At the end of the 2019 legislative session, Montanans can congratulate our lawmakers for a number of significant accomplishments. From continuing Medicaid expansion to enhancing public safety, legislators were able to reach agreement on many controversial issues of critical importance, and pass bills to keep Montana moving in the right direction.
Unfortunately, the winding road legislators took to achieve some of these results also left more than a few Montanans feeling nauseous.
Every session sees its share of secretive discussions, vote-trading and deal-making, but this year’s session was undoubtedly one of the most convoluted in recent memory. A relatively few bills enjoyed a straight path from introduction to passage, while too many others were gutted, restored, tabled and then transferred from one committee to another before eventually dying or finding their way to the governor’s desk for signature.
In the process, legislators sometimes found themselves scrambling to understand what changes had been made to legislation just before they were called to vote on it. Transparency and public participation suffered as legislative meetings were held on short notice and votes cast without discussion. And the public’s trust in our legislative branch was shaken – not just once, but again and again.
Earlier this month the Montana Newspaper Association and Freedom of Information Hotline operator noted a troubling pattern of legislators meeting on official public business without giving proper notice, as outlined in a letter from Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who specializes in right-to-know laws. Legislative staff responded that the meetings were the unintended result of miscommunication, while Republican majority leadership argued that certain meetings were in fact exempt from public notice requirements. In any case, the public was deprived of its constitutional right to participate in open government.
Instead of seeking to do business in secret, lawmakers should always push to make all legislative business as open to the public as possible, and that means providing sufficient public notice even when it concerns matters they don’t view as important. It’s up to members of the public to decide what’s worth following, after all, not legislators.
Of course, Montanans are savvy enough to recognize that a certain amount of strategizing is necessary to build support between groups with different priorities. But when members of a particular committee form a quorum and direct legislative staff to draft amendments to specific legislation, that’s a different matter entirely.
Montanans also understand the difference between legislators meeting with a constituent privately to hear concerns about particular legislation, and legislators allowing powerful constituents to essentially write legislation without public discussion.
The latter appears to be what happened to several bills, including those aimed at improving oversight of private residential treatment programs for troubled teens. The Missoulian published a series of news stories detailing some of the serious problems that have gone on within these programs for years, with no meaningful consequences or corrective action. And legislators have attempted for years to close loopholes, only to see their proposed bill die quiet deaths with little discussion.
This session, that investigative series, and powerful public testimony from former students, helped bring enough attention to the issue to finally make some long overdue headway, and a bill was passed to transfer oversight from a board stacked with program owners to an independent agency with expertise in children’s safety, health and education.
Unfortunately, it was first stripped of important provisions after an individual legislator met in private with program owners and then amended the bill to better suit the owners’ wishes. Thus a requirement for programs to develop health and safety standards was deleted without public discussion. Earlier, the bill was also stripped of a requirement that program employees have training or qualifications for their job.
If program owners have some good reason for objecting to these common-sense requirements, they have yet to state them in a public hearing. Meanwhile, legislators never got to hear the other side of the argument for keeping those requirements.
Unfortunately, even duly noticed, publicly debated bills fell victim to legislative hostage-taking and vote-trading this session. A bill to fund the Montana Heritage Center, for example, was briefly derailed before Democratic leadership decided to tie their support for it to an unrelated bill. They sought to help maneuver the unrelated bill into a conference committee that could then make sweeping additions using language from a third bill that had garnered a wave of public opposition and ultimately failed on its third reading in the House.
If that sounds unnecessarily confusing, that’s because it is. If only they were willing, legislators could consider each bill in a more straightforward manner. Ideally, each bill should be weighed on its own merits, and legislators should vote accordingly — not because their vote for one matter hinges on a vote for another.
Of course, Montana’s legislative gears grind for about three months every two years in a way that is too often less than ideal. The old adage about never watching laws nor sausages being made remains relevant today for good reason.
But Montanans must resist the inertia to accept such maneuvering and recognize the ever-present threat to our right to know and participate in open government. It’s up to everyday residents and voters to pay close attention and let legislators know that such gamesmanship is unacceptable. Montanans expect better.