legislative language by initiative, the state government was directed by HB 651 to add a business impact warning onto the ballot language considered by voters.  That warning right has not been given to workers, to children, to families — to anyone but “business.”

Now SB 93 includes in the assault on the voice of the people an attempt to require citizens to pay a non-refundable $3,700 to the state just for proposing an initiative, definitely an effort to constrain the citizen-based advocacy outlined so clearly in our Constitution.  

Those House Bill 651/SB 93 changes target the process by which citizens write the language of the law proposed by the ballot issue and the petition on which they seek signatures.  Having failed to defeat citizen initiatives with electors, the GOP and business interests are now seeking to prevent initiatives from ever reaching the ballot. 

They do that with sweeping intrusions of cost and control over the process by which ballot issues make the ballot to be presented for a vote by electors.  In addition to the “business warning” and the $3700 filing fee, an initiative could be outright vetoed by the Attorney General and he or even interim legislative committees can add language to the initiative.  

Apparently with these folks in control, stifling the voice of the people, in Montana “we the people” are no longer supreme.

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Evan Barrett
Evan Barrett

Evan Barrett lives in historic Uptown Butte after retiring following 47 years at the top level of Montana economic development, government, politics and education. He is an award-winning producer of Montana history videos who continues to write columns and commentaries and occasionally teaches Montana history.