By Ron VandenBoom
Paul Tuss, Democratic candidate for secretary of state, senses the electorate is generally frustrated by big money in the political process.
Tuss, the current executive director of GAIN (Glacier Action and Involvement Now) said in a recent interview that he believes it's unfortunate that most people react to the incredible amount of money in political campaigns by turning off to the political process.
"They either don't register to vote or register and don't vote," he said.
Tuss noted that in 1994 Montanans put caps on what people could contribute to candidates, but now, he said, it is time to take the next logical step.
"That next logical step, in my opinion, is to place some legal limits on what candidates and campaigns can spend to influence voters," he said.
Tuss acknowledges that attempts to try and change the amount of money spent on campaigns has run up against issues of free speech in court. But he added that the time has come for the people to be bold enough "to decouple those two issues."
Tuss suggested several ways this could be accomplished.
Eliminating a filing fee for office seekers who volunteer to limit spending or increasing filing fees for those who don't volunteer is one possibility Tuss suggests. Another would be not to require candidates to gather signatures if they volunteer.
Candidates who wanted to raise and spend unlimited funds could still refuse to volunteer to limit spending if they were willing to jump through the hoops to get on the ballot, Tuss said.
"I think the next secretary of state needs to be very serious about getting people involved in the process," he said.
Tuss also noted that many Montanans will not register to vote because of a fear they might get called for jury duty. Others, he suggested, will un-register themselves the minute they get called.
"We need to tie jury pool lists to other lists like driver's licenses," he said.
He added that he will use the office as a bully pulpit to encourage the next Legislature to change the law.
Tuss's goal of including people in the process also extends to Montana's Indian populations.
Tuss wants to create a Native American Citizen Participation Advisory Council that will work to break down barriers to Indian participation in the process.
"We need to ask them what the barriers are," Tuss said, noting that for too many years the opposite has been the case and the Native American communities have felt totally disenfranchised.
"In some cases it may be as simple as creating a precinct in an area that currently requires a drive of 20 miles to vote," he said.
Many of these issues are things that, according to Tuss, the secretary of state has the authority to change without action by the Legislature.
The secretary of state is also one of five members of the Montana Land Board. The board is responsible for maintaining 5.2 million acres of state lands that produce more than $40 million annually for Montana's schools.
"The first thing is that we shouldn't be selling off state lands," Tuss said. "We need to manage these lands with a view toward long-term investment verses short-term gain."
Tuss said state lands are Montana's heritage and, like Native Americans, we should always look at how our actions today will affect our children seven generations into the future.
"I think it's our responsibility to do that," he said.
Tuss said he wants nothing to do with any "sweetheart deals" with developers, believing instead that the state should receive "fair market value" for whatever leases or development takes place.