Montana Senate Leaders Reach Deal to Get Along

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Senate leaders said Wednesday that they reached a deal aimed at ending the acrimony stemming from the Republican majority’s decision to vote on bills despite Democrats’ attempts to halt the proceedings.

The two sides have been stewing since last Friday when the fight over parliamentary maneuvering stalled the Legislature for hours.

The standoff started with a missing senator that Democrats intended to use to invoke a rare move demanding every member is present before voting. The move could have killed GOP priority bills facing a procedural deadline. It culminated in a rowdy Senate floor session where Senate President Jeff Essmann ignored Democrats as they shouted and pounded on desks in an attempt to be recognized.

Afterward, Republicans alleged Democrats orchestrated the senator’s absence. Democrats complained the Republicans broke the rules by ignoring their motion and going on with the session.

Essmann said he has agreed to drop subpoenas investigating whether Democrats broke decorum rules. He and Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso met for two hours a day earlier to sort out differences.

Democrats agreed to work the Republicans on legislation to overhaul the political practices office.

That measure, Senate Bill 387 from Sen. Debby Barrett, establishes a commission over the office and attempts to modify the way the commissioner is selected and improve the way campaign finance and other complaints are selected.

Essmann read a letter to the full Senate, which was also signed by Sesso, that focused on the actions of the Democrats.

“The minority acknowledges its role in the disruption of the decorum of the Senate … and I have been assured by Sen. Sesso that this will not happen again.”

Both sides agreed to drop the practice of pounding on desks to gain recognition and to limit disruptions.

The letter does not address grievances from Democrats that Essmann violated rules and the Montana Constitution, an allegation that argues the disputed GOP bills were illegally passed. Democrats have threatened the matter could end up in courts.

Nothing in the letter addressed such a grievance, although Sesso toned down his comments on a lawsuit. He said the courts have historically been reluctant to deliberate on the Legislature’s internal proceedings.

Both sides said the intent of the agreement is to put the episode behind them and move forward to finish the business of the Legislature.

House Democrats said they will drop their request that the chamber not accept the Senate GOP bills voted on during the fracas.

Both of the measures Democrats sought to obstruct were ballot measures that could bypass the potential veto pen of Gov. Steve Bullock.

Senate Bill 405 seeks to end same-day voter registration. Senate Bill 408 would create a “top two” primary that seeks to prevent third-party candidates from stealing votes away from major party candidates in the general election, which has harmed Republican candidates in recent elections.

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