Leaders Say Contentious Elections Lead to Legislative Rancor

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – The state’s two top lawmakers say increasingly partisan elections help create bitter legislative sessions, and suggested that more downtime after Election Day could help cool tempers.

State Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, and House Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said it might be better if the Legislature waited more than a year after elections until it met for its once-every-two-years session.

Both said legislative elections have become more focused and feature more attack ads. They said it creates bitter feelings that carry over into the legislation session.

Currently, the Montana Legislature convenes in January of odd-numbered years following November elections.

Cooney said the political landscape has changed and national politics have trickled down into the Legislature. He said a “win at any cost” mentality now dominates.

He suggested that the legislative sessions could be pushed back a year to January of even-numbered years, a little more than a year after the previous election and 11 months before the next one.

Even though lawmakers, who usually work up until late April, would be legislating during an election year, Cooney said the system would be better.

“Obviously it is a concern that you could basically bring the election into … the Legislature,” he said Tuesday. “But I think it might be worth a try.”

“I’m not sure it would be any worse than what we have.”

Sales agreed. He said it might even be better to have lawmakers meet prior to an election in even-numbered years because they would be more keen to please voters.

“I think it would make us be on our better behavior because we would be in the spotlight of the public, who is going to elect us in six months,” Sales said. “What’s the downside?”

The comments came at the conclusion of a two-day conference on improving the legislative process by the Burton K. Wheeler Center.

The meeting comes in the wake of a historic legislative session earlier this year that failed to craft a budget in the 90 days constitutionally granted to do so. Bitter partisan politics led to a special session and high-profile fights and name-calling.

A public poll afterward found that 73 percent of Montanans gave the 2007 Legislature a negative job-approval rating — even though they liked much of the work accomplished by the Legislature.

A number of ideas were discussed at the conference, such as holding shorter sessions every year. One would be devoted strictly to the budget so that it gets the scrutiny it deserves. It was also suggested that the legislative redistricting process needs to be changed so that one party can’t dominate it, which also creates hard feelings.

Sen. Jeff Essman, R-Billings, said attack ads from more active party operatives are on the rise in elections.

“It’s tough to suffer that attack and then 60 days later come in and sit down and have a beer with the person who helped organize that attack,” he said.

House Minority Floor Leader Art Noonan, D-Butte, said he disagrees that the level of partisanship is new — or even necessarily bad.

“I don’t think the rancor or partisanship in recent years is any more or less than it has been,” Noonan said. “I think there has always been a lot of rancor.”

Changing the rules alone won’t help, he suggested. And stiff debate needs to take place amid sharp philosophical differences.

“I don think you can legislate civility, I think people have to choose to be civil,” Noonan said.