Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Whether it's the revocation of a local option gas tax approved by voters or a ban on local zoning for solar-powered homes and electric cars, the Montana Legislature hasn't been shy when usurping local control and the will of local voters.

Over the past several years, cities across the state have seen their list of “though shalt nots” grow in length thanks to Republican-crafted legislation. A growing number of elected officials say it runs contrary to the long-standing practice of letting cities adopt local policies sought by the residents who actually live there.

“I do agree that the Montana GOP talks local control as a political philosophy, but does not always adhere to it,” said Missoula City Council President Gwen Jones. “We have a state constitution that set up local governments to have certain powers to govern and be able to serve and respond to their constituents. But unfortunately, with each legislative session, we see more and more issues preempted by the Legislature.”

The list is getting longer each year, though many began to take notice back in 2015 when Missoula became the first city in the state to close a loophole in gun laws by requiring background checks for gun purchases made through third-party individuals.

While Missoula voters pushed for the measure, it was a Republican legislator from Culbertson, nearly 500 miles away, who took issue with the regulation and challenged it, eventually leading to its undoing.

It quickly emerged as a shining example of outside infringement on policies adopted at the local level.

“Every community is different and has different needs, issues, values and traditions. Local government is very attuned to their community, and as a result, it can craft policy that really works for that community,” Jones said. “When the Legislature goes out of its way to take away policy in an area that Missoulians feel strongly about, it feels like a personal attack on our values.”

Examples not hard to find

Two years ago, Missoula voters adopted a local option gas tax of $0.02 per gallon, taking advantage of an option provided by the 1979 Montana Legislature.

While the option had been on the books for 40 years, it wasn't until Missoula voters adopted it did the Republic Legislature revoke it. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill. The tax would have generated more than $1 million for local transportation infrastructure. Legislation from a Kalispell Republican led to the option's end.

“The powers denied section of city code has grown dramatically over the last couple sessions. It's the section that says what local government can't do,” said Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess. “I've heard there's at least eight bills up for active consideration that would further prohibit local control, even things local government isn't trying to do.”

Funding approved by voters for local transportation needs was revoked by the Montana Legislature. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Funding approved by Missoula voters for local transportation needs was revoked by the Montana Legislature in 2021. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

One of those includes a bill that would prevent local governments from requiring cities or counties from establishing a minimum wage and compensation requirements, such as healthcare, that go above state or federal wage laws.

Another up for consideration this year – sponsored by a Fort Benton Republican – would prevent cities or counties from zoning some new subdivisions for solar and electrical vehicle readiness.

Other restrictions are in the works as well.

“The ones that come to mind include our local control to require rentals to be safe and habitable for residents,” said Jones. “Periodically, I deliver Meals on Wheels, and it's truly eye-opening to see some of the places in Missoula where seniors and disabled people live.”

The Legislature also has trampled the city's authority to regulate flavored vaping products, which supporters believe has led to increased tobacco use among youth.

The Legislature could strip away local decisions on solar-ready housing and electric vehicles. (Kevin Moriarty/Missoula Current)
The Legislature could strip away local decisions on solar-ready housing and electric vehicles. (Kevin Moriarty/Missoula Current file)

More recently, the city sought to implement regulations around single-use plastic containers, including bags. Several hundred cities around the country have already done so, but Missoula can't do the same due to legislation passed in 2021.

“I believe that local control is very important because the local electeds are so close to the constituents, it creates better and more responsive law and regulations. It takes years of meetings, collaboration, revisions and research to get it right,” Jones said. “That is a very different process than the Montana Legislature, which has a very compressed schedule and deadlines under which to make law.”

A show of hypocrisy?

While the Republican-dominated Legislature hasn't shied away from stomping out local issues it finds unsavory, it hasn't been as receptive when D.C. politics does the same.

The “it's best left to states to decide” argument waged by Montana Republican leaders has been around for years and has included issues around wildlife management, a bison refuge, gun safety and abortion, among many others.

But the Legislature hasn't practiced what it preaches, critics say.

“The Montana Constitution acknowledges the role of cities, and self-governing cities in the state of Montana have historically had broad power to choose their own destiny and make decisions in their best interest,” said Hess. “This wave of preempting local control is really alarming. It takes away decisions best made closest to people.”

Missoula County has offered similar concerns in recent years. Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick noted that “Local control has long been a foundational tenet of conservative ideology, and it makes sense.”

But he added that the GOP Legislature is “taking away our local control, undoing the will of our voters and removing the potential for real political accountability.”

Yet not all elected officials in Missoula see things the same way. Missoula City Council member Sandra Vasecka recently voted against a resolution asking the Legislature to restore local control as it relates to the regulation of single-use plastics.

She saw no problem with letting the Legislature make such decisions on behalf of local voters.

“I believe local control is about protecting individual liberties,” she said “Local governments can fail at this and become instruments of over taxation, over regulation and intrusion.”