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Bills Would Raise Signature Counts Needed To Bring Ballot Initiatives, Constitutional Amendments

Montana lawmakers today heard testimony on two bills that would make it more difficult for citizens to petition for a ballot initiative or state constitutional amendment.

Compared to rural populations, Republican Rep. Steve Gunderson of Libby said urban Montanans have too much power to get initiatives and constitutional amendments on the ballot.

“I’m wanting to raise the bar. I want voices to be heard from northwest Montana all the way to Ekalaka, and every point in between,” Gunderson said.

House Bill 384 would require 10 percent of voters in three-fifths of state legislative districts to sign a petition to get an initiative on the ballot, roughly double the current numbers. It would also require successful ballot initiative petitions to include signatures from at least 10 percent of statewide voters, instead of 5 percent.

Gunderson is also bringing another proposal, House Bill 385 that would require 20 percent of statewide voters and 20 percent of voters in three-fifths of state legislative districts to sign a petition for a constitutional amendment. The petition would need to include at least 20 percent of statewide voters.

No one spoke in support of either bill. Representatives for the Montana Federation of Public Employees, ACLU of Montana and Forward Montana spoke against the bills, along with Katjana Stutzer of the Montana Public Interest Research Group,

She said the bills would give rural residents too much power and make it nearly impossible to get initiatives on the ballot.

“Which overall just decreases citizen engagement with our government and our civic process. Decreases the power that people have in Montana,” Stutzer said.

Because they would amend the state Constitution, Gunderson’s bills require two-thirds approval from the Legislature before citizens can vote to approve them.

In 2002, Montanans approved two measures that would have required ballot and constitutional initiatives to include signatures from at least 10 percent of voters in at least half of Montana's counties, rather than in two-fifths of the legislative districts.

However, a U.S. District Court judge found the measures unconstitutional due to population differences between counties.

Gunderson said his proposals reflect the will of the people with legislative districts rather than counties, so as to not run afoul of the courts.