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House votes to eliminate Commissioner of Political Practices office

February 14, 2017 GMT

The Montana House of Representatives on Tuesday narrowly approved a Kalispell lawmaker’s bill to eliminate Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, following a heated floor debate Monday evening.

House Bill 340 passed 54-45 on second reading, with five Republicans joining the Democrats to vote against the measure. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Sponsored by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, the measure would vest the political practices office’s responsibilities for executing and enforcing Montana’s campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws with the Attorney General and Secretary of State. The Commissioner of Political Practices is appointed by the governor to a six-year term and subject to a confirmation vote by the state Senate.

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Prior to Tuesday’s preliminary vote, several Republicans referred to issues they and their colleagues had with current Commissioner of Political Practices Jon Motl. At one point, the chamber’s Democrats all stood in protest as Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, read a transcript of an interview Motl had given to a radio station, in which he mis-characterized an alleged civil offense committed by a Republican lawmaker as a criminal one.

“We are not here to impugn the integrity of individuals that are not here to defend themselves,” Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Butte, responded afterwards.

Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, echoed comments from other Republicans by arguing that the current system, in which the authority both to investigate ethical wrongdoing and to create rules defining those violations, creates the “appearance of impropriety.”

“One of the things that the Bible tells me is to avoid the appearance of evil, and I think in this situation, the appearance of inappropriate behavior might be more appropriate,” he said.

Democrats objected to that rationale. They argued that the office is non-partisan and subject to the approval of two separate branches of government. Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, noted that Skees’ proposal would place the commissioner’s power in the hands of the Attorney General and Secretary of State - both of which are partisan elected offices.

“What is the solution being offered? To take the job and give it to offices that are inherently partisan?” asked Woods.

Skees called his legislation “the quintessential clean-up bill” during his comments on the floor. He argued that the office had been created decades ago as a response to corruption at the state and federal levels, but had since transformed, along with the larger political climate, into one that is “hyper-partisan.”

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“With a hyper-partisan shift, we have a position in the government whose job is to monitor the elected process,” Skees said. “That job is being watchdogged by an individual who has totalitarian powers. ... They determine if you’re guilty and once they determine if you’re guilty they get to determine the fines. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Last week, the bill was passed by the House Judiciary Committee along partisan lines, with the committee’s 11 Republican members voting for the measure and all eight Democrats lining up in opposition.

The committee hearing similarly evoked sharp rhetoric from GOP lawmakers questioning the office’s motives, while Democrats invoked points of privilege and bristled at personal comments they felt were out of line.

Skees is among a number of Montana Republicans who have attacked the Commissioner of Political Practices in recent years as a partisan weapon wielded by the governor’s office, which has been held by Democrats for the past 14 years.

Near the end of the 2015 Legislative Session, Motl’s confirmation for a second, partial term included a contentious committee hearing in which he was accused of using his office to target political enemies. The committee that handled his confirmation, as well as the full Senate, narrowly voted to confirm him that year.

Earlier this session, the party lines again held during the passage of Senate Resolution 2, under which the Senate became a party opposing a lawsuit seeking to keep Motl in his current post through 2019. Republican senators argued that Motl had been appointed only to continue the previous commissioner’s term, which would have ended Jan. 1, 2017.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Motl’s term indeed ended at the beginning of this year. But the decision also allowed him to remain in his position until a new commissioner completes the confirmation process.

Marissa Perry, a spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Bullock, declined to say whether the governor’s office would consider a veto if Skees’ bill passes the Senate. Spokeswoman Ronja Abel issued a statement Monday calling the bill “politically motivated” and adding that Bullock “has deep concerns about eliminating a non-partisan office dedicated to shining sunlight on our elections.”

Skees’ bill would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber if Gov. Steve Bullock decides to use his veto power, meaning the measure would need to pick up an additional 13 votes in the House for an override.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.