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Senate endorses Attorney General warning label for initiative petitions
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Senate endorses Attorney General warning label for initiative petitions

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Future petitions for ballot initiatives in Montana will come with a warning label if the attorney general determines the proposal could hurt businesses, under a bill endorsed by the Senate on Thursday.

House Bill 651, from Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, was amended by Republicans on the Senate State Administration Committee earlier this week to include the warning label language, as well as barring citizen-brought initiatives from increasing or expanding eligibility for government programs.

The bill was originally written to insert the Legislature into the ballot initiative process, requiring that a committee of legislators vote to approve or disapprove of the measure before a group backing the initiative can begin collecting the petition signatures needed to place it on the ballot. The result of that vote would be placed on the petition. That portion remains in the bill.

“I will say often times it happens when you’re coming in and out of a building, when you’re checking out of something, someone says ‘Here, it’s for the kids, sign this,’” said Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, who carried the bill in the Senate. “And it’s not like people necessarily sit down and read the petition before they sign it. So if there’s simply a warning ... at least it gives them a little more information.”

Democrats argued, however, that adding the Legislature to a process that the Constitution explicitly delegates to the people fails to give Montana voters credit for making their own informed decisions.

“This is their process. But this is an effort for the Legislature and the Attorney General to put their thumb on the scale, to try to break our ballot initiative process, as it is now,” Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said. He added, “This mostly comes down to the idea that somehow we think the people of Montana aren’t smart enough to be able to figure out what initiative they support or don’t support.”

Along with the Legislative Services Division, the Secretary of State’s office and the Attorney General are already tasked with reviewing the language for proposed initiatives before they can go out for signatures.

HB 651 would also require that anyone paid to gather signatures register with the Secretary of State’s office. Those who employ paid signature gatherers would also have to register, and would have to pay a $100 fee, although they could also seek a waiver.

The bill also explicitly bars ballot initiatives from directing revenue anywhere other than the state’s general fund.

Last year’s successful Initiative 190, to legalize recreational marijuana in Montana, had specified about $18 million in resultant tax revenue be directed to public lands and conservation easements. That funding language is currently being challenged in court as unconstitutional, as only the Legislature has authority to appropriate money.

HB 651 passed the Senate on second reading Thursday, 29-21. It is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee next week before it can get a final vote in the Senate. If approved, it would then head back to the House for a vote on the amendments.

Two other Republican proposals that would have made it harder for initiatives to make it onto the ballot died in committee earlier this month. House Bill 384 would have increased the number of legislative districts that statutory ballot initiatives need to get signatures from, as well as the minimum percentage of voters from each district. Similarly, House Bill 385 sought to raise the minimum signature threshold for constitutional amendment initiatives.

Both were tabled by the Senate State Administration Committee.

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