Two Citizen Groups Make Rare Attempt to Block Bills

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Two Montana citizen groups are trying to do what has only been done once in the past 18 years: block a bill from becoming law by petition.

One group proposes to prevent sweeping changes to the state’s medical marijuana law on July 1. The other wants to block a new law that has already taken effect and gives utilities the power of eminent domain over private landowners.

If they get enough signatures from registered voters by Sept. 30, a referendum will be held on the bills in the 2012 general election.

And if they get a lot more signatures, they can actually suspend the bill from becoming law until that election.

Legislative referenda are rare in Montana. They’ve only been tried three times since 1993, and only once was one successful in suspending a bill.

“Having two at the same time is unique in recent history,” Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said Tuesday.

That’s no deterrent to John Vincent, a Democratic member of the state Public Service Commission and an organizer of the group behind the eminent domain petition.

“I’m anticipating full success. I fully believe we will not only get it on the ballot, but we will get it suspended,” Vincent said.

The bill he is fighting was pushed through the Legislature with the backing of businesses looking to jump-start two major electricity transmission projects: the Montana-Alberta Tie Line in the northern part of the state and Mountain States Transmission Intertie in the southwest.

Vincent said the measure strips landowners of their right to say whether the projects should go through their property.

The eminent domain bill and medical marijuana restrictions were spotlighted in a contentious legislative session that ended last month. Both bills passed out of the Republican-led Legislature after intense debate and scrutiny, and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer let them become law without his signature.

The Montana Constitution allows voters to approve or reject any legislative act by referendum if 5 percent of the voters in each of 34 legislative districts sign a petition to place it on the ballot.

But with the next general election not until 2012, both groups want to stop the laws before they have time to take root and make lasting changes.

So they are aiming for the more difficult goal of blocking the laws from taking effect until the 2012 election. That takes the signatures of 15 percent of registered voters in each of 51 legislative districts.

The Montana Cannabis Industry Association, the group behind the marijuana bill petition, has submitted its proposed ballot language to McCulloch’s office and is searching for signature gatherers.

They will have to work fast to beat a July 1 deadline, the date the new law makes it tougher to qualify as a marijuana patient and outlaws for-profit marijuana businesses.

So in addition to the petition drive, the group is asking a state judge for an injunction that would to block the law. The group’s members scored an initial victory last week when Judge James Reynolds issued a temporary restraining order halting a portion of the new law: a ban on all advertising of marijuana and pot products.

“If we get the injunction, it buys us some time,” group spokeswoman Kate Cholewa said.

Vincent’s group has yet to file its proposed ballot initiative with the secretary of state, but its members have already announced plans for a June 13 kickoff to their petition drive.

He said his group or another interested group may take a page from the Montana Cannabis Industry Association and ask a judge for an injunction blocking the law, along with the petition drive. Even the threat of that happening could help their cause, he said.

“As long as there are serious legal and political question marks hanging over the eminent domain issue in Montana, there isn’t going to be, in my opinion, all that much activity in investing because it’s too risky,” he said.

The last time a citizen’s petition blocked a bill passed by the Montana Legislature was in 1993, when a proposed law to establish a flat state income tax rate of 6.7 percent was suspended and then shot down by voters in the next year’s election.

Since then, citizens’ petitions to block or repeal legislation have only been tried twice. The first, in 1997, involved a bill to prohibit corporate contributions to ballot issues. The petition drive was unable to block the bill, but it did receive enough signatures to get on the 1998 ballot, where voters upheld the new law. The bill was later ruled unconstitutional, making the referendum moot, according to McCulloch’s office.

The second petition drive wasn’t aimed at blocking a law from taking effect, but only to get the issue on the next year’s ballot. That was in 2001, and the bill dealt with, among other things, extending electricity deregulation’s transition process to 2007. Voters rejected the bill in 2002.

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