Montana's State Capitol building at dawn, from DARK MONEY a PBS Distribution release. Credit: POV / PBS

HELENA — A bill designed to address controversies in political central committees is making its way through the statehouse and continuing to dredge up disputes within Montana’s Republican Party.

House Bill 318 made its way out of the House last month and landed in the Senate State Administration Committee for a second hearing on Monday, March 25. Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, is carrying the bill. The legislation is meant to prevent fraud in central committees and the improper use of elected committee members’ votes, Garner said.

“We all benefit from clear rules and expectations,” Garner said. “This should bring us together.”

The bill hearing showed, however, that a rift still exists in the GOP.

HB 318 essentially clarifies four points for city and county central committees:

  • Rules must be filed with local elections administrators to be valid.
  • Elected committee members cannot be removed from office.
  • Proxies must be approved, in writing, by the absent committee members they represent.
  • Names and trademarks of central committees can be used only by the officially recognized central committee.

While Garner emphasized the simplicity of the reforms, opponents claimed HB 318 represents state lawmakers meddling with political parties’ right to assemble.

“It is more government overreach,” said Cascade County Republican Central Committee member Ron Staley, reading a statement on behalf of committee chairwoman Sheridan Buck.

Central committees are composed of people from different precincts within the county or city. They’re either appointed or elected, depending on the committee’s rules.

• RELATED: Tensions in GOP threaten to boil over as lawmakers seek to put a lid on county committee fights

Leaders from the Cascade County Republican Central Committee argued that, even if they’re elected, committee members aren’t public officials, since they don’t receive pay from taxpayer dollars and they don’t swear an oath to the government.

“Their duty is to the party, not to the government,” Buck’s statement said.

While HB 318 would apply to all political parties, no Democrats spoke at the hearing. Almost all proponents and opponents of the bill were Republicans. Many came from Cascade County, ground zero for some of the state’s most publicized central committee infighting.

Have stories like this delivered to your inbox

Things came to a head in the county following last summer’s primary election, in which a swath of new precinct members bent on reforming the Cascade County GOP were elected. A committee meeting weeks after the election featured private security guards, yelling, and attempts by Buck to remove members. When the chairwoman adjourned the meeting after just a few minutes, a group of 20 reformers attempted to hold their own meeting in the hall to elect new leadership. That meeting was later ruled invalid by the Montana GOP.

• RELATED: Anti-‘fraud’ bill draws supporters of Montana political central committee reform

The state Republican Party also determined Buck and her officers had improperly appointed people to vacant precinct seats.

After subsequent meetings, reports trickled in of proxies voting for absent precinct members without those members’ knowledge.

Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci, a member of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee, said at Monday’s hearing that precinct members need to conduct due diligence, research what will be voted on at committee meetings, and clearly tell their proxies how to vote. He said the current system for running local central committees is adequate, and he opposed state legislators telling parties how to operate.

“Local control is what we want,” Pinocci said.

Garner, however, argued his bill helps preserve local control of political central committees. Many committees struggle to find precinct members to run for a seat. Garner said infighting and misuse of member votes further dissuade potential candidates from participating.

“These are simple requirements that will restore integrity in these processes,” Garner said. “I urge you to allow us to improve these institutional practices and our political system so we can concentrate on the important policy and work of those committees and provide an environment where our volunteers can feel their input is trusted.”

The Senate State Administration Committee did not take action Monday. If the committee approves the bill, Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, will carry the bill on the Senate floor. Fitzpatrick is a member of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee.

Leia is an award-winning journalist who has covered the environment and public policy in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.