Standoff boils over in Senate

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HELENA — A legislative standoff over a missing Democratic senator boiled over with Republicans reconvening the floor session and resuming business while Democrats pounded their desks in protest. 

Republicans allege that Sen. Shannon Augare’s absence Friday was a ruse to kill GOP ballot measures. Friday was the deadline for ballot referendums and tax bills. 

After announcing that Auguare was missing, Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso told the Democratic caucus he would invoke a parliamentary procedure that demands every member is present before business can resume.

Sen Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, told the Daily Inter Lake she was concerned when she first heard that Augare was absent. 

“Shannon has been embroiled in the tribal leadership problems in Browning, and I knew he had two bodyguards at the beginning of session. I had also heard of him using a safe house in Billings because of threats,” Brown said. 

“It was concerning to all of us. As time went on, however, it became apparent that Sen. Augare was safe, and the tactic was meant to block voting on some important measures in the legislative process.”

Four referendums were up for final passage in the House and two in the Senate on Friday. The measures dealt with topics ranging from a constitutional amendment on abortion to ending same-day voter registration.

Although business was halted for a time, Republican leaders eventually began holding votes on bills while Democrats shouted and pounded their desks. Democrats threatened legal action, saying the votes were unconstitutional.

“Rules were pored over several times,” Brown said. “It was decided to go back into session and go through the order of business” without Augare and protesting Democrats.

The Senate was then adjourned until 7 a.m. today. Any bills that don’t advance by noon today will die.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, criticized the Republican-led Legislature for moving ahead with voter referendums, saying they are a waste of taxpayers’ money and a bad way to run a government. If they receive final approval, the measures would bypass the governor’s desk — and his possible veto — and instead appear on the ballot in 2014. 

Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, said, “Today Democrats in the 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. 

“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.”

GOP lawmakers have introduced five major referendum bills since March 26.

 Senate Bill 405 would set up a referendum to cut off voter registration at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day, eliminating same-day voter registration.

 Senate Bill 408 would provide that the top two candidates for races in a primary election move on to the general election, regardless of party. A similar bill, HB436, by Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, died after being tabled by a House committee and missing the transmittal deadline.

 House Bill 496, by Rep. David Howard, R-Park City, would allow voters to exempt religious communications from campaign finance reports.

 House Bill 521, by Rep. Jerry Bennett, R-Libby, would require parental consent before a minor can get an abortion.

 Senate Bill 407, introduced by Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, would ban contingency fees by attorneys when a person is injured as a result of another person’s conduct. That appeared to be the only measure that lacked majority support.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a Democrat, warned the committee that the Voter Information Pamphlet, published by her office about the ballot measures, “will look like the Sears catalog” if all the referendums make the ballot. The booklet prints all the ballot measures, along with arguments for and against each of them.

Republicans put five referendums on the 2012 ballot. Two were struck down by courts, while voters approved the other three measures that dealt with abortion, illegal immigrants and the federal health-care law. The immigration measure has been challenged in court.

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