Montana’s Legislative Timeout

By Beacon Staff

Montana’s lawmakers are trying to make it easier to get along with each other. Following nasty election campaigns, hurt feelings are so rampant that grown men and women need to be separated for a while. Cool off. Find some alone time.

It’s legislative timeout. And it was just one of the solutions pitched at a two-day conference held in Helena last week aimed at improving Montana’s legislative process. After one of the most partisan sessions many can remember, where the Legislature couldn’t fulfill its only responsibility – passing a budget – on time, changes in the system are being mulled. They’re certainly needed. But the proposal to move the session to even-numbered years is absurd, and a bit sad.

Currently lawmakers are elected in even-numbered years, in November, just two months before the session commences each odd-numbered year in January. Under this new plan, touted by Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, and House Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, moving the biannual session would allow lawmakers about a year to lick their respective wounds before scrapping over bills.

Under the current schedule, apparently, legislators arriving in Helena are still so irked at opposing party members over nasty attack ads that someone will inevitably get throttled. Forget profanity-laced threats, which surfaced this last session. That’s mild compared to the pending bar fights.

“It’s tough to suffer that attack then 60 days later come in and sit down and have a beer with the person who helped organize that attack,” Sen. Jeff Essman, R-Billings, told the Associated Press. Essman was obviously still bitter about some postcards that were sent to his district that accused him of supporting wife-beating. Essman supports nothing of the sort, as any reasonable voter would conclude. But electoral politics have grown rife with so many absurd accusations few of us take them seriously any more. Nor should the delegates.

There are plenty of other reasons to hate this proposal. Legislators acknowledged that the move could result in lawmakers using part of the session to campaign – since just six months after it ends many would be up for re-election. Supporters stressed that this would force lawmakers to be on their best behavior during the session. I doubt it.

The immediacy of the next election would likely ratchet up the rhetoric during the legislative session. And that’s just what we don’t need out of our elected officials: more time spent posturing and less time spent lawmaking.

Another drawback: Each even-numbered year would be politically unbearable, both for the citizen Legislature and those who voted them into office. After closing the session, when everyone is ready for a long break from anything resembling politics, campaign signs will begin popping up in yards. Lawmakers will begin hitting the campaign trail. And voters will grow irritable, creating an all-around sour environment.

The constant rancor during the most recent session resulted in 73 percent of Montanans giving the 2007 Legislature a negative job-approval rating. The feeling is it can’t get worse. I would argue otherwise. Try asking for votes from a grumpy populace just weeks after a session ends.

I tend to agree with House Minority floor Leader Art Noonan, D-Butte, who said, “I don’t think the rancor or partisanship in recent years is any more or less that it has been.”

Now, there’s simply a brighter spotlight shining on our elected officials; that’s a good thing. Instead of a self-imposed timeout, maybe our politicians should actually work at playing nice.