Referendums at Center of Legislative Eruption

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The Montana Legislature erupted Friday over Republicans’ attempts to pass a series of referendums, which would allow them to bring their legislative priorities straight to the people and bypass the governor’s desk — and his veto pen.

Gov. Steve Bullock and Democratic lawmakers object to the referendums, saying they sidestep the legislative process.

Bullock told reporters that using referendums instead of going through the regular legislative channels is a waste of taxpayers’ money and a bad way to run a government.

The Democratic governor singled out one referendum before the Senate, which would end same-day voter registration.

“In a time when we want to encourage more civic participation, I think this is a wrong direction,” he said.

Bullock made his remarks before a turbulent Senate floor session, where two of the referendums were up for final passage. Republican leaders held votes on those and other bills over the din of shouting Democrats who pounded their desks in an attempt to halt the proceedings.

Senate Bill 405 introduced by Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, got the Senate’s initial approval Thursday after a contentious debate along party-lines.

It and another referendum to create a primary system where only the two top vote-getters would advance to the general election, regardless of their political party, passed the final votes Friday amid the chaos in the Senate.

Senate Democrats say the votes were illegal because they were taken without all of their members present. They threatened to take legal action.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso said he had been unable to locate Sen. Shannon Augare of Browning and wanted him present for voting. The Democratic leadership tried to invoke the parliamentary procedure that demands every member is present before business can resume, but Senate Republicans ignored them and proceeded with the vote.

Republicans said Augare’s absence was a ruse to prevent the vote from happening.

The House was to vote on four referendums in a floor session that stretched into Friday evening. They included House Bill 619 by Rep. Wendy Warburton, which would add a clause in the state constitution that says there is no right to an abortion and would prohibit federal funds from being used for the procedure.

Another proposed referendum, House Bill 521, would require minors obtain parental consent before getting an abortion.

The House endorsed House Bill 631, which would add a constitutional amendment that says victims acting in self-defense are not responsible for damages to their attacker.

Both constitutional amendment bills — House Bill 631 and House Bill 619 — will need 100 votes from the Senate and the House before appearing on voters’ ballots in 2014.

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