Allegations of corruption and partisanship were scattered throughout a meeting of lawmakers today in the House Judiciary Committee as they discussed a bill (HB-340) that would dismantle the current office of the Commissioner of Political Practices.
The legislation brought by Republican Representative Derek Skees, from Kalispell, got its first hearing this morning.
"This office has been corrupted," Skees says. "We need to find a new way to uphold our constitutional oath to ensure the purity of the electoral process, and make sure that we are held accountable to a higher standard."
Skees says the authority of the state’s top political cop, in charge of enforcing campaign practices and disclosure information, should be broken up and given to the Secretary of State and the Attorney General. Skees says that by doing this, it would bring more accountability to the system that oversees the fairness of Montana’s elections.
Skees was the only person to testify in support of his bill. However, several other Republicans in the hearing expressed frustration over what was called a public perception of partisanship, within the Commissioner of Political Practices office.
Under current law, commissioners are nominated by the Governor, from a group of applicants selected by a group a bipartisan legislative leaders. The Governor’s nominee must then be confirmed by the Senate.
Current Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl says his office does not consider political party when looking at campaign or ethics complaints. He testified against the bill.
"I think it is so important for the people of Montana that they do have a person that isn’t Republican, that isn’t Democrat, that is able to have a role in the fairness of elections, and that is what the current Commissioner’s office is able to do," Motl says.
Evan Barrett, recent history professor at Montana Tech, and former staffer for Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, also testified against the bill. He says he was a part of the commission that wrote the law creating the Commissioner of Political Practices in 1975. He says handing over that job to elected officials would be a bad idea.
"Regardless of who holds these elected offices, if you don’t get the reality, you at least get the image, the perception of the fox in the hen house, and regretfully when you hold a partisan office, consideration of partisan issues also mots becomes baked into the cake," says Barrett.
According to the Associated Press, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, which are both elected officials, would be subject to the laws they would oversee if this bill passed.
The House Judiciary didn’t vote on the bill, today, but will likely do so in the coming weeks.