Grassroots vs. greenbacks 

Initiative process could get a lot more expensive

The Legislature wants to make it harder for initiatives to get on the ballot because special interest groups have pressured them to do so, says Sen. Ken Toole (D-Helena). It’s these groups that are supporting ballot items C-37 and C-38, a pair of constitutional amendments that would overhaul the state’s initiative process. Both were put on the ballot by the Legislature. C-37 addresses constitutional amendments, while C-38 deals with citizen initiatives. “If you look at the people who support [changing the initiative process], it will be everyone—from the chamber of commerce to MEA-MFT to AFL-CIO,” says Toole.

For special interest groups, fighting initiative campaigns can be expensive. It’s a lot cheaper to keep the lawmaking process in-house. Most years, Pennsylvanian Power and Light and Avista Corp., for example, only need to pay a few lobbyists’ salaries to influence legislation. But this year, they will spend more than $2 million on a campaign attempting to defeat the I-145, “buy-back-the-dams” initiative.

Over the past few years, Montanans have used the initiative process to adopt some controversial laws the Legislature refused to consider. An initiative to ban game farms was approved by a 52 to 48 margin. One outlawing cyanide heap leach mines was adopted by the same narrow margin. And only 51 percent of the state’s citizens approved to have separate votes on every new tax or fee passed. That initiative was struck down by the Montana Supreme Court after a suit lead by MEA-MFT, the state teachers’ union.

The impetus behind these initiatives often came from citizen groups that felt their input was disregarded by the Legislature. This spurred the groups to circumvent lawmakers and use initiatives to bring their agendas directly to the people.

In the wake of these disputed initiatives, the Legislature has proposed C-37 and C-38. Each would make it more difficult for citizens to use initiatives to keep the Legislature and big business in check, say the opponents of the amendments.

“[Previous and current] initiatives just threw a scare into the big corporate structures that have a lot of political power and invest a lot of money in the political process,” says Sen. Toole.

Proponents of the amendments reject the claim that C-37 and C-38 have been forced onto the ballot through the influence of rich special interest groups.

“To me it’s pretty simple. It wasn’t about any initiative that passed or didn’t pass,” says Rep. Jeff Mangan (D-Great Falls). “It’s not about that or any specific initiative like the cyanide mining for example. It’s about fairness to me and that’s what I’ve been trying to keep my argument at. To me it isn’t a political issue.”

The proponents argue that the way signatures are gathered on petitions to place initiatives on the ballot ignores the state’s rural communities.

Currently, it takes the signatures of 5 percent of the population that voted in the last governor’s race in one-third of Montana’s House districts to place a proposed state law, or a statutory initiative, on the ballot. For a constitutional initiative, or amendment, it takes 10 percent in 40 of the 100 districts.

C-37 and C-38 would exchange House districts for counties and would demand that the required amount of names be gathered in half of the counties.

Since House districts are based on population, unlike counties, signatures can be gathered in just three counties to place an initiative on the ballot. That’s not fair to voters in less populated parts of the state, say Rep. Mangan and others backing C-37 and C-38.

But the opponents feel that shifting the system away from population-based districts violates the one person, one vote principle. They cite two similar attempts to change the initiative process in Utah and Idaho that were found to violate the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The opponents also argue it would decrease the number of initiatives on the ballot. Proponents say it wouldn’t. But in the voter information pamphlet provided by the Montana Secretary of State’s office, backers of C-37 and C-38 confirm that: “Pet initiatives that focus on getting most of their signatures in their own back yards may face a little more difficulty.”

In other words, C-37 and C-38 would require signature gatherers to branch out beyond the urban centers of Missoula, Great Falls and Billings.

“It might take an extra tank of gas to drive to Shelby for example,” says Rep. Mangan. “But they are certainly going to find someone to support whatever they want to do.”

Opponents of C-37 and C-38 think it’s common sense that more gas and further distances equals fewer initiatives.

The buy-back-the-dams (I-145) and tobacco settlement for tobacco prevention and health (I-146) groups used less than $50,000 to gather more than 20,000 signatures in districts all over the state.

“I don’t believe we would have qualified [if C-38 was in effect] and I don’t think most of them would have qualified,” says I-145 Campaign Coordinator Erik Tombre. “It’s already very, very tough to collect 20,000 signatures in a couple months.”

Tombre is also worried that if the amendments were adopted wealthy special interests would use the increased costs of gathering signatures to their advantage.

“It’s very demanding work for volunteers or paid people,” says Tombre, whose campaign used both. “It would just mean that a lot of private firms would come in from places like California that are professional signature gathers who will go anywhere and collect all the signatures for you.”

As Sen. Toole sees it, “The initiative process is a bad process for doing the public’s business. But I also think that it’s critical that it exists because, and the dams initiative is a great example of this, the legislative and executive branches in Montana are absolutely captured by special interests and this is the only way to break that hammerlock.”

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