Democrats in the Montana Senate attempted to pull off a parliamentary procedure that could dramatically effect the remaining three weeks of the 2013 Legislative session.
Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, left the Capitol Friday in order to set up a “Call of the Senate,” a parliamentary procedure that allows a minority body to call on a missing member before business can resume. Sources say Augare may have headed Browning. Augare’s disappearance was designed force a stop all business in the Senate on a critical deadline day for certain bills.
At issue are a pair of referenda the Senate passed on second reading yesterday that Democrats say could dramatically impact access to the ballot. Both measures, which are sponsored by Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, must pass the Senate on third reading by the Saturday noon transmittal deadline or they are dead.
Democrats deemed Senate Bill 405 and Senate Bill 408 so damaging to voting access – and Democrats’ chances at the polls – that were willing to risk the fate of key legislation – including Medicaid expansion, a state pension fix, education funding, etc. – to stop the measures from moving forward to the House.
The first measure, SB405, would ask voters to eliminate same-day voter registration. The second bill, SB408 would put a referendum on the ballot that would create a “top two primary” system in which only the top two vote-getters would qualify for the November general election ballot.
The showdown lead to a raucous and unprecedented scene on the Senate floor where, after nearly three hours of stalled action, Republicans resumed Senate business and moved forward with the third reading of bills as Democrats pounded on their desks in defiance. Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, repeatedly read from the rule book demanding that the Democrats be recognized as Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, tried to conduct the third reading business over the loud objections of Democratic supporters in the gallery.
After completion of third reading Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, motioned officially made a motion for a Call of the Senate. When Essmann asked if he had five legislators willing to second his motion, nearly all of the Democrats raised their hands to the cheers of people packed into the Senate gallery.
If all 50 members of the Senate aren’t present, then either party can motion for a Call of the Senate, which means business cannot resume until all 50 members are present. It would take a 2/3 majority of the Senate to override the Call of the Senate. Republicans don’t have 2/3 majority in the Senate.
In a press release issued after the Senate broke, Democrats accused Republican leaders of abusing the legislative referendum process.
“Enough is enough,” Democratic minority leader Jon Sesso said. “Montanans deserve a democracy that works, but abusing the rules and shutting Montanans out of the ballot box is against everything our constituents value.”
Perennial Libertarian Candidate Mike Fellows was at the Capitol Friday. Fellows said he supported the Democrats’ tactic:
“I think it’s a good strategy,” Fellows said. “When you look at states like Washington, when they passed a (Top 2 primary) in 2008, there hasn't been a third-party candidate on the ballot since. It’s designed to destroy competition.”
Some Republicans scorned the Democrats’ tactic while others said it was a legitimate parliamentary gambit that failed.
Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, said Democrats in the Montana State Senate reached a new low.
“Trying to stop a crucial vote from happening, they shouted and pounded their desks and packed the gallery with partisan allies trying to drown out their opposition,” Greenwood said. “Thank God mob rule did not prevail. Senate President Jeff Essmann did the right thing by refusing to be intimidated by anti-democratic, mob rule tactics.”
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said he didn’t blame Democrats for trying to use a procedural tactic to try to stop legislation they deemed unacceptable.
"I would hope it does not impact the rest of the session. It was a process gambit that didn't necessarily work,” Jones said. “A process gambit was designed and we responded to it, and now we roll on.”
I’ll post more details as I learn them.