MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA The attorney general and secretary of state said Wednesday that they agree that the signature gathering process for ballot initiatives needs to be reformed. Both back a measure that would ban the practice of using out-of-state signature gatherers. Only resident Montanans would be allowed to collect the signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot. Supporters say the measure is needed to avoid the problems that plagued the 2006 election, where there were six lawsuits challenging the seven proposed ballot measures. Secretary of State Brad Johnson, a Republican, said important initiative “decisions should be made at the ballot box and not in the courtroom.” Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, is carrying the measure and told the Senate State Administration Committee that the bill makes three key changes. It would ban the out-of-state signature gatherers, outlaw the practice of paying gatherers based on how many signatures they collect and require gatherers to swear they personally gathered signatures. “We must maintain the integrity of the initiative process,” Williams said. The Montana Supreme Court was ultimately called in to resolve a highprofile dispute over the ballot measures, including one that proposed a state spending cap. A lower court had ruled that the signature gathering process was plagued by fraud. The out-of-state signature gatherers could not be located for the court hearing. Attorney General Mike McGrath, a Democrat, said the proposed reform would help fix such situations. The measure was also supported by the governor’s office, and a list of groups who have been involved in initiatives, including Montana Trout Unlimited and Montana Common Cause. It was opposed by Trevis Butcher, a key figure in last year’s initiative debate who backed the unsuccessful measure to put a spending limit in the state constitution. Butcher said paying gatherers by signature makes sense because it rewards the most effective workers. But he did agree with the idea of requiring gatherers to swear they collected the signatures, which became an issue in the court case he ultimately lost. Williams’ bill is Senate Bill 96.