Montana Senate uproar over missing Democratic Senator, referendum bills

Senator Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) holds a copy of the Legislature's rulebook while Democrats pounded their desks and shouted in protest Friday

Senator Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) holds a copy of the Legislature’s rulebook while Democrats pounded their desks and shouted in protest Friday

Decorum in The Montana State Senate dissolved into an uproar Friday over a missing Democratic Senator.  Republicans saw the absence of Sen. Shannon Augare as the use of an obscure parliamentary procedure by the Democrats to stall floor action and kill some GOP-backed bills. The decision of Republican leadership to take votes on the bills anyway resulted in the Democratic minority leaping to their feet, shouting loud objections and pounding on their desks with anything from glass mugs to copies of the Montana Constitution.

“I don’t want to characterize what they did as a Hail Mary or failed, but we did what we had to do and it’s done,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich about passing the bills which, if also passed by the House, will put measures on the 2014 ballot asking to remove the state’s same-day voter registration practice and put in place a new primary election system that only allows the two political parties receiving the most votes move forward to the general election.

Any ballot-measure bills which pass the Montana Legislature with a simple majority of both chambers move right to a public vote—bypassing the governor’s office. Historically, this was rarely utilized, but that’s changed the last couple years. The majority Republicans in both chambers have been using the tactic more often as a way to get certain measures past the veto of the state’s Democratic Governor.

“Just as they used the rules to their advantage to try to move those referenda forward, we were gonna use the rules to our advantage to stop that nonsense in its tracks” said Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Jon Sesso. “Enough is enough with this stuff.”

Friday was the deadline for referendum bills to transfer over to the opposite chamber from where they started. In a caucus meeting, Democrats discussed using a seldom-employed procedure known as a ‘call of the Senate’ to find Senator Augare, who had gone missing. Using that procedure would halt action on any bills until Augare was found. If the floor was halted for the remainder of the day, the bills objected to by the Democrats would not make the deadline and die for this year’s legislative session.

Meanwhile, Republicans were meeting too, including with legislative legal staff, and decided they could take the votes before recognizing the Democrat’s motion to call the Senate. Senator Wittich said the rules exist to keep the chamber in order so “it was important that we do the people’s business and transfer those bills to the House in time.”

“I’m saddened by what we saw today—it’s worse than Washington, D.C.” said Governor Steve Bullock. “I’m not embarrassed by men and women demanding a right to speak—I’m disappointed by those who denied it.”

Democrats say the votes taken on the referendum bills should not count because the party’s objection to the votes and their motion to call the Senate were not recognized by Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann.

The story in the Senate so far this session has been over a split in the body’s GOP caucus between conservatives and more moderate Republicans who have been siding with Democrats on some key issues including education funding and Medicaid Expansion. Now, some Republicans are saying the actions of Democrats have re-unified the party.

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