Nancy Ballance, a Bitterroot Valley legislator, presented a bill before the House Judiciary committee this past week, seeking to force federal officials to submit written requests to a county sheriff before taking any action within that county. Gary Marbut, head of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, is one of the authors of the bill.

This legislation bears striking resemblance to a bill presented in 2013 which failed to muster the support needed to pass.

During last week’s hearing, its supporters referenced incidents like the standoff between BLM officials and Cliven Bundy in Nevada. They hope a bill like Ballance’s would prevent a similar showdown in Montana.

The “sheriff’s-first stance” is not new and has often been criticized as unconstitutional. Aside from constitutional questions, the judiciary committee heard from sheriffs, county attorneys and other experts, all testifying that they oppose the bill as it would hurt cooperative efforts between local law enforcement and federal officials.

In fact, 55 out of 56 county sheriffs in Montana – including our own – opposed this bill. If that were not enough, all 56 county attorneys have opposed it. Some testified that passing the bill would actually be an unfunded mandate for their office because it would force them to hire additional staff to deal with the increased paperwork.

During questioning, Ballance admitted that she had not spoken to county sheriffs around the state to determine whether the legislation was needed or wanted. She said she had spoken to Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman when the bill was considered in the last legislative session. Hoffman opposed that bill, and this one.

Balance, however, testified that she knows better than the sheriffs – and that despite them saying they don’t want or need this bill, they really do.

In the end, Ballance and Marbut asked the committee to take no action on the bill while they consulted with sheriffs across the state and write an amendment making the legislation optional.

Neither request makes any sense. Both are a waste of legislative time and energy.

First, this all could have been avoided by simply talking to our county sheriffs over the past two years, and actually heeding their counsel. Rather than wasting the Judiciary Committee’s valuable time, why not make sure the bill you’re proposing is supported by those it affects the most?

Second, if the bill becomes optional, and we already know that virtually all sheriffs and county attorneys oppose it, then it is useless legislation. And for the one sheriff who apparently supports the measure, the county attorney in that county would not prosecute federal agents who went against the edict. Again, there would be no purpose.

As it stands, this bill appears to be nothing more than political grandstanding by our local legislator. We need all eyes in Helena focused on the real issues facing Montana, and this is not one of them.

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