Bizarre Day Changes Tone at Legislature

By Beacon Staff

In a single bizarre day involving a missing senator, desk pounding and shouting in the Senate chamber, the Legislature appears to have taken a firm step away from bipartisanship and toward entrenched acrimony.

Kalispell Republican Sen. Jon Sonju said the “day will be etched in history, and not necessarily a good history.” Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock called it “a disappointing day for the state of Montana.”

Whether Republicans and Democrats can overcome the ill will to hammer out policy and a budget is an open question as the 63rd Legislative Session grinds down to its final days. The session, which started at the beginning of January, wraps up at the end of this month and there are still a number of major legislative issues on the table.

The controversy started on April 5 as the Senate was preparing to make final votes on a list of bills – including two measures opposed by Democrats to place referendums that would change election laws on the 2014 ballot.

One referendum would ask voters to decide whether to get rid of same-day voter registration, and the other proposes changing primary election laws so that the top two vote getters advance regardless of party. Democrats argue that the GOP-sponsored proposals are intended to give Republicans the upper hand in elections.

As the final vote neared, Democrats announced they were invoking a legislative procedural tactic called “call of the Senate,” which would shut down the chamber and thus block voting until all 50 members were present. Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, was nowhere to be found.

But Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, decided to let the proceedings move forward and refused to acknowledge Democrats’ attempts to be recognized to make the “call of the Senate.” Essmann later explained that he didn’t recognize the Democrats because they didn’t address him respectfully, in accordance with legislative procedural guidelines.

Democrats, who are the minority party, shouted and pounded their desks in protest, while refusing to take part in the voting. Republicans voted without them, passing the referendum bills and others. There was also shouting coming from the gallery.

Both Republicans and Democrats maintain they acted within the rules. On Monday, the Senate Rules Committee sided with Essmann along party-line votes. And Essmann’s office announced that it initiated an investigation into Augare’s absence. Augare said he was back home conducting tribal government business.

“The actions by the Democrat members of the Senate were unprecedented,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, a Republican from Bozeman. “They intentionally mislead Montanans and the Senate about a member’s absence to stage a piece of political theatre.”

But Democrats maintain that Essmann’s actions were improper and make the votes cast that day invalid. They say they have a strong legal case.

Bullock lambasted the “hyper-partisan nature of the Senate leadership.”

“I strongly encourage Sen. Essmann to reconsider every vote made today,” Bullock said. “And I encourage the leaders in this body – not just those elected to leadership positions – to stand up and start acting in a way that would make our ancestors and our kids proud.”

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