Yesterday two hearings took place that exemplify our misplaced priorities. The first was Senate Bill 44, a bill to provide a process to hold patients harmless from balanced billing by air ambulance companies. The hearing was large enough to move the Senate Business and Labor Committee from a small Room 422 to the very large, old Supreme Court chamber. The hearing was well-attended and went on for nearly two hours with vigorous testimony from proponents and opponents. Apparently, air ambulance fees can be so high that they rise to the level of price-gouging. And many people thought something needed to be done. Fine, I get that. Montana is a huge state and air ambulance service is important. But realistically, how many of us will ever fly in an air ambulance? As a function of the total population, I bet the number is less than 1%.
Now contrast that hearing with the hearing on Senate Resolution 2 sponsored by Senator Nels Swandal, also known as Judge Swandal, from Livingston. The resolution urges immediate intervention on behalf of the Senate in a lawsuit to keep Commissioner of Political Practices, Jonathan Motl, in office for two more years. It all began when Jonathan Motl was appointed to replace former Commissioner of Political Practices, Jim Murray, in 2013. He was confirmed by the Senate two years later, and both the appointment letter and confirmation resolution stated that his term would end January 1st of 2017. On December 20th of 2016, a lawsuit was filed by several Democrats in an effort to keep Mr. Motl in office for two more years. A judge, in effect, stayed the Senate resolution until the case is decided. That means Mr. Motl gets to stay in office past the date of both his gubernatorial appointment letter and the Senatorial confirmation resolution. It’s ironic that the governor himself set the January, 2017 termination date, and it’s now the governor’s own lawyer leading the effort to get it extended. The outcome of the litigation, while important, is not really the subject of this broadcast. What’s truly important, and my focus at this point, is found in the title of the resolution. It says “A Resolution of the Senate of the State of Montana Directing Immediate Legal Intervention on Behalf of the Senate in Order to Protect the Senate’s Constitutional Confirmational Authority and Process.”
This is a classic separation of powers battle. The three branches of government are supposed to be co-equal with different powers, and it’s common for one branch to stray onto the turf of another. The problem comes when one branch strays onto the turf of another, then pitches a tent and finally, builds a house. For the system to work, each branch needs to jealously guard the powers it’s been given. And thus, we have Senate Resolution 2, an effort to protect the Senate’s confirmation powers from encroachment by the other two branches. It’s not the stuff of political thrillers and sadly, the hearing had no proponents and no opponents, but its impact is far-reaching. The hearing room should have been full, but it was nearly empty.
Separation of powers may not be as riveting as air ambulance fees, but unlike Senate Bill 44, this resolution will affect everyone. I, for one, applaud Senator Swandal for his tenacity and jealously guarding the powers of the legislative branch. It’s the branch closest to the people and the branch most frequently under assault.