By MATT GOURAS
HELENA, Mont — With each bill, newly elected tea party lawmakers are offering Montanans a vision of the future.
Their state would be a place where officials can ignore U.S. laws, force FBI agents to get a sheriff’s OK before arresting anyone, ban abortions, limit sex education in schools and create armed citizen militias.
It’s the tea party world. But not everyone is buying their vision.
Some residents, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and even some Republican lawmakers say the bills are making Montana into a laughingstock. And, they say, the push to nullify federal laws could be dangerous.
“We are the United States of America,” said Schweitzer. “This talk of nullifying is pretty toxic talk. That led to the Civil War.”
A tea party lawmaker said raising the specter of a civil war is plain old malarkey.
“Nullification is not about splitting this union apart,” freshman Rep. Derek Skees said. “Nullification is just one more way for us to tell the federal government: ’That is not right.”
Some of their bills are moving through the legislature. Others appear doomed: an armed citizen militia, FBI agents under the thumb of the sheriff and a declaration that global warming is good for business.
Whatever their merits, the ideas are increasingly popping up in legislatures across the nation, as a wave of tea party-backed conservatives push their anti-spending, anti-federal government agenda.
Arizona, Missouri and Tennessee are discussing the creation of a joint compact, like a treaty, opposing the 2010 health care law. Idaho is considering a plan to nullify it, as is Montana.
In Montana, the GOP gained a supermajority in the Montana House in last year’s election, giving Republicans control of both legislative chambers. Half of the 68 House Republicans are freshman, many sympathetic to the new political movement.
Over the first 45 days of the new legislature, they have steadily pushed their proposals. Some have moved out of committee.
Examples include a bill making it illegal to enforce some federal gun laws in the state, and another aimed at establishing state authority over federal regulation of greenhouse gasses.
Schweitzer is watching, describing many of the proposals from the new majority as simply “kooky,” such as a plan to make it legal to hunt big game with a spear.
Hardly a day goes by, however, that the merits of “nullification” aren’t discussed.
Proponents draw on Thomas Jefferson’s late 18th-century argument that aimed to give states the ultimate say in constitutional matters and let them ban certain federal laws in their borders.
Supporters are not dissuaded by the legal scholars who say the notion runs afoul of the clause in the U.S. Constitution that declares federal law “the supreme law of the land.”
Backers of nullification say they can get the federal government to back down off a law if enough states band together against it.
They point to the REAL ID act — a Bush-era plan to assert federal control over state identifications as a way to combat terrorism. The law has been put in limbo after 25 states adopted legislation opposing it.
The nullification debate reached a fever pitch this week when tea party conservatives mustered enough votes in the House to pass a 17-point declaration of sovereignty.
“States retain the right of protecting all freedoms of individual persons from federal incursion,” the measure in part reads. Now, it heads to the Senate, where ardent states’ rights conservatives have less influence and its fate is less certain.
House Minority Leader Jon Sesso stood in the House Chamber, exasperated. He peppered Republicans with questions: Who decides if the federal government is acting unconstitutionally?
“Who among us is making these determinations that our freedoms are being lost?” he asked, an incredulous expression on his face as he eyed the Republican side of the chamber.
Republican Rep. Cleve Loney rose. A man of few words, the tea party organizer replied: “I don’t intend us to secede from the union. But I will tell you it is up to us. We are the people to decide.”
The political movement that caught Democrats by surprise at the ballot box also caught them flat-footed at the Legislature.
At first they rolled their eyes, but now they are quickly ramping up their opposition, even recycling a slogan once leveled by conservatives against liberals protesting the Vietnam War.
“I say to you: ’This is America: Love it or leave it,’” shouted Rep. William McChesney, during the sovereignty declaration debate.
Some Republicans have turned against the more aggressive tea party ideas.
“You are scaring the you-know-what out of them with this kind of talk,” veteran Republican lawmaker Walt McNutt said. “This needs to stop and stop now. Stop scaring our constituents and stop letting us look like a bunch of buffoons.”
Democrats are resigned to losing many of the votes and in some cases have urged Republicans to trot the ideas out for floor debates for the public to see. And surprised residents are taking notice, especially of the nullification push.
“It would be hard for anyone to top what is going on here in terms of the insanity of it all,” said Lawrence Pettit, a retired university president and author living in Helena. “One could be amused by it, except it is too dangerous.”
Schweitzer, meanwhile, is getting ready for the bills that may arrive on his desk. On Wednesday, he got a new cattle brand from the state livestock agency that reads “VETO.” A branding iron is being made.
“Ain’t nobody in the history of Montana has had so many danged ornery critters that needed branding,” he said.