HELENA — Lawmakers heard a proposal Monday in the House State Administration Committee to give the state ethics chief greater authority to investigate alleged violations of residency requirements for legislative candidates.
House Bill 349 sponsored by Republican Rep. Lila Evans of Browning would increase the Commissioner of Political Practices' funding and ability to investigate those complaints.
Commissioner Jennifer Hensley said residency complaints usually focus on whether a candidate lives in the area where he or she is running for office.
The commissioner is responsible for investigating complaints regarding residency. Hensley said the bill would strengthen existing law to make it easier for her to investigate the complaints and punish violators.
"What it would do it is allow for an expansion of penalties and perhaps pulling a name off a ballot," she said.
Legislative financial analysts estimate the bill, if passed, would result in several investigations a year costing about $26,000 for legal services and travel expenses.
The state constitution requires a candidate to be a Montana resident for at least one year before the general election and a resident of a district or county for six months before the general election in areas that contain other counties and districts.
The last high-profile investigation was a 2008 complaint against former Democratic Sen. Jesse Laslovich of Anaconda, who was found by Hensley's predecessor not to have violated residency laws even though he co-owns a home in Helena and works there.
Hensley said that even with the expanded authority complaints may not be able to be resolved immediately or before an election, as the question of residency involves the intent to reside, which is difficult to prove.
The definition of residency would not be changed by the bill and there are currently no residency complaints under investigation.