by Mary Sheehy Moe
“You can’t make this stuff up,” a House Judiciary committee member commented to me after the committee’s disastrous hearing on SB 305 yesterday.
My response: To borrow from Mark Twain, the truth is stranger than fiction. Because fiction has to make a certain amount of sense.
SB 305 has been carried by Great Falls Senator Steve Fitzpatrick (R) at the request of county officials from all over the state. Fifty-four of Montana’s 56 counties would like the option to conduct an all-mail ballot for the May 25 special election. Their primary reason is that they have no budget for an election of this magnitude, following as it does on the heels of an expensive general election. Other reasons include the difficulty in finding election judges on short notice at this unusual time for an election and the availability of polling sites this late in the game.
SB 305 might have been a sleepy bill had not Republican Party Chairman and Billings Representative Jeff Essman sent out his much-reported “Emergency Chairman’s Report” to the party faithful on the need to kill this bill to suppress the “low-propensity” vote late last month. Since then, the Alibi Ikes have come out of the woodwork to try to put a prettier face on his motivation. Protection against mail ballot voter fraud (undocumented anywhere in Montana) is their Pavlovian bell of choice.
But it wasn’t the issue itself that made yesterday’s hearing on SB 305 a train wreck. It was the conduct of the hearing by House Judiciary Chair, Alan Doane. Where to begin? A laundry list:
- Despite the media and public interest in the issue, Doane scheduled four bills to be heard that day, three of them equally controversial. He did not adjust the committee schedule to allow for an earlier start or an evening extension to accommodate what would surely be a larger number of citizens wishing to participate.
- Despite a hearing room and a hallway filled with people wishing to testify on SB 305, he allowed only 20 minutes of testimony per side – ample for the handful of opponents to the bill, but an affront to the 50+ people who had come to speak in support of it. The vast majority of them, 37 by my hasty count, did not get to utter anything more than their names, their affiliations, and where they were from. They came from counties all over the state, often driving between 100 and 400 miles, for that “privilege.”
- When Rep. Smith-Hill (D) argued, with her usual passion, that the hearing time be adjusted to accommodate the public and to follow the committee’s own rules, even offering to shorten the testimony for her own bill to be heard later in the meetng, Doane denied her request, citing the heavy schedule for the day. Nevertheless, she persisted. He talked over her and around her and held his unreasonable ground.
- When Rep. Usher (R) stepped in on “a point of personal preference” to shore up his chairman by criticizing Rep. Smith-Hill’s implications about the latter’s motivation, nobody had the temerity to point out that whether the Chairman intended to suppress participation or not, participation was clearly suppressed.
- When Rep. Waggoner (R) also defended the Chairman’s ruling by noting that the rule Smith-Hill cited also allows the public to submit written testimony, nobody had the temerity to posit that it is the spirit of the rule, not the letter, that is the more important factor. The legislature prides itself on being “the people’s branch.” Hearing from the people should be Job #1.
- When Minority Vice-Chair Virginia Court (D) requested that the limited testimony be extended to allow citizens who had come from so far to say not just their name, but their affiliation and from whence they came, the Chairman approved it, adding it was the only “reasonable” request he’d heard so far. Great dig, Mr. Chairman.
- When it was the committee’s turn to ask questions of the participants, the Chairman notified committee members in advance that their questions, too, would be limited, truncating what is arguably the most valuable portion of any hearing, the opportunity for committee members to take advantage of the expertise and the perspectives of the citizens before them.
- When Rep. Hill-Smith asked to question one of the proponents with considerable expertise on that proponent’s analysis of the Secretary of State’s statements opposing the bill, the Chairman ruled her “off the bill” and denied her the right to seek that answer.
- When Rep. Usher used his questioning time not to question but to make a heartfelt statement about the patriotism of the Native American opponents, he was not ruled “off the bill,” having honeyed up the Chairman earlier in the hearing.
Need I say more? Yes, I do. This is not the first time Chairman Doane has mistreated members of the public who have come before him. Suppression of participation by the public on controversial bills is becoming de regeur for him. When the LGBTQ nondiscrimation bill came before the committee, he also limited the time for testimony. Moreover, he moved the hearing on the bill till much later in the agenda than posted so that some who came early had to leave before they could testify. It was sad to see these brave people, many with tears in their eyes, be turned away from being heard on this very kind of distancing.
In a blogpost on http://barrettforsd47.blogspot.com, Dick Barrett expressed his concern with Doane’s conduct after a similar hearing on Rep. Tschida’s “Assisted Suicide” bill:
“Faced with a bill of significant social, legal and moral consequence, the committee chairman, Rep. Alan Doane, would allow only half an hour of testimony – fifteen minutes per side. After that time was up, he cut off testimony from opponents who had traveled across the state to testify. When members of the committee tried to elicit testimony from the opponents, he refused to recognize further committee questions.
I have been in a lot of hearings on a lot of bills, but I have never seen a chairman act as abusively and recklessly as Doane did in the hearing on this bill. His performance was a gross disservice to the public, to his colleagues in the House, and to the duty to govern with intelligence and compassion.”
So, yesterday’s travesty was not the first for the conduct of this committee. It should, however, be the last. I don’t believe Chairman Doane believes he is suppressing comment. I believe his own oft-repeated excuse, that the committee has a lot of “business” to do; the session is short, the bills many, the committee discussions of bills essential.
But there is no more important business for legislators than hearing from affected Montanans. When people travel hundreds of miles over iffy roads just to read off the looseleaf paper they ripped out of their kid’s notebook in the hope that their testimony would change minds and hearts, heaven and earth should be moved to ensure that they are heard. More importantly, what the public tells you really does move minds and hearts sometimes. To imply otherwise, that it’s all a repetitive bore, that all conclusions have been made in advance, makes cynicism viral.
Limiting committee questions is equally unwise. Even in the short period allowed for questioning on SB 305, important concerns were raised. Although I support SB 305, on the basis of his testimony and particularly his answers to committee questions, I am very concerned about the Secretary of State’s ability to assume the task that may be before him. His lack of knowledge of the most rudimentary procedures for any election, along with his evident panic about the curveball this particular bill throws at him, is understandable, but regrettable. It must be factored into the decision on SB 305. That’s why hearing the answer to Rep. Hill-Smith’s question might have been very illuminating.
Yes, Chairman Doane, it’s commendable if the trains run on time. But the whole point of the train is not the train itself, but the cargo. If what and whom you are transporting are all shaken out along the rails by the time the train arrives at the station, you have the foolish efficiency of despotism. You can do better than this.