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The government works for the people in Montana, not the politicians

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The government works for the people in Montana, not the politicians

Apr 14, 2024 | 6:14 am ET
By Robyn Morrison
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The government works for the people in Montana, not the politicians
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The dome of the Montana Capitol, with the statue of Mike and Maureen Mansfield in the lower center (By Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The 1972 Montana Constitution is extraordinary; it is the people’s true treasure. Montana’s state motto is “Oro y Plata,” which is Spanish for “Gold and Silver.” This motto is in tandem with Montana’s state nickname, “The Treasure State,” both named for the state’s mineral wealth. Throughout the state’s history, those abundant natural resources and the people have been extracted and exploited by out-of-state corporations. Since 1906, the voters of Montana have used the citizens’ ballot measures to assert their sovereign rights.

Many voters do not clearly understand the importance of Article III, Sections 4 (Initiatives) and 5 (Referendum) of the 1972 Montana Constitution. These sections grant the people the primary tools needed to ensure the rights of the majority of voters are secure. During the 2021 and 2023 Legislative sessions, the supermajority party repeatedly attacked the people’s constitutional rights and sovereignty. Without the right to enact laws by initiative and the right to approve or reject unpopular laws enacted by the Legislature, the personal freedoms and economic opportunities for the people of Montana will quickly disappear.

The voters passed Montana’s first initiative and referendum law (1906) by a 6-to-1 margin. In 1912, this right was first used to pass the first tax on the largest mines (owned mostly by out-of-state interests). Montana’s first campaign finance law and a law to enact the popular election of Montana Senators were passed in 1912. Montana’s first gas tax for roads, homestead property tax relief, lobbyist disclosure rules, the authority to invest the proceeds of the coal tax trust fund into Montana, term limits for state elected officials, two initiatives to raise the minimum wage for Montana’s workers,(1996 and 2006) and funding for Healthy Montana Kids were only possible through citizen’s ballot measures.

During the 2023 Legislative Session, I was a volunteer activist for a 100-year-old nonpartisan political advocacy organization. I testified on 80 bills, and more than half of those bills clearly infringed on citizens’ rights (as established by the 1972 Constitution). Personally, as a life long independent voter, Senate Bill 93 was the most important bill. During the years I was studying for a Master’s of Divinity, I accepted a paid summer internship funded by “Let Justice Roll” and “Our Faith Our Vote.” My duties were to educate and organize faith communities to support the “Raise Montana” initiative.

During decades of working as a nonpartisan political activist, most of the time I felt disenfranchised. Although I worked on political campaigns, it was always done to support individual candidates with the character and track record of working for the benefit of the people they represent (whether Republican or Democrat). The 2006 Raise Montana initiative passed because it had many different organizations and communities working together to get it passed. That is the power of citizen’s ballot initiatives; they break the two-party duopoly and bring diverse groups of people together, or they don’t secure the majority of the popular vote.

For decades, I worked in economic development, specializing in supporting the growth and success of Montana-based small businesses. Looking back, that was a good fit for me. I believe neither party represents Montana’s small businesses. The Montana Chamber of Commerce primarily represents big corporations, not main street businesses. Small businesses generally do not have the discretionary resources to influence politicians. I mention this as background information as I describe my experience testifying at the Senate Bill 93 hearing before the Senate State Administration Committee in early February 2023. (SB 93 placed additional requirements for citizens in the ballot initiative process.)

There was a diverse but small coalition of opponents ready to testify against SB 93. Because of the reputation of the nonpartisan organization I was volunteering for, I was given the privilege of being the first opposition speaker. I arrived early so that I could secure a seat near the podium. Before I entered the hearing room, I noticed a group of corporate lobbyists some of whom I recognized from past sessions. It was the usual group of corporate lobbyists representing out-of-state interests, the extractive industry, construction, banking and Northwestern Energy (Montana’s utility monopoly). They appeared to be well-organized, and one of the younger women in the crowd was passing out packets of paper.

As soon as the room was opened, I entered and sat on a chair near the podium. It was a very small room for a public hearing on such an important bill. The room filled up quickly, and then the Senators began to arrive. When the Committee Chair arrived, he instructed the opponents to SB 93 to vacate the room to allow the proponents to fill the room.  Some of the opponents gathered in a hallway near the hearing room where we could watch the hearing on a television screen. It was noisy; there were only a few chairs to sit on, and we could only see the back of the person speaking at the podium. The chairman opened the hearing on SB 93, and after a few brief comments, he turned the podium over to the young corporate lobbyist I had seen handing out packets of paper in the hallway. She introduced herself as speaking on behalf of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. She handed a stack of the same papers she had been handing out in the hallway to be distributed to the Senators at the table.

The packet was an amended version of Senate Bill 93. Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, introduced Senate Bill 93 on behalf of the State Administration Interim Committee. The interim committee process is designed to allow public input and bipartisan agreement on bills to be introduced in the following legislative session. All of that was dismissed when Cuffe turned the bill over to the corporate lobbyists. It felt like a trip back to the time when Anaconda Copper Co., Montana Power, and Burlington Northern Railroad controlled Montana politics. The hearing for SB 93 was just the most recent example of corporations versus the sovereign rights of the people of Montana.

Rising to speak as the first opponent to the bill, it was difficult to control my anger. The room was too small, I was wearing a mask, and it was difficult to breathe. As a representative of an organization, my testimony had to be approved in advance. However, I began my testimony off script, registering an objection to the situation. The Chamber amendments substantially changed the scope of the bill, and the opponents did not have access to the amended bill before or even during the hearing. I requested that the chairman grant some kind of accommodation so that the opponents could respond to the bill as amended. That request was not honored. There never was a fair and open hearing on Senate Bill 93.

I moved to Oregon in the summer of 2023, and I am no longer registered to vote in Montana. I still care deeply about the people of Montana. I felt compelled to offer this commentary. As I write this, the future of health care for Montana women is being held hostage by the unconstitutional provisions of Senate Bill 93. Because of SB 93 and the predecessor bill from the 2021 session (House Bill 651), the Attorney General and Legislative Interim Committees feel empowered to cause prolonged and unnecessary delays that prevent citizens from gathering signatures. The proponents of SB 93 knew what they were doing. They want to take Montana back to the days of our early statehood (before 1906) when out-of-state corporations had all the political power.

We need to educate Montana voters. The rights and laws related to citizens’ ballot measures are absolutely necessary to protect basic rights. Popular sovereignty is government based on the consent of the people. The government is not legitimate if the elected leaders disregard the will of the people.

The Montana Constitution’s Declaration of Rights begins with this:

Article II. Section 1. Popular Sovereignty. All political power is vested in and derived from the people. All government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.