Republican Referendums Would Go Straight to Voters

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Legislature is wrapping up a proposal that would ask voters to divide up Montana Supreme Court races by district, while rebuffing a constitutional referendum asking voters to let them meet every year for shorter sessions.

Republican with majorities in both legislative chambers can put simple referendums — changes in law with voter approval — straight to the ballot without worrying about Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s veto power that requires a two-thirds majority to override.

The proposal to refashion the way the state’s high court is selected is on its way to clear the House, after a successful 65-35 initial vote Wednesday, and has already been approved by the Senate. It would ask voters in the 2012 primary election to authorize the change, which would start with phased in elections beginning with the 2012 general election ballot.

Voters would no longer share in selecting all of the justices and the chief justice. Seven districts would each send up one justice, and the panel would select one of their own to serve as chief justice.

Republican supporters, seeking to remedy to whey perceive to be an “activist” court, argued the district elections would put the justices closer to the voters and place them farther from the reach of moneyed interests.

“The voters have a right and should know who their judicial candidates to the Supreme Court are,” said Rep. Kris Hansen. “I think this is a great bill. This does a great service to our voters.”

Opponents, mostly Democrats, argued the primary election will cost local counties thousands in costs for special voter information pamphlets, and would result in justices making decisions based on local pressure rather than doing what is right for the whole state based on the law.

“These are statewide offices,” said Rep. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula. “These are folks who are expected to provide justice to all of us.”

It faces one more largely procedural vote Wednesday.

The House on Wednesday did rebuff a Republican-led constitutional referendum, which faces a higher bar. Asking voters to change the Constitution requires support from 100 of 150 lawmakers.

The proposal to hold shorter legislative sessions every year rather a 90-day session every other year failed to meet that high bar — and even failed to get a simple majority support in the House. Opponents argued the voters put the provision in the Constitution for a reason.

“Can you blame them? We fight like children. It is good and healthy for us to have a cooling off period,” said Rep. Michelle Reinhart, D-Missoula. “I think this has been one of the most shocking, crazy sessions ever and I think we need a break.”

But Republicans are having success advancing their simple referendums that just change law.

Full hearings were given Wednesday to referendums pushing back against the federal health insurance law and another that would require proof those getting state services are citizens or otherwise in the country legally.

And several other referendums are still alive, including one asking voters if minors seeking an abortion should have to first notify a parent — backup plan in case Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoes a bill that aims to do roughly the same thing.

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