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Schweitzer warns Montana Constitution under attack

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Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer addresses delegates of the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention on Wednesday in the Capitol rotunda.

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Wednesday warned Montanans to remain vigilant with their constitution, saying disturbing steps taken by Republican lawmakers have brought the document under attack.

Schweitzer, a Democrat, spoke Wednesday in the Rotunda of the state Capitol during lunch at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Montana Constitutional Convention. He paraphrased Benjamin Franklin, who when asked if the country had a monarchy or republic, said we’ve created "a Republic, if you can keep it.”

He used it to reference the state constitution.

“It will be our constitution, if you can keep it,” Schweitzer said.

Schweitzer, who served as governor from 2005-2013, spoke for 15 minutes Wednesday, telling the crowd that when he was governor he threw away the key to his office and kept the door open.

“That door was never closed for eight years,” he said.

He said the people’s right to know as guaranteed in the state constitution is in jeopardy, and criticized GOP members of the Public Service Commission for trying to charge Lee Newspapers $31,000 for public records. The newspaper sued for the information and a Helena judge recently ruled the PSC cannot charge fees to conduct legal reviews on documents produced as part of public records requests.

Lee Enterprises owns The Billings Gazette, Missoulian, Helena Independent Record, The Montana Standard in Butte and Ravalli Republic.

Schweitzer said the PSC was going to charge the people of Montana for information they had a right to know.

“Thank God we have a constitution that instructed the judge to instruct the Public Service Commission to give those documents to us," he said. 

Schweitzer said the PSC chair, Jim Brown, is running for a Montana Supreme Court seat.

“What could go wrong?” he asked.

Brown said it was “unfortunate that the former governor used his unique opportunity to speak on the 50th anniversary of the Montana ConCon for political campaign purposes."

“As a fourth-generation Montanan, it is appropriate that the focus be on and remain on recognizing the work done by those who participated in the making of Montana's unique constitution,” he said.

“There is a time and place for politics, this event was not one of them,” he said.

Schweitzer also mentioned a legislator who called the constitution "a socialist rag," who lost a tight June 7 primary race for PSC District 5. The race between Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, and Dr. Annie Bukacek has been flagged for recount should Skees decide to pursue that. In late 2021, Skees said the constitution's right of privacy clause gave state courts a legal basis for blocking new abortion restrictions and called the document a “socialist rag” that should be replaced.

“I don’t know how it ends, but if we have someone on the Public Service Commission who doesn’t agree with our constitution it doesn’t end well,” Schweitzer said.

Skees could not immediately be reached for comment.

Assistant editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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