Capitol cleansing 

Does Helena’s “revolving door” need closing?

Gov. Brian Schweitzer wants to clean up state government, and since he couldn’t get the state Legislature to help him do it during the 2005 session, he’s taking his plan straight to voters in November.

Schweitzer is a key backer of I-153, the ballot initiative that would reform lobbying in Montana by requiring a two-year cooling off period for legislators, appointed state officials, elected state officials, and personal staff of elected state officials before they can become licensed lobbyists.

“If you were in the Legislature on Dec. 30 and on Jan. 1 you’re now working for the company that you were regulating or setting tax policy for, people are going to ask, ‘When did you negotiate that contract? When did you know that you were going to leave the employ of the people of Montana and join the employ of the company that you were supposed to be fairly taxing and regulating? When was this deal cooked?’ It doesn’t pass the smell test,” Schweitzer says. “What I’m trying to do is keep people from negotiating their next job when they are supposed to be representing the interests of the people of Montana.”

So far the measure faces no organized opposition, but not everybody in Helena thinks the reform is warranted.

Former Billings Rep. Jim Jensen served in the state House of Representatives where he was a member of the natural resources, fish and game, and judiciary committees. He left the House in 1985 and registered as a lobbyist a year later. He says I-153 is unnecessary and amounts to little more than political grandstanding on the governor’s part.

“It isn’t a problem in Montana,” says Jensen, now director of the Montana Environmental Information Center (though he spoke for this story in his capacity as a former legislator and lobbyist). “This is pure populist demagoguery of the worst sort, and it cheapens the political process. It preys upon the perception that government is corrupt and people who work in Helena are somehow tainted or corrupt, and that’s just not true.”

Schweitzer disagrees, saying the revolving door of state lawmakers-turned-lobbyists needs to be closed. He points to former Gov. Judy Martz’s Chief of Staff Barbara Ranf and former Department of National Resources Director Bud Clinch as good examples of the need for lobbying reform.

“The day after [Ranf] was [Martz’s] chief of staff, she was the lobbyist for the Montana Chamber of Commerce and went on to become the lobbyist for Burlington Northern Santa Fe,” Schweitzer says. “There isn’t a day that the governor of Montana doesn’t contemplate some action with, for, or against Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and for [their lobbyist] to be the governor’s former chief of staff…Hello.”

Clinch left the DNRC, the state agency largely responsible for regulating resource extraction, in 2005, only to become executive director of the Montana Coal Council later that same year.

Schweitzer says existing ethics rules, passed in 1995, call for a 12-month cooling off period, but do not prevent government officials such as Clinch and Ranf from negotiating contracts while still employed by the state.

“I read that [ethics legislation] several times and I tried to come up with some individual in Montana that it would apply to, and I couldn’t,” Schweitzer says.

So Schweitzer sought a legislative solution in 2005, asking Missoula Rep. Dave Wanzenried to introduce HB 383.

“It was a comprehensive ethics bill that would have applied to members of my staff and myself, to legislators and elected officials and statewide appointed officials,” Schweitzer says.

That bill would have doubled the 1995 law’s cooling off period to 24 months, but it died in committee.

According to Common Cause Montana, a nonprofit citizens lobbying group and supporter of I-153, the revolving door is exacerbated by the fact that Montana legislators are term-limited. As of 2004, Montana had 1,090 registered lobbyists in the state, and a lobbyist-to-legislator ratio of 7:1—the 12th-highest in the country. Schweitzer says lawmakers aren’t eager to pass reforms that would prevent them from lining their own pockets once they’re out of office.

“When we passed term limits, people said, ‘well, you know, the only way I can cash in on my value as an elected official is if I can become a lobbyist,’” Schweitzer says. “I’m saying, ‘After you’ve been a legislator you’ve got two years to negotiate a contract, discuss things, demonstrate your capabilities of being a great lobbyist, but this is not something that ought to be negotiated while you’re still working for the people of Montana.’”

If I-153 passes on Nov. 7, Schweitzer says that success will give him added leverage to pursue additional ethics reforms in the 2007 legislative session.

“I’ll drop that on the lap of the Legislature and say, ‘see, the people agree with me, we need a cleaner government,’” Schweitzer says.

Jensen, however, says that I-153’s passage could have unintended negative consequences as well.

“It cuts some people who actually know something about how the government works out of the process,” he says.

A real ethics reform, Jensen says, would limit the ability of industry executives, lobbyists and advocates to take high-level positions in state agencies, boards and commissions, not the other way around.

Schweitzer says he might support such an expansion of the state’s ethics rules, but first things first.

“We’re only purposing one small piece of the ethics bill that I proposed [in 2005], because you can’t have more than a single issue on an initiative,” says Schweitzer. “We just want a clean and transparent system, we don’t have one right now.”

jadams@missoulanews.com

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