I served 26 years in the Montana House of Representatives, initially as a Republican, then as a Democrat, including two terms as majority leader and one term as Speaker before I was “termed out” in 2000. My father, the Rev. George Harper, was an Independent Delegate to the 1972 Constitutional Convention, where “power-sharing” by majority Democrats helped unite the delegates in the mission of crafting a modern state Constitution that unshackled Montana from 83 years under the “Copper Collar.”
I always advocated for my beliefs but was raised to respect everyone who entered the public arena and to apply fairness to all activities in the peoples’ house here in Montana. The institutions of our government should rise above excessive partisan manipulation and control. That’s why I have been shaken to the core by the egregious “power grab” the 2023 GOP supermajority has embarked upon from day one of the legislature.
One of the worst power-grabbing bills this session is SB 176, which allows the majority party to stack Interim Study Committees with Republicans on a 3-1 basis. For nearly 50 years we have had these Joint Bipartisan Committees, they have studied complex issues such as stream access, missing persons, and statewide mental health, then recommended thoughtful bills – supported by both Democrats and Republicans – to the next legislature. The committees have always been politically balanced, no matter which party had legislative control or by how much. Their work was research- and science-based and had remarkable success.
Typically, like the power-sharing Constitutional Convention, the committee chair rotated between Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate. SB 176 removes that balance and largely removes the study part, as the committee will now be chaired, and the agendas will now be controlled by the Republican Party. In a departure from real bipartisan studies, the bill expressly authorizes each interim committee to prepare four “partisan” bill drafts for introduction the next session. By statute, the Republicans will now be able to call partisan shots throughout the interim (not just for 90 days every two years) seeking to enhance and maintain their power and radical agenda.
Back in 1991, when I was Speaker, and Democrats had a near supermajority with 63 House members, this concept would have been laughed off the floor.
By the way, SB 176 only exempts the Tribal Relations Interim Committee from GOP control because the Republicans don’t have enough Native American legislators to tilt the committee.
In another partisan move, the GOP has taken control of the Montana Consumer Counsel, a constitutionally created office that has protected and represented Montana utility ratepayers in a bi-partisan manner for the last 50 years. The Consumer Council will now be controlled by now Republican-dominated Legislative Consumer Committee, which previously had been bipartisan. This will be a disaster for ratepayers (you) as the Republicans already showed their hand by stifling the Consumer Counsel – in the interest of monopolistic power companies, NOT the consumer – such as when they ordered the Consumer Counsel to retract his concerns about Northwestern Energy’s Colstrip plans or when they attempted to prevent the Consumer Counsel from testifying at the Legislature unless the testimony was pre-approved by them. Stay tuned, there’ll be more to come if SB 176 becomes law.
Despite outcries of protest, this bill is headed to the Governor’s desk. He will have to brave the wrath of the legislative GOP extreme to “veto” it, but for the good of Montana he should act as a “statesman” not a “politician.” Won’t you call on the Governor to do the honorable thing and stamp the bill with that four letter “VETO” word.
Now retired and living in Helena, Hal Harper, a member of Montana’s Outdoor Hall of Fame, is a former 26-year member of the Montana House, including service as majority leader (twice) and Speaker.
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