HELENA – When voters went to the polls last November, they noticed several measures they do not typically see.
The three referendums on the ballot came directly from the 2011 Legislature, and current lawmakers are aiming to do more of the same in 2014.
They are running up against a deadline next week to propose referendum bills. So far, Republicans have made at least 15 requests on topics ranging from property taxes to sex education.
“It is a good way to have people engaged with the legislative process,” said Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell. “I think it gives them an idea of what goes on here.”
The referendum requests come from Republicans eager to see certain ideas become law. Some Democrats, on the other hand, view the referendum process as a way to shift the duties of elected officials to the public and undermine the government’s system of checks and balances.
Like initiatives, referendums are a way for the public to approve a law. Whereas initiatives originate with the public and require a certain number of signatures to reach the ballot, referendums begin in the Legislature. A lawmaker can propose a referendum, and assuming it garners a simple majority vote in both the House and Senate, it goes straight to the ballot.
Regier is the sponsor of a bill and an identical referendum measure that would criminalize assaults resulting in the death of an unborn child. He and other lawmakers drafting bills intended for a public vote say the Legislature must rank those measures and be careful not to send too many bills to the ballot.
In the 10 years leading up to last year’s election, lawmakers sent only one referendum to the ballot.
The 2011 Legislature referred five Republican-backed proposals to the ballot, although two never made it because courts blocked them before the election. In the end, the public voted all three referendums into law.
“There was a clear strategy to try to circumvent the governor’s veto, and I expect to see that strategy replayed this session,” said House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena.
He added that the influx of referendums on the 2012 ballot stemmed from heightened tensions between the parties.
Rep. Jerry Bennett, R-Libby, sponsored a referendum during the previous legislative session that required doctors to notify the parents of girls under 16 before they had an abortion.
He said he believed most Montanans agreed with that idea, even though the governor vetoed an identical bill to create the law. The ballot measure passed with 71 percent of the vote.
This session, he’s sponsoring House Bill 391 to take the 2012 referendum one step further by requiring parental consent for a minor to have an abortion. He has also drafted an identical referendum measure.
“I’m not going to make any decision until I see what the governor does,” Bennett said in reference to the likelihood he will pursue the referendum. “I don’t want to take that opportunity away from him to make that decision.”
Lindsay Love, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, said she feels lawmakers this session are singling out reproductive issues in the referendum process.
Her organization testified against Bennett’s and Regier’s bills, as well as one that would require parental consent for a child to take sex education in school. All three of those bills have accompanying referendum measures.
“We elect legislators for a reason: to do the people’s business during our legislation sessions and not to punt every single issue to the ballot,” Love said.
She added that she considers the measures a waste of taxpayer dollars, especially if they are struck down in court.
Bennett said that despite a note attached to his bill that raises questions about its legality, there is no definitive ruling on the issue and a court could choose to uphold it.
As for the future of ballot measures, Bennett said it will depend on the will of that particular legislative body.
Hunter said he would not be surprised if Republicans continue to use the referendum process, but he also acknowledged that political strategies change over time.
“As long as there is success with this method, it is likely to be replicated,” he said.