HELENA — A toughening of Montana’s drunken-driving laws, proposed by Attorney General Tim Fox, got new life at the Legislature Saturday — but not before some tense, testy exchanges among legislators and lobbyists over what they saw as backdoor power play to cram the proposal and other items into a new bill.
“It makes a mockery of the system, of your efforts, of my efforts,” said Helena lawyer Jon Metropoulos. “Whose plaything is the Legislature’s? Whose plaything are we? Do we really have a say? … This should not stand.”
Metropoulos addressed the state Senate Finance and Claims Committee, which moments earlier, on a 10-9 vote, had revived Fox’s DUI legislation by cramming most of an 81-page amendment into a separate one-page bill — the day after a House committee had killed the Fox proposal.
The amendment had been drafted late Friday night, at the request of the sponsor of the DUI bill, Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell. It had been scheduled for a hearing Saturday morning before the Senate committee, but the panel decided to act first on the amendment and then have “public comment.”
Regier said action on the amendment is tantamount to what lawmakers sometimes do when they want to revive or change bills in trouble — they can reconsider earlier actions and make the needed changes.
In its initial form, the amendment also included something else: Portions of two bills meant to address the disappearance of Native American women, one of them known as “Hanna’s Act.” Supporters of the DUI changes apparently thought that combining the Native American bills into the same, hybrid bill would make it more likely to pass.
Democrats on the Senate committee strongly objected, and eventually Republicans on the panel agreed to remove the Native American missing-women language from the amendment.
Saturday’s drama also shined a spotlight on the use of “companion bills,” which are open-ended, one-page bills that can be used for any of a number of late-session maneuvers, when key legislators need a vessel that they can attach last-minute changes and, sometimes, reduce public participation in the process.
The panel inserted the DUI language into House Bill 685, a companion bill that before Saturday was a single page and had been sitting in the committee for a couple of weeks. The bill heads to the Senate floor on Monday.
The DUI proposals were in Senate Bill 65, which was passed by the Senate two weeks ago but ran into trouble in the House Judiciary Committee, which voted Friday to table the measure.
The bill requires more blood-testing of suspected drunken drivers and increases the penalties for five-time DUI offenders, among other things.
Col. Tom Butler, the head of the Montana Highway Patrol, told the Senate committee on Saturday that drunken-driving is a “cancer here on Montana,” and that the proposals “gives us an opportunity to move forward to reduce” deaths caused by drunk drivers.
Later Saturday, Fox said in a statement that the Department of Justice has been working hard to pass legislation on DUI reforms and missing Native American women.
“These crises demand a response,” he said. “We are committed to saving lives, protecting public safety and seeing all three of these bills passed into law,” he said.
The Native American women proposals, which attempt to do a better job tracking missing persons, are contained in two other bills still alive in the Legislature.
When the panel began considering the amendment Saturday, supporters of the missing-person bills angrily denounced the lumping of their language into the DUI proposal.
“I think it’s shameful that we would tie a DUI bill that has died in the House, and leverage the lives of Native American women, to get this agenda passed,” said Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls. “It’s disgraceful. It’s an abuse of our power. It’s abuse of the system.”
Jacobson’s comments drew an immediate response from the chairman of the committee, Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo.
“Any member can bring an amendment; any member can bring a bill,” he said. “That is our Democratic process. … That’s how this system works. And then we vote. I have good ideas at times, I have bad ideas as time. Sen. Jacobson, you have good ideas at times and you have bad ideas at times, and we vote on those ideas. Now, the sponsor of the amendment brought it. It’s been moved. It’s on the table. We discuss it. We vote on it.”
Democrats moved to “segregate” the missing-person language from the amendment, but Republicans on the panel voted that effort down. Then, after consulting further, GOP members decided to allow the segregation.
The full panel then voted 10-9 to approve placing the amendment into HB685 — and then opened up the subject to public comment.
John MacDonald, a lobbyist for the Montana Newspaper Association, who earlier had objected to the discussion in the first place, said the state constitution requires the public to be able to participate in decisions made by public bodies — before the decision.
“You’ve already made up your decision and now you’re having a public hearing; it’s backwards,” he said. “The Montana constitution states that the public has an absolute right to participate. And that participation has to be a meaningful participation; this is not meaningful.”
Metropoulos, who has a client involved with the DUI bill but who said he was speaking on his own behalf, called the Saturday process “shameful,” noting that the House committee had voted 15-4 to table the bill within the past 24 hours.
“If this process is allowed to stand, I am here to bury the Montana constitution, not praise it, if it allows this,” he said. “I’ve been in front of every court in this land except the United States Supreme Court and I’ve never shaken with such passion as I am right now.”
Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News