When it comes to naming a new Commissioner of Political Practices, the 2017 Legislative Session appears to be déjà vu all over again.
Years ago, the nominating and confirmation process for Montana’s top political cop used to be fairly straightforward. All the players understood that the nominee needed to be recognized by BOTH political parties as a person of solid character who would act in an unbiased manner. It just made sense. Elections, by their very nature, are highly controversial, so everyone must feel that they’re being treated as fairly as possible.
The system worked well for about 30 years. Then, in 2011, Governor Brian Schweitzer appointed a well-known and highly-partisan political operative. That person was never confirmed by the Montana Senate, and neither were the next two. The credibility of the agency suffered, and campaign practice complaints skyrocketed. In June, 2013, current Commissioner Jonathan Motl was appointed and then later confirmed to finish out the six-year term that began in January, 2011. Motl was also a highly controversial political operative, but was narrowly confirmed when a small group of liberal Republicans cast their votes with the Democrats. Motl, who has been highly controversial since Day One, was supposed to serve from June, 2013 until January of 2017. Democrats filed a lawsuit late last year to have his term extended from 2017 to 2019. The Montana Supreme Court rejected the request, but said that he could stay in office until a successor was named.
That brings us to the current situation that feels like déjà vu. Over the past decade, both Governor Schweitzer and Bullock have waited until the legislature leaves town to appoint the commissioner of their choice. Since the Senate is not in session, that person serves until the legislature reconvenes, and then the game starts all over again. Remember, of the past four commissioners, only one was actually confirmed.
This session, after weeks of political wrangling, Republicans and Democrats finally settled on two potential nominees that are acceptable to both parties. So what’s the holdup? Both names were submitted to the governor some time ago, and now the legislature stands on the cusp of adjournment, possibly by the end of this week. The legislature is on Easter break until tomorrow afternoon, so if they did receive a nominee by Tuesday, and if they did adjourn by Saturday, that would give them four days to hold hearings and debate the nominee on the floor. Not impossible, but why the drama? Why must this office remain so highly politicized? Why can’t we go back to pre-2011 when the process ran more smoothly? If a nominee is not confirmed by the time the session ends, Jonathan Motl will remain in office past his term and we’ll be back to having an extremely controversial, and at that point, unconfirmed, Commissioner of Political Practices.
Governor Bullock says he’s still considering both candidates, but in our opinion, he’s had more than enough time. Both candidates are extremely well-qualified; both candidates are acceptable to both political parties; the legislature is set to adjourn; and if they leave town without a confirmation, than Jonathan Motl remains in office. It’s time to stop treating this office like a political football; the people deserve better, and the office needs its credibility restored.