Democratic and union activists were cheering, while Republican activists were mocking, State Sen. Shannon Augare (D-Browning) on social media Friday. Augare apparently fled the Montana State Capitol in an attempt to block action on several bills that would be decided on by the voters through the referendum process.
With Augare absent, Democrats had planned to hold a "call of the Senate" so that several GOP-backed bills would fail to meet a legislative deadline. But then, Senate President Jeff Essmann (R-Billings) moved ahead with key votes anyway. Outmaneuevered, chaos and anger then erupted on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Below is a compilation of coverage and YouTube videos detailing the loud protests inside the Senate chamber. This compilation starts with a milk carton photo poking fun at the "missing" State Sen. Shannon Augare: (former Democratic Rep. Mike Jopek of Whitefish also forwarded a picture around the Internet titled, "Where's Auggie?")
Here's how Great Falls Tribune reporter John Adams summed up what was happening as he heard it in the Capitol via Twitter Friday. You'll have to start at the bottom of the tweets and read up:
One headline from The Billings Gazette read, "Senate Democrats stage chaotic protest as they try to block votes on bills." And, the headline on Mike Dennison's Sunday Lee Newspapers' column summed up the political fallout potentially facing Senate Democrats: "Reporter's Notebook: Senate Democrats gamble on blowing up the session – did it blow up in their face?"
Here's one YouTube video from the floor of the state senate. Please note that this clip shows only a brief highlight, and is actually more toned down than other portions of the protest:
From The Montana Media Trackers:
The noise and distractions became so intense that Sen. Essmann ordered the Senate gallery cleared.
“The actions by the Democrat members of the Senate were unprecedented,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich in a press release following the incedent. “They intentionally mislead Montanans and the Senate about a member’s absence to stage a piece of political theatre. Today’s political gamesmanship was designed to try and deny Montanans the right to vote on two issues that would improve the integrity of our elections. Republicans worked diligently to conduct the people’s business. Montanans expect their elected officials to work with one another. I expect all members of the Senate come together and honor our commitment to work for Montanans.”
Sen. Augare’s stunt is not unlike the one pulled by Democrat legislators in Wisconsin, who in 2011 fled to neighboring Illinois to prevent the passage of a bill to limit public unions’ collective bargaining privileges.
The Great Falls Tribune's John Adams had this on his MTLowdown blog"
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said he didn’t blame Democrats for trying to use a procedural tactic to try to stop legislation they deemed unacceptable.
"I would hope it does not impact the rest of the session. It was a process gambit that didn't necessarily work,” Jones said. “A process gambit was designed and we responded to it, and now we roll on.”
So, to ask the question dogging most everyone on Friday- where was Auggie? Well, he apparently dodged the question from the Associated Press, even as Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso (D-Butte) seemed to be very clear on Sen. Augare's intent:
Augare told The Associated Press on Saturday morning simply he was at home. He did not respond to a question asking why he was absent.
While Augare didn't respond to the AP, here's what Sesso told Lee Newspapers' Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison:
“It will be very hard for them to make an argument they couldn’t vote, when they were standing at their desks and pounding the tables,” House Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, said afterward. “I’ve never heard of anything like this happening. ...
The bills that caused the uproar are Senate bills 405 and 408, sponsored by Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup. They are among several contentious issues Republicans at the 2013 Legislature are choosing to send to voters to decide, bypassing a possible veto by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, apparently left the Capitol on Friday and didn’t plan to return. Sesso said Augare was “disgusted” at how the voting referendums were presented and passed, and left to return to Browning.
As for Montana's newly elected Governor Steve Bullock (D-MT), who has so far attempted to stay above the fray, I guess the honeymoon is now over, as he decided to take a swipe at some of the same senate Republicans he had earlier in the week praised as statesmen:
From the AP:
Gov. Steve Bullock and Democratic lawmakers object to the referendums, saying they sidestep the legislative process.
Bullock told reporters that using referendums instead of going through the regular legislative channels is a waste of taxpayers' money and a bad way to run a government.
The Democratic governor singled out one referendum before the Senate, which would end same-day voter registration.
Even the anonymous Democratic insider blog, Montana Cowgirl, tells you exactly what was behind all the ruckus- legislative Democrats were apparently trying to block Montana voters from voting on a couple of referenda, and to do so- one of their members attempted to dodge law enforcement in the process:
The fun started when democrats made a motion for what is called a “Call of the Senate,” which is a demand that all 50 senators be present if any further senate business is to be conducted. At the time, Shannon Augare, a democrat, was far away on an Indian reservation.
To enforce a call of the senate, the rules allow the Senate Sergeant at Arms or other law enforcement to arrest any absent legislators and haul them back to the chamber. But an Indian reservation is a sovereign nation and state law enforcement has no jurisdiction, so Augare was seemingly beyond the long arm of senate enforcement powers.
Additional video from Rep Bryce Bennett (D-Missoula): (h/t Montana Cowgirl)
So- after all the "fun" had by the blogosphere, we go back to Mike Dennison's original question- "Senate Democrats gamble on blowing up the session – did it blow up in their face?"
But Senate Democrats blew their initial chance to blow up the process. Instead of making the call immediately when the Senate convened at noon, they took a break and announced their intention at an open caucus, giving Senate Republicans time to plot a counter-strategy.
That strategy entailed ignoring Democrats’ attempts to be recognized when the Senate reconvened at 3:15 p.m., and then having Republicans use their majority to vote the bills through. As the voting occurred, Senate Democrats stood, shouted and pounded their tables – not exactly the most flattering picture of their political skills or decorum.
Democrats said Saturday they still have a legal case to invalidate Friday’s votes, because Senate Republicans violated the rules. Maybe, maybe not.
Additional compilation of coverage from a listener in Helena
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaH-LCpDhv4&feature=youtu.be - Montana Senate Democrat Protest Footage 1
https://twitter.com/nikizupanic/status/320296660494348289/photo/1 - Police @ the Capitiol
http://www.greatfallstribune.com/article/20130405/NEWS05/304050029/The-Lowdown-Senate-Dems-take-extraordinary-action-stall-proposed-election-referendums-story-video-?odyssey=mod|breaking|text|Frontpage - The Lowdown: Senate Dems take extraordinary action to stall proposed election referendums (story, video)
https://twitter.com/BoyceDan/status/320276615760322560/photo/1 - BoyceDan Dan Boyce 52m
#mtleg Senate Dems receiving legal counsel from Legislative Services.
http://mtlowdown.blogspot.com/2013/04/senate-dems-take-extraordinary-action.html - UPDATED: Senate Dems take extraordinary action to stall proposed election referendums
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADuzAMb072A&feature=youtu.be - MT Senate Uproar