A bill takes the initiative (away) 

For those Montanans who didn’t save enough Honey Nut Cheerio UPC’s to collect their political-speak decoder rings, voting on November’s ballot initiatives felt like a colorblind attempt to solve Rubik’s Cube. Sometimes misinformation was woven into the very wording of the ballot (see “Ballot fact vs. fiction,” Oct. 31, 2002, by Mike Keefe-Feldman), and sometimes the wording was simply so dense you needed an SAT tutor to translate the logic.

Now an Associated Press story reports that recently proposed House Bill 203 may add more confounding tweaks to two initiatives that passed last November: Constitutional Amendments 37 and 38, which restructure the way in which signatures are gathered to place initiatives on the ballot. Most agree that the changes C-37 and C-38 put in place will make it more difficult to put initiatives on the ballot.

For fans of Montana’s initiative process, who used the process to float controversial laws the Legislature wouldn’t touch—like a ban on game farms and the outlawing of cyanide heap leach mines—news of a House bill that would further stymie the process is disconcerting. But watchdog groups and state politicians alike say that the AP story itself needs some tweaking.

“I think the AP story blew it out of proportion,” says MontPIRG executive director David Ponder. “There are some things of concern to watch for, but overall the bill is a good thing.”

Primarily the bill would set up a system for C-37 and C-38 to run smoothly. It would also update the system to accommodate modern technology, like e-mail and fax, and allow Secretary of State Bob Brown to reject petitions that don’t fit established criteria. Ponder thinks this could cause some problems as grassroots organizations often use the Internet to distribute petitions that, if not downloaded properly, could contain glitches like crooked margins.

“If you’re off by a quarter inch or something like that on the form does the secretary of state’s office just reject those petitions?” asks Ponder.

Secretary Brown says that his office doesn’t have carte blanche to toss out petitions, but that the law dictates the signature gathering sheets conform to a pre-approved standard. He thinks this is necessary because it protects organizations working to put initiatives on the ballot from fraud lawsuits.

“We won’t do it [reject petitions] unless there is something pretty obviously wrong with them,” he says. “But if there was something wrong we could send them back and the signature gatherer could get it right before the deadline [for submitting petitions]. Now the only time petitions can be challenged might be at some kind of a court challenge after the deadline, so I guess this bill will put us in a better position to have some legal authority to say this doesn’t look right to us.”

Overall Ponder doesn’t think the bill will damage the initiative process any more than C-37 and C-38 have already done, so instead of mounting opposition to the new bill, Ponder and MontPIRG will try to stop the problem at what they consider the root, by having C-37 and C-38 declared unconstitutional. MontPIRG has already contacted attorneys they hope will spearhead the challenge, one of whom successfully challenged the constitutionality of a similar initiative in Idaho.

“It will be challenged,” says Ponder. “The only question is when.”

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