Commissioner Slotnick: Local control, the 2021 Legislature and Missoula County

Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick

In a legislative session with a super majority, a strong governor to back them up, and a real mandate, it may seem strange that outlier Missoula County got noticed at all; why pay attention to us when they’ve got way bigger fish to fry – guns on campus, trans kids and their doctors, spotlight shooting wolves at night etc. But we did get noticed, and I fear it is more about symbology than substance – just like the subjects I referenced above.

Local control has long been a foundational tenet of conservative ideology, and it makes sense. The people closest to the situation on the ground have the clearest understanding of how proposed changes will play out, and local electeds can actually be held accountable for the consequences of their decisions. If we don’t like what they do, we vote them out. Our legislature has rightly demanded local control from the Federal government and shaken a fist at DC; why should a random representative or senator from some place far from here, who has no understanding of our lives, tell us what to do? These coastal politicians make crazy laws their constituents might appreciate, but then we endure the consequences and we don’t even have the opportunity to vote them out! One size does not fit all, Massachusetts is not Montana!

This session the legislature engaged in hypocrisy, or its sister irony, when the same folks who rightly appreciate local control dove in hard to take it away, not from Fergus County, or Petroleum, Liberty, Choteau or Yellowstone, but from us.

In 2017 we asked the state to expand BARSA – the state gas tax, so we could use that money to address our failing road systems. The state collects BARSA everywhere, then redistributes the money from high collection areas (like ours) to lower population places. Many parts of our state get hit hard with tourists, who drive the heck out of the roads, and have no opportunity to cover the costs of the damage they incur. The State said no to a real increase in BARSA, but they pointed to the Local Option Gas Tax statute – here, they said, if you want more money for roads, and tourists are hitting you hard, try the local option gas tax. Because one size does not fit all, and the best and most accountable decisions are made by the people, local option might be a good fit for a county like Missoula, where you get a lot of tourists, but not for Sheridan County, where they don’t. Local option gas tax is a big lift, and that’s a good thing. The board of County Commissioners have to vote unanimously to put it on the ballot, and then citizens have to vote it in. This is the opposite of a few distant un-accountable politicians making a decision and walking away. This is local control. This is actually what democracy looks like, and it’s straight up the best of conservative political ideology put into practice (remember, a conservative legislature told us to head down this route).

In a similar vein, the long-standing subdivision and platting act gives local electeds the responsibility to review subdivision proposals along a specific set of criteria, including agriculture. But there’s a lot of breadth intentionally built in there, because one size does not fit all. The on-the-ground situation in one county may not at all resemble that in another county. The smart people who crafted this law understood that those closest to the situation in a specific county would have the information to make the best decisions, and they would be held accountable for those same decisions. If the board of County Commissioners starts making bad calls on subdivisions, citizens will vote them out. This is how democracy should work. Missoula County has precious little high quality ag soil left, tremendous development pressure for the same soil, and local food and farming have become staple parts of our economy and culture. Those specific on-the-ground characteristics contribute greatly to the land use context of our county today. All three of the County Commissioners in Missoula campaigned on protecting our best ag land.

In 2020 the Missoula County Board of County Commissioners voted to put a gas tax on the ballot, and citizens voted it in. Meanwhile, developers and their representatives have submitted subdivision proposals knowing that the BCC will review their proposals and make a decision within the broad parameters of state law, and that means considering the impacts to agriculture. But wait, our 2021 legislature has stepped in. The legislature has bills pending that will revoke our gas tax (HB464), another one that will remove the ability of the Commissioners to consider a subdivision’s impact to agricultural soils in the county (SB211), and, as of this writing, they are considering making zoning in the peri-urban area a financial impossibility for local government (SB260). These bills were designed specifically for Missoula County. They are actively taking away our local control, undoing the will of our voters and removing the potential for real political accountability (we can’t vote out the legislators who are pushing these bills forward).

The facts don’t mean much in this discussion, but I want to relay them anyway. I have been on the Board of County Commissioners for two years and in my time, we have denied exactly zero new subdivision proposals because of their impacts to agricultural soils. In its short life, the gas tax has been quite invisible for locals and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for our roads, and it’s poised to leverage millions in federal money for projects in rural parts of our county. Why then does the legislature need to move against their own well-formed understanding of local control?

This is about symbolism not ideology.

In our super polarized political world demonstrating your bona fides or publicly flexing your partisan muscles determines success. Missoula has become a powerful political symbol. The legislature does not dislike us because we had functionally no unemployment pre-pandemic, or because we have one of the highest rates of entrepreneurship in the country, or because our best and brightest strive to stay. They don’t despise us for our crazy high real estate values or because we’re an economic engine for the state. They have contempt for us because we are a political totem, a statewide symbol as powerful as guns, taxes, or coal. You’re for or against these things and where you stand says everything about you. “Missoula” is just that radioactive. On symbolism this session, we lost before we even started.

Local control is safe. Just not for us.

Josh Slotnick, Missoula County Commisioner

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this column misquoted an individual who spoke during a recent legislative committee.