Montana’s 150 state legislators have been asked to vote by July 15 on whether to call themselves into a special session on July 16.
That’s not a misprint: Ten legislators is all it takes to call for a special session and 13 reportedly have done so, aiming to stop health care and mine cleanup initiatives. Republicans opposed to the initiatives asked the Secretary of State last week to poll all lawmakers on the question of meeting in special session starting at 9 a.m., on July 16 to place referenda on a ballot to counteract Initiative 185 on health care and Initiative 186 on new mining permits. The call sent to each lawmaker by the Secretary of State says the special session would consider referenda that involve hard rock mining, Montana’s bad actor mining law, health care laws, including the 2015 HELP Act Medicaid expansion, tobacco taxes and health care provider assessments.
Of course, the call includes appropriating money for the special session. Here are the top reasons why this ill-considered special session is a ridiculous waste of time and money for the people of Montana.
The first day of the session would cost taxpayers about $90,000. The length of the session would be uncertain.
The cost of a special election in January or February would be borne by county taxpayers. Under state law, if a special legislative session in July passed referenda, they couldn’t go on the November ballot. The law says the legislature must transfer referenda to the Secretary of State at least six months before the election, so the special election couldn’t be held sooner than January. The May 2017 U.S. House special election cost Yellowstone County alone $120,000 that wasn't in the county budget.
Preparing for a sudden, summer session is a logistical nightmare for Legislative Services. The extra staff for such a session would need to be available instantly, but it might not be known if they are needed until lawmakers finish voting the day before the session could start.
The public is in the dark. There would be no opportunity for effective public participation in a legislative session convened merely to rubber stamp referenda written behind closed doors without public input. The usual legislative rules and hearings would have to be waived to rush legislation through.
This is an effort to thwart the initiative process, which is enshrined in the Montana Constitution, just as the Legislature is.
The Montana Association of Counties opposes a July special session. In a letter to legislative leaders dated June 28, William Barron, MACo president and Lake County commissioner, wrote: “Our association has polled our membership on the question of calling another special session to address or undercut the initiative process currently under way concerning mining and Medicaid expansion. While we have not been consulted on the details of any preliminary special session call, we understand that members of the Legislature are interested in submitting legislative initiatives to the voters in a special election that would occur in January or February 2019. We oppose such an effort.”
In January, legislators will already be meeting in the regular biennial session and can address any of the topics listed in their special session call. Furthermore, if voters pass one or more initiatives in November, the Legislature can vote to amend those new laws during the session.
Getting legislative referenda on the ballot is much easier than qualifying a popular initiative. The referenda requires a simple majority of the Legislature – 76 votes. Initiative petition proponents must gather more than 25,468 signatures of registered voters representing a sufficient number of House districts. County elections officials have until July 20 to finish verifying signatures on petitions for I-185 and I-186 to determine if they will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, wrote to House members, saying that he will decline to call for a July special session. The Legislature can call itself into special session if 76 members agree. So far, that has never happened.
We urge all lawmakers to take the advice of MACo and Knudsen. Say no to a senseless, money-wasting special session. Legislators, please return your ballots without delay marked to "reject" the special session request, so the public and legislative staff won't have to keep wondering.
Let's debate merits of initiatives fully in public, allow Montanans vote on whatever initiatives qualify for the ballot and let the Legislature do its job when it convenes in January.