What seems like nothing but a common sense approach for fiscally sound government to Yellowstone County officials isn’t being well-received by many representatives in the Montana State Legislature.
A bill which is projected to save $4 million in federal election costs for counties, statewide, is stalled in committee, splitting along party lines. Democrats are opposing it with the claim that it could disenfranchise some voters, and Governor Brian Schweitzer has vowed to veto it if it gets to his desk, according to Sheryl Woods, Association Director of the Montana Association of Counties (MACO). In fact, the Governor warned that if "effort is expended on it, it could have a negative effect on other bills he is to sign into law," said Woods
SB394 would have given counties the option of conducting federal elections by mail ballot, an approach to elections that could have saved Yellowstone County as much as $200,000 for each election, according to County Elections Administrator Duane Winslow.
With the news that SB 394 failed to pass out of the House State Administration committee, Winslow emailed Yellowstone County Commissioners early this week with the request that they consider consolidating polling places in Billings as a means of saving money.
"With costs rising and 50% plus of voters now using the mail to cast their ballot, we have little choice but to consolidate the number of sites," agreed Commissioner Jim Reno.
Commissioner John Ostlund replied, "Soon after the session ends the commissioners will need to enter into discussions about consolidation of our polling places to the Metra. This is a simple budget decision that needs attention prior to the next election."
Winslow expressed his frustration with the bill’s failure saying, "In the 2000 Presidential election the cost of the election was approximately $100,000; in comparison, the cost of the 2008 Presidential election was a little over $325,000. Even though SB 394 would have reduced election costs by an anticipated 4 million dollars statewide, the legislature failed to provide this fiscal relief. Yellowstone County had two representatives on this committee, Dennis Himmelberger who supported the bill and Kendall Van Dyk who voted against the bill. With his one vote, Representative Van Dyk could have saved our county close to $200,000 a fiscal year. I have pleaded with, cajoled and urged Representative Van Dyk to reconsider his vote, but in an email to me this morning he stated unequivocally that he will not do so. The votes were there if it had reached the floor of the House but unfortunately, the discussion was not even allowed to take place. It is apparent that something must be done to attempt to curb these costs and it is apparent that it will have to occur at a county level."
In reporting to MACO members about the issue on Monday, Woods said that at one point they thought they had a Democrat who would change their vote, but they "got a bad case of cold feet," and when the vote came up the legislator remained in lock-step with their party. There is interest in putting the matter on the ballot as an initiative, so its proponents didn’t want to push the matter into being a strongly partisan issue before hand. For that reason they are reluctant to "blast it out of the committee," and provoke the Governor.
"What is this, a bully technique?" questioned one MACO member.
Woods replied, "That’s the way politics works."
To consolidate polling places will require consolidating precincts, said Winslow. He asked the commissioners, "I would like to seek your permission to begin researching the feasibility of this project and come back to you with a report detailing the specifics of such a plan as well as the potential cost savings."
"This is not a step or idea that is my first choice, but session after session, the legislature continues to place more and more complexities as well as additional costs on the election process, without ever providing any sort of relief," said Winslow. "For this reason, I believe it is something we are required to consider as stewards of the tax payers money. The consolidation process has worked well in Butte-Silver Bow and Cascade counties, so we would not be entering into totally untested waters and I have every confidence that we will be able to find a way to conserve tax money as well as continue to provide as high a level of voting ease and accessibility as possible."
Chief Deputy County Attorney Dan Schwarz said that his office would have a report prepared for the commissioners in about a week, regarding the legalities of such a plan.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103