HELENA—A Republican-controlled committee concluded Monday that GOP leaders acted legally during a raucous Senate floor session Friday by allowing votes on bills, while Democrats shouted in protest trying to stop the action.
On a series of straight-party line, 9-6 votes, the Senate Rules Committee upheld as legal the Republican Senate leaders’ actions during a chaotic standoff on the Senate floor Friday. All Republicans on the panel supported the motions, while all Democrats opposed them.
The meeting appeared to be a move to formally endorse the Senate GOP majority’s actions, in case Democrats sue over the passage of the bills in question. Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, had raised the legal issues Saturday.
Based on the unexplained absence of Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, on Friday, Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, tried to move for a “call of the Senate.” That’s a parliamentary move to prevent action on bills until all senators are present or two-thirds of the senators vote to lift the call.
Friday was the deadline for Senate tax and referendum bills to be sent to the House, or they likely would die.
In other business Monday, Essmann issued subpoenas to Augare, Jent and Sesso and four Democratic aides to produce records of any phone calls, emails, texts, tweets or other forms of communications regarding Augare’s absence. A proceeding is set for noon Wednesday.
The motions at the Rules Committee covered:
—Whether Senate bills 405 and 408, referendums to on the 2014 ballot, were properly heard in committee April 2. Democrats said a public notice was provided of only a couple of hours on the same day as the hearing.
SB405 would cut off voter registration on 5 p.m. Friday before Election Day. SB408 would change Montana’s primary election system to a “top two” system where all candidates from all political parties would appear on the same primary ballot, with the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advancing to the general election ballot.
There was no discussion on this motion, but Republicans at the time cited legislative rules that allow the normal three-day public hearing notice to be waived within 10 days of a transmittal deadline.
—Whether the actions on Friday by Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, were proper.
Essmann refused to recognize Jent, who was had risen to make a “call of the Senate” motion. Instead of calling on Jent, Essmann allowed final roll-call votes to occur. Democrats protested the failure to recognize by standing up, pounding their desks and shouting.
Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, made the motion that Essmann had operated correctly, citing various rules.
“We knew from a public (Democratic) caucus the full intention of the motion was to be dilatory,” said Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, said, adding: “We anticipated disruptions, frankly. We knew they were coming and were disappointed.”
Jent said he did nothing disrespectful in trying to make his motion. He asked Senate GOP leaders to review the video and if they found he did, Jent said he would publicly apologize.
“Is this necessary?” Sesso asked Republicans. “Are you trying to prove this was or is dilatory? The motion on the table is whether the actions of the president were proper.”
—Whether the bills passed by the Senate were properly transmitted to the House.
Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, made a motion that they were properly passed.
Disagreeing was Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, who said that Jent eventually made the motion for the call. It was lifted when the Senate adjourned for the day.
“I assume even though the third-reading votes were recorded, transmittal didn’t occur,” Phillips said.
Essmann said he determined that the acts of transmitting those bills to the House “were administrative and ministerial in nature” and so they were properly sent to the House.
In the event Democrats file a lawsuit over any of the issues, Wittich said courts have “extremely limited” jurisdiction over the Legislature because it has “self-healing powers” to correct any mistakes.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said that will be up to the courts to decide, if anyone files a lawsuit.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do in the last 18 days of the session,” the veteran senator said. “We need to put aside any further circular firing squads. We can pick ourselves up, we can dust ourselves off and get back to work.”