The Montana State Capitol building in Helena

Defeat of the House infrastructure bill puts pressure on the Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock to draft a consensus plan palatable to fiscal conservatives who find bonds hard to swallow.

Thom Bridge,

Too many of Montana’s lawmakers are also routine law-breakers. And too few recognize that as the glaring problem it is.

Publicly elected state legislators are ignoring ethics laws and the legal system designed to keep them accountable to the people who put them in office. As explored in a series of statewide reports on Ethics in the Montana Legislature, published in the Missoulian this past week, the rules guiding legislative ethics are so loose they are nearly worthless.

Montana’s bare-bones disclosure requirements call for close attention from members of the public, so that those lawbreakers who fall through the cracks of official accountability may still be held accountable – at the ballot box.

State legislators are in session for only 90 days every two years. The rest of the time, most of these elected officials earn their incomes working in some other profession, and bring that experience to bear when crafting state law.

That’s only a problem when they fail to disclose any direct conflict of interest or stand to gain an exclusive personal benefit. Yet legislators often fail to document conflicts, and this failure is seldom, if ever, met with any kind of punishment. If a complaint is filed, which happens rarely, the process does not result in swift, meaningful consequences.

These are among the reasons why, in its most recent report ranking the states, the Center for Public Integrity gave Montana an overall grade of “F” for Ethics Enforcement (it fared marginally better, with a “C” grade, in the areas of Electoral Oversight, Legislative Accountability and Internal Auditing).

It’s also why so few Montanans bother to file ethics complaints, even as they heap criticism on legislators for perceived ethical lapses. For example, Rep. Peggy Webb and Sen. Roger Webb, both Billings Republicans who together own rental property, pushed more than a dozen bills that sought to change tenant-landlord regulations. And Republican Sen. Ed Buttrey, who owns a bar in Great Falls, targeted a brewery bill with an amendment that would have hamstrung craft brewers.

These legislators caught a great deal of criticism from outside the halls of the Capitol from Montanans who accused them of using their elected office for personal gain. Their efforts were, for the most part, ultimately defeated either in the Legislature or by veto.

Yet despite the apparent public outrage directed toward some Montana legislators, only two unrelated complaints were filed during the entire 2017 session – and both were dismissed. In the prior session, only one complaint was filed; it was also dismissed.

Perhaps that’s to be expected when legislators are essentially relied on to police themselves. The Commissioner of Political Practices, who is tasked with enforcing laws concerning campaign practices and ethical standards, does not handle complaints alleging ethical violations by legislators. Those concerns are the purview of legislative ethics committees.

It’s worth noting that the most recent such committee last convened in 2001, when a representative was accused of sponsoring a bill to personally benefit himself. The legislator admitted the bill would do exactly that – but because it would also benefit others, the complaint was dismissed.

Clearly, much is riding on legislators publically disclosing any potential conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, Montana lacks any oversight for ensuring that they do so. Legislative candidates are given forms to fill out, but if they fill them out incompletely, inaccurately – or not at all – there is no oversight and consequently, no corrective measures. Despite ample evidence of financial disclosures forms filled out in error, no sanctions have been handed down for decades.

That means the public is routinely being left in the dark about critical information concerning a legislator’s motivations, and that is unacceptable. It is not too much to ask that candidates report any financial interests that could influence their actions in the Legislature, or to require such information as a condition of holding public office.

Further, Montanans shouldn’t have go hunting for this information. If legislative ethics committees are not going to enforce disclosure requirements, the Commissioner of Political Practices, which collects disclosure forms, should also have the authority to review them and hold candidates accountable for their accuracy. It’s part of the public’s right to know, a right enshrined in strong provisions in Montana’s Constitution. And it’s high time our legislators started living up to these expectations.

These relatively quiet months between legislative sessions are a good time for Montanans to take stock of our legislators’ performance, both as individuals and a members of a larger state system. It is painfully obvious, and growing more painful each passing year, that the system has sizeable gaps, despite Montana’s deep history of encouraging public involvement in state government through strong public information laws.

To close the gaps, Montana needs to identify an authority to monitor and enforce the ethics laws already on the books. It makes the most sense to invest that authority outside the Legislature itself, and the Commissioner of Political Practices would be a sensible place. Of course, legislators would not only have to agree to provide that office with the authority but also the resources to handle these duties, and they have seemed to prefer to starve the office into irrelevance instead.

It’s up to Montana voters, in every corner of the state, to pay close attention to their chosen state senators and representatives. Ultimately, our votes hold the most power to impress upon legislators that ethical behavior is expected and ethical lapses will be not be tolerated.

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