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Silly season in full swing at legislative session

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Montana’s legislature is headed toward the critical halfway point when most bills other than appropriations and revenue measures must be transmitted from the house of origin to the other chamber or die. It’s a time when legislators sometimes go over the edge of reason, logic and common sense in their fevered efforts to pass their bills and last week gave citizens a good look at just how silly it can get.

Topping the list is, of course, the incredible bill by, of all things, a Republican representative from Missoula. Given that Missoula is widely considered the most liberal city in the state, one might wonder just what Rep. David “Doc” Moore was thinking when he introduced a bill to ban yoga pants and the exposure of men’s or women’s nipples in public.

Moore’s House Bill 365 would have made it a crime if men or women exposed “the person's genitals, pubic hair, or anus or exposes the areola or nipple of the person's breast with anything less than a fully opaque covering while in a public place or visible from a public place” or “exposes any device, costume, or covering that gives the appearance of or simulates the genitals, pubic hair, anus region, or pubic hair region or exposes any device worn as a cover over the nipple or areola of the female breast that simulates and gives the realistic appearance of a nipple or areola while in a public place or visible from a public place.”

Under Moore’s bill, the punishment for such egregious exposure is a fine of $500 and six months in jail for a first offense, a $1,000 fine and a year in jail for the second offense and an unbelievable fine of $5,000 and five years in state prison for a third offense.

What could have possibly prompted Moore to introduce such a Taliban-like measure into the Montana House of Representatives? Well, if you can believe it – and it’s a stretch – it was that nude bike ride through Missoula last year which was so “indecent” that you can see all the pix right here on the Missoulian’s website, which so far hasn’t been busted for posting them online.

Much to their credit, Montanans revolted against Moore’s Draconian measure in full force by not only parading around in yoga pants (gasp!), but with local Missoula breweries offering free or discounted brews for those customers who wore the outfits that Moore thinks must be banned for the moral good of our society.

To its credit, the House Judiciary Committee immediately killed Moore’s bill by tabling it, but not before it drew national media attention which, once again, did not flatter Montanans or their whacky legislators.

But Moore wasn’t alone in the clown’s corner last week. Sen. Jennifer Fielder, the Thompson Falls Republican who wants to transfer federal lands to state “management,” realized that the statewide opponents to her measure far outnumbered the proponents and sought to assure Montanans that, by golly, she would make sure those lands couldn't be sold off by putting that prohibition in law.

Apparently Fielder, despite being elected to the Senate, does not understand that the legislature meets, at a minimum, every two years. The purpose of the legislature is to appropriate funding for state government and to make and pass the laws that govern our day-to-day lives.

While it may come as a surprise to Fielder, the assurance that federal lands wouldn't be sold off because it’s “in law,” would be open to amendment or outright repeal in exactly two years – or earlier should a special session be called. And no legislature may bind a future legislature with an unchangeable law.

One has to wonder if Fielder doesn't know this basic fact about how the legislature works? If you assume she does know, then she was either devious or extremely disingenuous to make such a hollow promise to Montanans or she thought the rest of us are as clueless about the permanence of laws as she seems to be.

If anyone doubts the deleterious effect term limits have had on Montana’s lawmaking legitimacy, last week’s actions by Moore and Fielder – and that the legislature’s leaders didn't counsel these wayward members – should put that doubt to rest. With 74 days to go in the session, let’s hope we've seen the last of such silliness.

George Ochenski's column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. Contact him at oped@missoulian.com.

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