Jerry O’Neil’s Fight for Liberty Hasn’t Translated to Policy

By Beacon Staff

Jerry O’Neil’s long tenure as a legislator has generated a lot of headlines but not a lot of policy, with his bills rarely making it through the Legislature and almost never past the governor. Yet he has proven to be unfazed by his bills’ lack of success, and so have his constituents, who have voted him into office four times.

In over a decade as a senator and now a representative, the Columbia Falls Republican has seen only five out of 57 bills signed into law. The rest died somewhere in the legislative process. Over his last two sessions in 2011 and 2007, none of the 22 bills for which he was the primary sponsor survived, and he’s batting 1-for-36 over the last three sessions dating back to 2005.

By comparison, two other Flathead Republican lawmakers – Rep. Steve Lavin and Sen. Bruce Tutvedt – saw 11 of their 14 measures become law last session. Tutvedt was eight of 11 and Lavin was three for three.

O’Neil, 69, acknowledged in a recent interview that his policy ideas – guided by staunch libertarian values – don’t always align with the majority of legislators.

“It gets frustrating because it seems like everyday we’re passing bills to make government bigger or increase the power of government,” O’Neil said. “I guess some people have different visions of what they want to be able to do.”

“Sometimes I think I gain more by amending bills or killing bills than I do by carrying bills,” he added. “You get things done other ways.”

But what O’Neil’s proposals lack in endurance they make up for in media appeal. Just this year, state and national news outlets have picked up on his request to have his legislative salary paid in gold and silver coins, and a bill draft to allow defendants to bargain for corporal punishment in lieu of jail.

What’s more, the intent of his bills appears to resonate with his constituency, even if the intent doesn’t usually get a chance to be tangibly demonstrated as policy. O’Neil won back-to-back Senate elections in 2000 and 2004 and then consecutive House victories in 2010 and 2012. He did not serve in the 2009 Legislature.

And there are signs that his multi-session lawmaking drought might end this time around. In particular, he’s feeling pretty good about his solid waste bill. That proposal would grant immunity from civil action to publicly owned solid waste management facilities for injuries related to salvaging, except in cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct.

The solid waste measure has been transmitted to the Senate after passing out of the 100-member House with only one dissenting vote from Republican Rep. Krayton Kerns of Laurel.

“If we get through committee I think we’ve got it made,” O’Neil said of the measure’s chances at becoming law. “But you can’t count on anything to get passed through committee.”

O’Neil also has two resolutions still alive, both proposing to amend the U.S. Constitution – one regarding the commerce clause and the other regarding foreign treaties. He is also carrying a bill to revise highway right-of-way laws in regards to easements.

O’Neil, a Flathead native, is married with five children. As an “independent paralegal,” he was engaged in a years-long battle with the state over who can practice law in the state. Judges maintained that he was “engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.”

O’Neil says he’s licensed to practice law in the Blackfeet Tribal Court, but holds no law degree and hasn’t passed the bar exam. He attended the University of Montana and Montana State University without earning a degree. He has a two-year degree from Flathead Valley Community College.

He views his fight with the state as an example of standing up for the public’s right to choose and other liberties. And much like the long list of his stalled bills at the Legislature, he sees the court rulings against his law practice as small losses in a larger war of ideas. So when the state disbanded its Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law in 2010, O’Neil felt a sense of victory.

“I lost the battles, but in a roundabout way I won the war,” O’Neil said. “I’m happy with how it turned out.”

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